Jack of all trades, master of none

Tesco’s recent announcement that it is to shut down Tesco Direct, its General Merchandise website, has made me reflect on my own experiences as an employee. 


 In 2012 I joined Tesco to be part of their General Merchandise online transformation programme. I was a bright-eyed management consultant hungry for more experience in the Retail industry. I wanted to implement change and I wanted to learn the trade. I was tired of being the "jack of all trades, master of none".

I was initially recruited to manage a price-matching trial on Tesco Direct. The main competitors were, of course, Amazon and Argos. I wasn't sure this was such a good idea, but my interviews went well and before I knew it I had an offer to join them. On walking through the revolving doors on my first day, the commercial plan had changed. "We've decided it's going to lose us too much money." Roger that, I thought, simultaneously wondering if I still had a job.

Instead, I was told that I would be managing a General Merchandise Online improvement project. Initially this involved running after Directors asking them for status updates and putting them into a Powerpoint slide for a Steerco that I wasn't invited to. It was a rather lowly task, but I got to meet a lot of impressive leaders and quickly learnt about the multichannel retail operating model. It was six years after Tesco Direct launched, and there was still so much to do. There was a Marketplace offering that seemed like a badly thought through bolt-on, a costly independent fulfilment operation, and a technology platform that wasn't integrated into the Tesco.com website.

With attention scattered across Grocery Home Delivery, Asia, Central Europe, store openings and refurbishments and Technology transformation, were Tesco themselves trying to be the "jack of all trades, master of none"?

My experience working on change projects at Tesco taught me so much. I learnt Retail. I learnt how to manage, and how not to manage, transformation. I learnt with disappointment about the power of political play, the perils of ineffective prioritisation, and the peculiarity of commercial decisions at the highest echelons. It was a coming of age place to grow my career: a 101 in 'The Workplace'.

Much has been made of Tesco's foolish forays during my career there, such a Blinkbox, Giraffeand the Ipad-competing Hudl, all of which arguably distracted attention from the core. Whilst you can't attribute all of these misadventures to Phil Clarke, Sir Terry's recent interview in Retail Week does mostly ring true to me as an alumnus. By contrast, Dave Lewis has presided over nine consecutive quarters of sales growth in the core UK business. Core being the operative word.

Lewis, and indeed Matt Davies, who didn't get enough praise for turning around the UK business (76% of the Group's turnover) – have saved Tesco by prioritising the things that matter, including profit margin. Whilst the impact on its fulfilment and Head Office workforce is unfortunate, the reality is that Tesco Direct doesn't matter as much as other parts of its business. It has bled profit, even being called "an epic waste of money" by the Managing Director of Grocery Insights, and it has jarred the customer experience by segregating General Merchandise from their Grocery platform.

In 2012 I bravely parted ways with my management consultancy job because I wanted to stop being the "jack of all trades, master of none". I think that Tesco's management has reached the same conclusion, by bravely parting ways with the badly-executed Tesco Direct. Instead, it is focusing on becoming the master of just one trade: customer experience.

By Georgia Hartley-Brewer - Retail 

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