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UK Supermarkets Competitive Strategy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Business Strategy
Wordcount: 4514 words Published: 21st Jun 2018

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Evaluate how UK supermarkets use market segmentation, targeting and positioning to gain a competitive advantage.

1. Introduction

This paper sets out to apply basic segmentation, targeting and positioning concepts to the UK supermarket sector and will evaluate the extent to which the use of these concepts is leading to the achievement of sustainable competitive advantage with any or all of the supermarkets selected.

The focus will be on the three major supermarkets: Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury.

The paper will begin with an explanation of the concepts and will move on to a description of the strategic positioning of each of the major supermarkets in the current marketplace. Chapter 4 will evaluate the relative success of the three companies chosen and assess the extent to which their approach to segmentation and positioning has enabled them to achieve some measure of competitive advantage.

Sources of information are: recognised marketing textbooks, articles from learned journals, newspapers and periodicals and company annual reports and websites.

2. Definitions, explanations and questions

2.1 Definitions of the basic concepts

Jobber defines segmentation as “the identification of individuals or organisations with similar characteristics which have significant implications for the determination of marketing strategy.” [1] It is a process which results in the clustering of people with supposedly similar buying behaviour, such that marketing mixes can be designed to meet the specific needs and wants of people

within the cluster.

Once the market has been described in terms of an amalgam of homogeneous segments, companies need to decide which, if any, segments to target. Should they adopt a “niche” approach (like Morgan in the automobile sector), where only one type of vehicle is produced for a specific segment of the market, or should they adopt a “mass market coverage” approach (like Ford or GM), where vehicles are produced to appeal to the whole range of different requirements across the different segments?

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Positioning describes the manner by which a company differentiates its products/services from the competition within each target market. Sometimes these differences are very fine. Mercedes and BMW both have, for example, quality images and are priced high relative to most competitors but Mercedes has historically had a greater appeal among older, more conservative drivers and BMW has appealed more to those who see themselves as dynamic and thrusting.[2]

2.2 Segmentation rationale

At one level the segmentation process enables companies to tailor their products or services to meet the needs of the market better than competitors and to choose segments which are aligned with their capabilities as a company. They are also able to select segments which are large enough for them to supply efficiently. Segmentation therefore facilitates differentiation, which should improve competitiveness, which should, in turn, lead to higher profitability.

Barwise and Meehan draw attention to a possible fallacy in this form of reasoning. They cite the example of the different positioning strategies of One2One (now T-Mobile) and Orange in the battle for market share in the UK mobile telecoms market.[3] Orange offered “to provide a reliable, high quality overall customer experience with good value for money……(they) targeted the whole market, not just a specific segment.” [4] One2One, on the other hand, adopted a strongly focused, segmentation strategy. “…it positioned itself as a low-cost, friendly network suitable for people wanting to chat with friends…priority on big cities…free off-peak local calls.” [5]

By far the most successful company (Orange) was the one which offered generic category benefits to the whole market, not a highly segmented approach. This is relevant to an understanding of success in the supermarket sector and will be referred to later.

2.3 Different forms of segmentation

Marketing text books describe three basic types of segmentation:

  • Behavioural
  • Psychographic
  • Profile

The behavioural category covers: benefits sought, purchasing behaviour and product usage and perceptions and beliefs.

The psychographic category covers: lifestyles and personality breakdowns

The broad profile category covers: age, gender, stage in the life cycle, social class, geographic location, income.[6]

Often a combination of variables across the categories is used. Research Services Ltd, a UK marketing research company, has developed SAGACITY, a segmentation scheme based on a combination of life cycle, occupation and income. They form 12 distinct consumer groupings with differing aspirations and behaviour patterns.[7]

A.C. Nielsen, the international marketing research agency, uses a combination of all segmentation categories to describe types of shoppers in supermarkets. They break the market down into 6 distinct groupings:

  • Habit-bound Diehards
  • Comfortable and Contenteds
  • Mercenaries
  • Struggling Idealists
  • Frenzied Copers
  • Self-indulgents [8]

The purpose of this breakdown appears to be to:

  1. match product and service delivery to the needs and wants of the different segments
  2. to identify the potentially most profitable segments

One interesting point which emerged from this programme was that segments such as the “Struggling Idealists” were, at the time the TV programme was made in 2002, not of great interest to supermarkets as they did not spend a lot and insisted on organic and eco-friendly products, which did not seem to be of interest to the mass market . In just 4 years the market has changed dramatically and supermarkets are allocating significantly more shelf-space to such products and aim to attract shoppers with “green” values.[9] The segment has grown in terms of its potential value to supermarkets.

This highlights the need for a creative and dynamic approach to segmentation. Orange now uses data-mining software within a sophisticated CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system to monitor segments on a day-to-day basis and to adjust its service approach accordingly. It will, for example adjust its pricing and service delivery to the value of the customer. Premium customers are immediately recognised by call-centres and accorded priority in the queuing system.[10] This keen focus on the most profitable customers contrasts with most supermarkets, which offer separate tills for customers who have not bought much, allowing them to move more quickly through the checkouts than the customers with laden trolleys. This will again be referred to in later sections.

2.4 Competitive Advantage

Finally, in this chapter, a few clarifying words on the meaning, and sources, of competitive advantage, with specific reference to the supermarket sector.

Grant defines the concept as follows:

“When two firms compete…one firm possesses a competitive advantage over the other when it earns a higher rate of profit or has the potential to earn a higher rate of profit.”[11]

It is important to note the main point here; competitive advantage relates to profitability or potential profitability, not to revenue, market share or more qualitative measures such as image or reputation. This is the definition which will be applied in this paper.

The international consulting company, Accenture, published last year a paper called “Consuming Passions”, a study of the six leading global retailers. One of its aims was to identify the common factors which led to their high performance in the market over a long period of time.[12] It identified six core competencies which underpin high performance in the retail sector:

  • strategic intent
  • customer focus
  • innovation and commercialisation
  • operational excellence
  • alliances and collaboration
  • talent management[13]

In the introduction to the paper the authors state:

“The name of the winning game is differentiation that is meaningful and relevant to the customer base. But this isn’t just a matter of offering new products and services; those products and services must also be highly distinctive, relevant to target customers and in the right stores, with the right price and promotion combination and at the right time.”[14]

These ideas will be developed further in the next chapter when examining the individual supermarket companies.

3. The Major Supermarkets

3.1 Overview

The UK supermarket sector is highly concentrated. The five leading companies together have 73% of the total market. Only France has a more concentrated market, with 78% being taken up by the top five.[15] Until the mid 1990s Sainsburys was market leader but the number one position was taken by Tesco in 1996 and they have since grown market share to 30% plus of the UK market. Sainsbury is now in third position behind Asda, which was bought by Walmart in 1999. The paragraphs below briefly describe the current financial situation of each company, their strategic marketing focus and the extent to which each appears to be applying segmentation approaches. Most of the information comes from the respective company websites.

3.2 Tesco[16]

In 2005 Tesco achieved sales turnover of £37.1 bill. and profits of £2,029m. Profits and sales have grown consistently over the past 5 years. Profits from 2004-5 grew by 20.5% on sales growth of 12.4%. The company employs 360,000 people worldwide and has 2,000 stores. 111 new stores are planned for 2006.

Its long-term strategy is based on four parts:

  • growth in the core UK business
  • expansion from international growth
  • to be as strong in non-food as in food
  • to follow customers into new retailing services

Tesco appears to take customer focus and staff focus very seriously. An ongoing project entitled “Every Little Helps” is in process which has used question times with more than 9,000 customers to help them to understand how they can best improve service to customers on a day-to-day basis. This has resulted in parking bays for trolleys (to stop annoying customers), extra staff on checkouts (to reduce waiting times) and fresh food counters and self-service cafes for customers in a hurry.

Using their Clubcard as the data source Tesco send out mailings every quarter to 11million customers. The mailings have an annualised value to customers (if they use them) of £250m. and can be adjusted to take account of individual customer buying behaviour.

Tesco has a range of different stores in line with its belief that:

“Customers have different needs at different times so we tailor our stores as well as our products. From Value to Finest and from Express to Extra, there’s something for everyone at Tesco.”[17]

Value products are low-priced basics for customers on a tight budget. Finest are products with the finest ingredients for customers who appreciate fine food and are prepared to pay higher prices for higher quality. Express are smaller stores in local communities for people who would find it difficult to get to a large Tesco store. Metro are stores in town and city centres for the convenience of customers who prefer to shop in town rather than in the Superstores out of town. These Superstores are particularly for one-stop shoppers who can find “everything they need for their weekly shopping”[18]. They carry not only a wide range of food lines but also the most popular Tesco non-food lines. Tesco Extra is a major new development focusing on non-.food lines, but with extensive food and convenience lines. As only 20% of the UK population has access to such stores Tesco intends opening 20 more this year.

For all health-conscious customers (viz. the “struggling idealists” in 2.3) Tesco has introduced better labelling, diet guides and “Free-from” and organic ranges.

For price-conscious customers who also like good service they have introduced the “Step Change” programme and “Everyday Low Pricing”.

For the growing number of customers who prefer to order from home and get home deliveries Tesco provides an on-line service which now supplies 150,000 customers/day.

3.3 Asda

It is difficult to obtain separate financial results for Asda Wal-Mart as the figures are hidden away in Wal-Mart’s consolidated accounts. The corporate website in the UK is also not nearly as transparent about strategic and marketing issues as Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose and Morrisons. Figures therefore, for the most part, need to be gleaned from outside sources or estimated. Figures quoted below are taken, for the most part, from Datamonitor.[19]

In 2005 Asda had a sales turnover of £16.25bill., a growth of 19.8% over the previous year. Since Wal-Mart bought the company in 1999 market share in the UK has risen from 13% to 16%, putting them in second position ahead of Sainsbury.

The company has 265 Asda stores, 19 superstores, 1 pilot store in General Merchandising and 6 trial George stores specialising in fashion clothing. The company plans to open 10-12 new stores each year.

“60% of Asda’s sales are currently in grocery items, although it intends to build on the growth of non-food products in store, which may well change this balance. Asda sells six own-brand labels: Asda Smartprice, Asda, Good for You, Asda Organic, Asda Extra Special and More for Kids.”[20]

Asda management appears to plan to grow in the future via more stores, a focus on clothing (via its George fashion range Asda has now overtaken Marks and Spencer as the UK’s largest clothing retailer[21])and non-food, growth from specialist outlets within the stores: opticians, jewellers and photographic and possibly a greater push into the children’s market.

Their main marketing thrust – in-line with the Wal-Mart reputation – is to be seen by the mass market as the price leader. They in fact claimed to be the “official lowest price supermarket in the UK” but this was based on a survey of just 33 lines and, after complaints from Tesco, the claim had to be lifted.[22] Since Wal-Mart’s takeover of Asda there has been an ongoing price war with Sainsbury and Tesco, which has raised Asda’s profile as a low-price store. Apart from price the main differentiators are the twin focuses on non-food and clothing and the particular focus on the kids market. Like Tesco and Sainsburys they are also trying to attract higher income and “green” customers with its “Good for You”, “Organics” and “Asda Extra Special” brands. They also have an on-line ordering and delivery service.

Asda undoubtedly has an image problem because of its association with Wal-Mart.

“Asda has been criticised for misleading advertising, using suppliers who are known to have illegal employment practices, ignoring planning regulations and destroying greenbelt land, lack of serious environmental policy and blatant greenwash. With its ‘strategy of consolidation’, copied directly from Wal-Mart, Asda pursues an aggressive takeover policy of small towns, wiping out local competition and local jobs. False claims by the company about ‘value’ and ‘convenience’, have been challenged, along with the exploitation of every opportunity to push impulse buying.”[23]

No specific evidence was found, but negative information, such as the above about Wal-Mart, abounds on the internet and it is probable that this will make it more difficult for Asda to position itself such that it attracts the more educated, aware customers.

3.4 J Sainsbury

Sainsbury achieved total sales in 2005 of £16.36bill. and profits after tax of £65m. This compared with slightly lower sales in the previous year and a significantly larger profit then of £404m.[24] Sainsbury appears to be struggling. It has suffered from severe price competition from Asda and Tesco and also failed to implement effectively a new logistics system, which resulted in severe out-of-stock problems which alienated customers.

The company has 727 stores in all, 465 of which are supermarkets and 262 are the smaller convenience stores. It employs 153,000 people.

Sainsbury is currently undergoing a change programme entitled “Making Sainsbury’s Great Again 2007/8”[25]. Some elements of this programme are very relevant to its positioning in the market. In line with Barwise and Meehan’s thinking on “generic category benefits”[26] Sainsbury wish to restore the universal appeal of the brand. This comprises four elements:

  • be all inclusive (appeal to all segments of the market)
  • have a clear product hierarchy: GOOD, BETTER, BEST (not assuming that certain segments go for a defined quality of product but that all customers chop and change).
  • invest in price and quality (£400m in 2006)
  • scale to succeed (ensure that there is sufficient overall demand in the chosen products/markets to get costs down to a manageable level)

This all translates into a customer proposition which their annual report describes as follows:

  • great food/fair prices
  • market leaders in quality and innovation
  • complementary non-food
  • straightforward formats: supermarkets, convenience and Sainsbury’s to You(on-line)
  • bank

Sainsbury advertising focuses on two messages:

  • we have reduced price on 4000 lines
  • “Try something new today”

The former has clear universal appeal and aims to enable Sainsbury to compete on price with Asda and Tesco. The former appears to be focused more on higher income categories (the “Self-indulgents” and “Comfortable and Contenteds” mentioned in 2.3.

4. Conclusions and final thoughts

In a 1994 article on segmentation in the retail sector the following statement is made:

“…any strategic option depends on clear positioning against competitors and customer groups (and the ) approach of integrating competitive analysis with market segmentation is a necessary first step to achieving a better understanding of the retailing environment and formulating effective marketing strategies……supermarket retailers must attract customers from different and often incompatible market segments.” [27]

This statement still appears to have validity to-day. All three supermarkets mentioned in this paper wish to attract customers from the higher income AB socio-economic category by offering them better service, high quality and tasty foods, organic foods and a clean and welcoming atmosphere. These customers will spend more and will buy products which offer the retailer higher margins. At the same time all supermarkets seek to position themselves as low price operators, thus appealing to lower income groups and those across all income groups who seek bargains (the “mercenaries” in 2.3). It is the observation of the writer that Tesco is clearly the most successful at positioning itself to appeal to both ends of the spectrum.

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According to data in Morrisons’ 2005 annual report about 25% of Sainsbury’s customers fall into the AB category whereas with Tesco it is only 20% and with Asda it is about 17%. Asda on the other hand (from the same annual report) rates very highly in terms of customer perception of value for money, Tesco is slightly lower and Sainsbury is even below Waitrose, a store which is traditionally associated with high prices.

All realise that location is vital and that even to-day’s motorised customer will not put herself about too much to go to stores too far away. Hence all are moving towards the development of smaller stores to attract local communities. All use brand loyalty cards, but Tesco appears to be the most successful at using data on the card to enable it to adjust offerings to individual customer requirements.

There are great similarities between the companies and their marketing approaches. Each follows the other very closely. What appears to make Tesco stand out is not so much a more sophisticated approach to segmentation and differentiation, but – one of the key competencies in the Accenture report, “Consuming Passions”[28] – its ability to combine a clear strategy with operational excellence. At the time of writing (April 25, 2006) Tesco has just released performance figures for the past 12 months. They indicate a 13.2% growth in sales and a 16.7% growth in before tax profit. [29]



Barwise B. and Meehan S (2004), Simply Better, Harvard Business School Press

Grant RM (1997), Contemporary Strategic Analysis, Blackwell

Jobber D. (2004), Principles and Practice of Marketing, McGraw Hill

Kotler P. and Armstrong G.(2004), Principles of Marketing, Prentice Hall


Anonymous author of “Asda Group Limited” in Datamonitor, June, 2005

Anonymous author of “Organics UK” in Mintel Report, November 2005

Mann S., Smith J. and Trouvé O. (2006), “Consuming Passions”, Accenture

industry report in Outlook 2005

Segal M. and Giacobbe R. (1994), “Market Segmentation and Competitive

Analysis for Supermarket Retailing”, International Journal of Retail &

Distribution Management, Vol.22, No.1, pp.38-48

Internet sources










[1] Jobber (2004), Principles and Practice of Marketing, p. 210

[2] From A to B, Channel 4, 1998

[3] Barwise and Meehan (2004), Simply Better, p. 4

[4] Barwise and Meehan, pp. 3-4

[5] Barwise and Meehan, pp. 4-5

[6] Jobber, p. 214

[7] Jobber, p. 224

[8] Shop ‘till you drop, Channel 4, 2002

[9] Organics UK, November, 2005, Mintel Report

[10] Orange: a Fruitful Passion, supplementary case on the Jobber website, www.mcgraw-


[11] Grant R.M., Contemporary Strategic Analysis, p.151

[12] Mann S., Smith J. and Trouvé O., Consuming Passions, Accenture, 2005

[13] Mann et al, p. 9

[14] Mann et al, p.3

[15] Mann et al, p.7

[16] www.tesco.com

[17] www.tesco.com

[18] www.tesco.,com

[19] Asda Group Limited, Datamonitor, June, 2005

[20] Asda Wal-Mart: a Corporate Profile, www.corporatewatch.org.uk, Nov. 2004

[21] www.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,1288594,00.html

[22] Th e Marketplace Report: Wal-Mart’s UK Strategy, www.npr.org, August 17, 2005

[23] www.corporatewatch.org.uk, November 2004

[24] www.sainsbury.co.uk Annual Report 2005

[25]www.sainsbury.co.uk Annual Report 2005

[26] Barwise and Meehan(2004), Simply Better

[27] Segal M and Giacobbe R (1994), Market Segmentation and Competitive Analysis for Supermarket Retailing, International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management, p. 45

[28] Mann, Smith and Trouvé, Consuming Passions

[29] tesco.com, press release on April 25, 2006


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