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Saying No to Tesco: The Power of Community

27 March 2013

Let me introduce you to Sherborne, a small market town in north Dorset. It’s more than 1300 years old and was recently named as one of the best places to live in the UK by the Sunday Times. It is celebrated for its heritage, green spaces and culture and for the benefit of this article, it is currently battling against Tesco’s plans to demolish a hotel on the edge of town and build a multi-storey supermarket in its place.

Unsurprisingly, there is widespread objection to the plans – a petition has been signed by more than 10,000 people, (the population is just over 9,000) – and there is support from the likes of high street queen Mary Portas, resident Valerie Singleton and campaign patron Joanna Blythman. The campaign is politely but emphatically called ‘No Thanks Tesco‘ and recently shopkeepers boarded up their stores to show what might happen to the town centre if Tesco opened shop. The stunt was well publicised and received sympathetic national media attention.

Sherborne is renowned in the region for the strength of its independent shops and market. Its existing supermarkets – Co-op and Sainsbury’s – sit off the high street and actually draw in footfall to the town, complementing the retail mix and ensuring the townsfolk are well and truly catered for. If Tesco builds a store on such an arterial highway, beyond any scale known to the town and demolishing a hotel in the process, it would have a devastating effect; drawing custom away from the town centre, local shops would close and tourists – which currently make up 30% of the town’s trade – would have fewer reasons to be enticed.

I was actually born in Sherborne and lived there for 25 years. For me, it was no surprise it was listed by the Sunday Times – the town’s two castles, lake, Abbey and deer park were as formative for me as walking up the high street and having to stop and chat with several different people before you get home; so central is the high street to community life, and particularly to the town’s many elderly residents.

Many of our campaigns at Forster focus on empowering people to discover their capacity. To succeed, campaigns need certain ingredients – they need to identify the issue and solution in clear terms, campaign against milestones and then celebrate successes and push on harder. No Thanks Tesco has successfully managed to galvanize the community in this task and has armed them with the tools – the posters, petitions, templates and ideas. It is keeping people informed and keeping the pressure on, flexing the approach as needs be.

Large-scale consumer activism is reaching new levels of success thanks to national campaigning organisations like 38 Degrees, change.org or Avaaz who have the ability to assimilate a large group of voices through digital and social channels quickly, and provide simple campaigning tools to great effect. And this success is in turn inspiring the community activists to stand up. There is now a greater expectation on big business to be responsible or face the consequences and those launching such ‘David vs Goliath’ campaigns are seeing the playing fields start to level.

Tesco knows the value of trusted relationships – last week CEO Philip Clarke spoke at the World Retail Congress in Singapore, saying “we need to change the way we connect to wider society”. If you lived in Sherborne, you might smile at that but what he meant by this is investing in jobs, developing relationships with producers and increasing the scope of its services. This is all laudable but these plans really relate to growth and profit – he didn’t say they won’t dump a supermarket where it’s not welcome. But Tesco has at least said separately that it will ‘listen to Sherborne’.

Sherborne against Tesco may never be a cause championed by the likes of 38 Degrees but that won’t be needed to produce a compelling argument to the planning authority and show Tesco that it is unlikely to find life in the town easy even if it does set up shop – all that’s needed is to follow the formula of other successful campaigns and keep fighting (Tesco has a history of playing the long game).

Sherborne will take comfort from the list of towns that have already said no to Tesco and won. A list can be found on Tescopoly, which helps local campaigns to share learnings and resources. And it will hope to emulate the success of Totnes, which campaigned against a Costa opening on the high street and the coffee chain subsequently agreed to back off. It’s not worth it, they reasoned.

Large organisations have sophisticated mechanisms in place to listen to and manage public discourse about their reputation – particularly through social media – and they are keen to stop the dissenting voices while they are still small. Replying to a tweet from an angry customer whose delivery was late, for example, will generate some brand advocacy but continuing to develop in a resistant Dorset market town and thereby becoming a buzzword for disconnecting with wider society hopefully isn’t worth it.