Tesco Supply Chain Management Case Study


International retailers frequently emphasise the cognitive aspects of the retail internationalisation process. Examples of this abound but include Tesco's utilisation of embedded research teams within Japanese families to monitor consumption behaviour prior to their acquisition of the Japanese C Two chain in 2003. Within the international retail literature, however, there has been limited detailed empirical or conceptual research on international retail learning (Clarke and Rimmer, 1997). Thus, although learning has played an important role in shaping the way retail companies behave in practice, comparatively few studies actually address international retail learning. An absence of detailed empirical or conceptual research on international retail learning is therefore a major gap in our understanding of the whole internationalisation process. It is contended that important insights and valuable lessons have been learned by retailers from their own successful international forays as well as the visible success of other companies in the international marketplace. Not all international retail operations have been successful however, and the difficult and highly contested process of scaling back of retailing operations to remedy mistakes may also result in an equally valuable learning process for international retailers (see Palmer 2000, 2002a, b).

A number of researchers have called for research to re‐examine the ways in which retailer internationalisation has been conceptualised (Dawson, 2001; Howard and Dragun, 2002). The recent critiques of Wrigley (2000), Burt and Sparks (2001) and Burt et al. (2002) suggest that the existing conceptualisations neither adequately capture the multiplicity and difficulties in the retail internationalisation process, nor sufficiently explain the variety of approaches to internationalisation being used by retailers. Various explanations of the retail internationalisation process are emerging, but one viable and promising line of enquiry is the area of international retail learning. Notable in this respect is Clarke and Rimmer's (1997) analysis of Daimaru's (a Japanese department store) investment in a new outlet in Melbourne, Australia, which provided an initial step towards understanding the cognitive aspects of the international retail investment process. Indeed, this research has drawn a number of important lessons learned from retail market entry and development.

Despite the value of this initial research, and although the international retail learning process itself and the outcomes are occasionally referred to in the literature (see Treadgold, 1991; Alexander and Myers, 2000; Evans et al., 2000; Vida, 2000; Dawson, 2001; Arnold, 2002), its conceptualisation and analysis remains largely under‐theorised and under‐developed. What is required, according to Clarke and Rimmer (1997), is a research approach that explores “the way in which a retail firm reflects on individual decisions it has made, and how this might influence their perceptions and actions”. From this perspective, it is critical to understand international retail experiences through reflection and analysis, and to identify what has been learned from the internationalisation process. Furthermore, while some researchers in the field have indicated that experience is important for many aspects of market entry and development (Treadgold, 1991; Williams, 1991a, b; Evans et al., 2000; Doherty, 2000) it is clear that these studies do not provide detailed empirical or conceptual understanding of this complex learning phenomenon. For example, this work does not directly deal with the questions: What are the components of this experience? What lessons can be drawn from this experience? How does this experience shape or inform the decision‐making process of the international retailer? It would therefore appear that the international retail literature is less developed in considering what retailers have learned from their experience of internationalising store operations. This paper aims to probe these issues by providing a more extended debate and considered analysis of the concept of international retail learning within the context of Tesco's internationalisation process.

It should be noted that it is outside the scope of this paper to present a review of the international retail literature (see the excellent reviews by Alexander (1997); Alexander and Myers (2000); and Burt et al. (2003)). This would increase the length of the paper substantially while the theoretical background on international retail learning has previously been laid out in detail elsewhere (see Palmer and Quinn, 2005). In this paper, the discussion will mainly pertain to the empirical case study findings of Tesco. The paper begins by briefly positioning the case findings by way of a conceptual framework put forward by Palmer and Quinn (2005) on international retail learning. More detailed discussion of this framework can be found in Palmer and Quinn (2005). Following this, an overview of the methodology is put forward. The main part of the paper presents the case findings of Tesco and the paper will conclude with a discussion of the key findings.

International retail learning framework

Palmer and Quinn's (2005) recent work provides a useful conceptual framework for examining the studies to date on international retail learning. Drawing on the broader management literature on organisational learning and international retailing, Palmer and Quinn (2005) synthesised the various components of international retail learning (see Figure 1). The broad components of Figure 1 frame a series of research questions for studying international retail learning and these include:

What do retail internationalists identify as the most important lessons learned from their experience of internationalising retail operations?

To what degree has this knowledge been absorbed by the internationalising retail company?

What is the locus of international retail learning diffusion or transfer?

What are the outcomes from the lessons learned and how do these shape the future decision‐making and learning behaviour of the retailer?

For the purposes of this paper, the aim is to explore the dimensions of international retail experience and how these shape or inform the strategic decision‐making process of the retailer. Thus it does not provide an in‐depth analysis of the other components of this framework in relation to the international activities of Tesco. The experiences of Tesco are essentially conceptualised under three main broad dimensions. These dimensions make a distinction between the internal corporate and the wider external view of international retail experience. The first critical area refers to the internal strategic processes. The second theme concerns the external strategic processes. This includes the interactive aspects of the retailers’ international environment. The third dimension considers the internal operational functions. These dimensions are especially important when conceptualising experience and interpreting Tesco's international learning in this paper. The paper now turns its attention to the methodology of the study and this section will briefly outline the details of the primary research undertaken.


This study employed an interpretative, qualitative methodology to examine the international retail learning. The single case approach has been an increasingly popular methodology within the retail internationalisation literature of late, and it has enabled various authors to provide some very important new insights into the subject area (Sparks, 1995; Shackleton, 1996a, b; Clarke and Rimmer, 1997; Wrigley, 2000). Furthermore, field research that involves investigating the views and opinions of organisations directly and indirectly involved in the decision‐making process is receiving increasing support within the literature (Shackleton, 1996a, b; Sparks, 1996; Palmer, 2002a, b; Palmer and Quinn, 2003). These authors have highlighted the limitations of relying solely on the views of the case company under investigation and have highlighted the insights into the retailer internationalisation process that can derive from surveying a diverse variety of organisations and stakeholders involved in the process. Stakeholder parties in the retail internationalisation process should therefore not be underestimated. Indeed it may be argued that a strong interdependence exists between investment banks and firms with respect to advising retail executives on strategy, structure, and international retail operations. Eliciting the views of investment bankers would therefore allow the research to gain access to the tacit knowledge and practical know‐how gathered through years of experience through the direct interaction with the company via research, consulting and advisory services utilised by retail executives. Multiple and independent sources of evidence, including market research reports, company profiles, financial statements and so on were also used to corroborate the interview data and, by so doing, develop convergent lines of inquiry (Yin, 1994).

The case of Tesco was chosen for three reasons. First, the transformation underway in Britain's largest retailer has been profound, while its growth has been one of most consistent amongst its international peers (1995‐2002), with estimated sales rising to €45.9 billion in 2003. Indicative of the scale of its international ambitions, Tesco unveiled one of the most radical and ambitious internationalisation programmes that that would involve the development of 200 hypermarkets in Europe and Asia, generating GB£10 billion sales per annum by 2004 and which, in proportional terms, would be equivalent to that of UK‐based food retailers, ASDA and J. Sainsbury sales combined. This strategy, however, has been overshadowed by Wal‐Mart's $10.6 billion takeover of ASDA in the UK and has gone largely unnoticed in the academic literature. Second, despite the scale and growth of Tesco's internationalisation, the focus of many researchers has been on the international activity of US retailer, Wal‐Mart (Arnold and Fernie, 2000; Palmer, 2000; Burt and Sparks, 2001; Hallsworth and Clarke, 2001; Fernie and Arnold, 2002), or Sainsbury's capital investment in the US market (Shackleton, 1996a, b, 1998; Wrigley, 1997a, b, 1998; Muskett, 2000). Only modest attention has been attributed to Tesco in the academic literature (see Palmer, 2002b for a recent example). Tesco's success abroad therefore remains an under‐emphasised case within the contemporary academic literature. Third, internationalisation has been a major aspect of the strategy of Tesco over the years. Significantly though, not all of Tesco's international operations have been successful and this has resulted in some form of divestment. It is argued that divestment is a highly visible case of where learning is likely to have taken place.

A total of 62 interviews were undertaken during 1999 and 2000 with the leading food sector buy‐ and sell‐side analysts, and international retail merger and acquisition specialists (i.e. those within the corporate strategy unit in the corporate finance division of investment banks) and senior executives of the retailer under investigation. In planning the interviews, particular attention was given to the danger of the interviewees presenting biased views and opinions (see Palmer and Sparks (2004) for a wider discussion of the limitations of this method). This research used “convergent in‐depth interviewing” (Dick, 1990 cited in Carson et al., 2001). In short, it is an in‐depth interviewing method that allows the researcher to develop, clarify, verify and refine the core issues of the interview protocol. It consists of a number of interviews in which the procedure is both structured and unstructured. During the early stages the content of the interview is unstructured and flexible during which the interviewee tells a story about key events or episodes and what they have learned about their experiences from these events. The process used in the interview then becomes more structured as the interviewer converges in specific issues of the research problem and to disprove the emerging explanations of the data (Carson et al., 2001). The length of the interviews typically varied from half‐an‐hour to three‐and‐half‐hours. Rather than concentrating on one or two aspects of the dimensions of Tesco's international learning, the interview protocol explored learning initially from a broad perspective. In line with the arguments put forward by other researchers (Hallsworth, 1992; Clarke and Hallsworth, 1994; Clarke and Rimmer, 1997; Burt and Sparks, 2001, Dawson, 2001) a broader perspective may be necessary so that these parameters can be used to raise a new set of more detailed priorities for research on international retail learning. That is to say, each lesson is not necessarily an end in itself, but an entry point for a wider discussion. Data collection and analysis were simultaneous. Analysing data involved categorising and triangulating the evidence from the multiple perspectives, and the presentation of findings largely followed the most recent interview protocol. However, it should be noted that the analysis of learning is not easily defined in terms of beginning or end points and this research identified extreme situations and critical incidents which were transparently observable for data collection. Moreover, Tesco's experiences were not assessed by any quantitative measurement of the amount of learning occurred, but rather by reference to the content of these experiences and the impacts that such learning had on the outcome or trajectory of international expansion.

The paper now reports the findings from the in‐depth interviews. The key themes from the findings are discussed in the sections that follow. Excerpts from the in‐depth interviews are used throughout the findings section in order to illuminate and contextualise relevant themes. For confidentiality reasons, the identities of respondents will not be disclosed during the remainder of this paper. This case study will be largely formatted in the same way as the dimensions outlined in the framework. The data gathered for this case study focus on Tesco's European operations. While Tesco's investment activities in Asia are strategically important, it is argued that the most insightful aspects of the company's international investment and divestment activities occurred in the European market. The findings proceed with an initial overview of the case company's international developments. The main body of findings follows this, and directly examines the lessons learned by Tesco from the internationalisation of retail operations and their impact on the future trajectory of international operations.

Tesco's international background

This section provides an overview of the markets chosen by Tesco. The company initially expanded into the geographically close markets of Ireland and France. Tesco's initial international foray was in 1979 when they purchased 51 per cent of Albert Gubay's Three Guys operation for GB£4 million in the neighbouring market of the Republic of Ireland. This expansion proved to be immature given the structural capacity for expansion and the relative strength of the company within their domestic market at the time of the initial international foray. This untimely venture abroad was summed up by one sell‐side analyst:

The perceived success (or otherwise) of their early venture abroad would have been considered insignificant to the company's fortunes at home, and as a result, this largely undermined the company's (perceived) efforts in the eyes of the financial markets as being a peripheral and/or even a distraction to the core UK business.

The continued realignment, focus and momentum of the company in the UK market provided the context in which internationalisation had taken “a secondary position” in the company's corporate development agenda. Tesco subsequently divested the Three Guys operations to the Dublin‐based supermarket company H. Williams in 1986. Towards the end of the 1980s, the company embarked on research efforts into possible international growth options and these primarily centred on the US market, but also covered several European countries. The company spent several years investigating the North American market during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The product of this research effort was the company's move into the French market. Tesco's first foray into mainland Europe with the acquisition of the medium‐sized supermarket chain Catteau in December 1992 was intended to be the company's springboard to international expansion and serve as a platform for European growth in particular. The company's rationale at the time for acquiring a small regional chain was that they were going to build Catteau into a national chain in France. Tesco acquired an effective 85 per cent holding, leaving 15 per cent of the ownership in the hands of management as part of an incentive scheme. According to the analysts’ research at the time, the company was attracted by Catteau's good record and high profitability. Group turnover of the chain in 1991 was GB£340 million and over 80 per cent of this revenue came from retailing (Catteau also had wholesaling and franchise activities). Management felt that Catteau's impressive net profitability reflected the economies gained from a tight geographical clustering of stores and the strong centralised cost controls, and as a result, the financial markets were largely supportive:

At the time the financial markets pointed out that Tesco had done all the classic right things – the lesson learned from UK retailers’ forays overseas has been that it is vital to buy a successful business rather than a “turnaround” situation and retain strong local management.

By the end of the middle of the 1990s, Tesco would begin to question the acquisition of Catteau, and later in 1997 would completely withdraw from France. For much of this early expansion, the company focused on structurally mature markets, but with more recent expansion the company has been more disposed toward emerging markets (see Table I).

The third phase of the company's international expansion was in 1995, when management acquired the Global supermarket chain in Hungary for GB£15 million. This did not represent a particularly expensive entry, and indeed, this was reflected in the poor quality of the assets purchased – in total 43 small stores. The intention of the company was not to trade the stores in the long‐term, but rather to secure a foothold in the market and learn from these businesses, while later building a larger hypermarket business based on their experiences. Using the Hungarian acquisition as a foothold in eastern Europe, the company subsequently acquired Savia SA in Poland for GB£8 million in late 1995, which was, again, a chain of 36 small supermarkets acquired for relatively little financial consideration and designed to secure a foothold in the Polish market for Tesco from which to develop a hypermarket business. In 1996 the company entered the Czech Republic and Slovakia through the acquisition of Kmart for GB£77 million, acquiring a portfolio of 13 stores with an average selling space of 72,000 ft2. Essentially the Kmart business geographically was an in‐fill acquisition between Tesco's Polish and Hungarian investments.

Tesco also re‐entered the Irish market with the acquisition of ABF's Irish food retailing business for GB£630 million in 1997. Following the ABF acquisition, the company secured their position as the largest food retailer in Ireland with 109 supermarkets and annual sales of GB£1.23billion. And in addition Tesco captured 17.5 per cent of the market in Northern Ireland and 19.4 per cent in the Republic securing number one position in both markets.

The initial move into Asia, and the Thailand market in particular, came in May 1998 with the purchase of a 75 per cent majority controlling stake in Lotus, a chain of 13 hypermarkets which cost GB£111 million for the equity – assuming GB£89 million as their share of Lotus's debt. Lotus’ previous owner, Thai CP Group (a major agricultural supplier in the region) retained a 17 per cent stake, with SHV Makro holding the remaining 8 per cent. Tesco subsequently entered South Korea. In March 1999, Tesco formed a joint venture with Samsung, one of South Korea's largest conglomerates, into which the company invested GB£80 million in cash. Later that year the company increased their share of the joint venture from 51 per cent to 81 per cent at a cost of a further GB£30 million.

Tesco further developed operations in the region when they entered Malaysia in early 2002. In a similar structure to the other Asian operations, the Malaysian operation, Tesco Stores (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, was established as a joint venture with a local company Sime Darby Behad. Tesco would own 70 per cent of the equity, but the operation would be under local control. Tesco later entered Japan during July 2003.

Dimensions of Tesco's international retail experience

This section provides an overview of the various dimensions of Tesco's international retail experience emerging from the in‐depth interviews. Important lessons learned are extracted from the company's international retail experiences.

Internal strategic processes

Market selection experience. Tesco's internationalisation raises several questions regarding the nature of their market selection decision experiences. Tesco's decision‐making process highlights the contrasting motivational structures that underpin the various paths towards international markets which eventually led to different spatial behaviours. In qualitative terms, the interviewees highlighted a number of important characteristics of Tesco's market selection decisions:

Retaining spatial focus is more important than capitalising on small‐scale opportunities in diverse markets.

Competition from local retailers in their chosen markets is virtually non‐existent.

Dynamics for the international retailers are relatively level (which is not the case in Latin America where Carrefour has operated for almost 20 years).

Capitalised on opportunistic events unfolding within the existing portfolio of international retail markets.

Tesco's expansion was spatially characterised as being largely regional in nature and less global oriented. Cautiously, Tesco had decided to dominate the smaller central European markets that were unlikely to attract much attention from the large retail multinational peers such as Carrefour and Wal‐Mart who preferred to focus on the larger markets. The company incrementally entered markets rather than entering several markets at the same time, limiting the large start‐up losses as one executive explained:

What is important to us is not the number of countries we are present in but rather that we attain, and/or sustain number one or two position in each of these countries. The aim is to balance the global scale that comes from Tesco with the local strength of being a market leader. Market position gives you market share, which in turn gives you scale, which in theory, should allow you to have the lowest cost base, best buyers, best offers to customers, therefore the best revenues, earnings and dividend growth. That is why retail multinationals aim for leadership in markets and strong regional presence. It's a virtual circle.

The importance of due diligence processes in foreign markets and/or target's operations is repeatedly inferred from the company's executives and the corporate advisors. During the interviews, the company's management suggested that initial phase of expansion via international acquisitions placed too much emphasis on opportunism:

Organic growth is, in your hands, acquisition‐driven, consolidation is not. Acquisition‐driven consolidation is opportunistic, particularly with businesses that are privately owned. It's not something that is easily predictable. We are not blind to acquisition opportunities, but the nature of the opportunities and when they present themselves is anybody's guess. Organic store‐by‐store development allows for a much more strategic approach to internationalisation.

In turn, this would result in the management placing greater emphasis on store‐by‐store development that allowed the company to become more strategic in terms of their selection of markets, procurement, distribution and store locations. Based on this evidence, it was apparent that the nature of the market selection decisions would be shaped by the mode of entry used and whether or not opportunities existed.

Entry mode experience. Tesco used a combination of multinational entry mode strategies within one country. As previously discussed, Tesco entered the central and eastern Europe by acquiring a relatively small chain of convenience stores in Hungary, a supermarket business in Poland and a department store chain in the Czech Republic and Slovakia (see Table II). It was certainly unusual for such a large public company to become involved in these operations, and even competitors at the time questioned the logic of their approach. However, the use of “seed acquisitions” with a view to develop knowledge of the market before expanding organically through store‐by‐store development allowed Tesco to minimise their own human and financial capital in the face of potential economic and political uncertainty. Some of these small stores would later be closed down and replaced by large hypermarkets nearby. Although Tesco faced criticism and, indeed, pressure from the financial markets, there are sometimes compelling reasons for retaining a small operating presence in a foreign market where international competitors are already established. First, the small presence would facilitate the implementation of an acquisition strategy by securing the necessary contacts and networks into foreign retailers and local suppliers, especially considering the challenges associated with family owned and controlled chains. Second, retaining a direct and small operating presence in a competitors’ major market would lead to important insights into the competitive behavioural dynamics of competition that otherwise would not be possible without a direct presence. During the interviews, management made this point:

The reality is that you are not going to learn everything until you either open a store or purchase a chain in the new market.

Small experiential or pilot stores were an integral part of initial learning phase of expansion, while later might be seen as surplus to requirements to international expansion, and consequently divested.

Indeed, after an initial period of understanding these store practices, management decided that the primary development comprised the hypermarket format. The development of the new hypermarket format was primarily driven through two pilot stores. Despite a relatively cautious approach to market selection, Tesco rather ambitiously developed a completely new format in a distant market – a format, moreover, which had not been tested in the domestic market. This approach allowed the company to experiment and radically depart from their existing domestic supermarket format and extend the non‐food merchandise content of their international store operations. Tesco's entry mode experience did not mirror the experiences adopted by manufacturing companies. In the broader international literature Chang's (1995) findings showed that when Japanese electronic firms first acquired an international business, they did so in one in which they had a strong competitive advantage in order to reduce the risk of failure. In stark contrast Tesco entered new markets by acquiring relatively weak target firms or by launching into areas where they were less strong in terms of a distinct competitive advantage. Tesco's initial forays into Ireland and Czechoslovakia clearly illustrate this point. In Ireland, difficulty with post integration led to the realisation that these “turnaround” cases were disproportionately demanding for management resources, and in the Czechoslovakia Tesco moved into non‐food merchandise lines by acquiring the Kmart department stores.

Divestment experience. What surfaced as a main theme from the findings was the intense learning process during international retail divestments. The findings indicated that failure or partial failure during the internationalisation process had a marked effect on the future trajectory of Tesco's international expansion. The strategic effect of Tesco's divestment in France and Ireland has resulted in the firm now ensuring that they establish a strong market‐leading position in new markets. For example, Tesco's aggregate market share in Hungary and Poland is over 40 per cent. The advantages of a dominant market position for learning lie in the success that such a position implies. A strong market position can obscure relatively small mistakes, whereas for small‐scale operations such mistakes might prove to be fatal.

The Catteau divestment experience resulted in an equally valuable learning process for Tesco. Sell‐side analysts suggested that Tesco delayed essential corporate divestment and reconfiguration even under intense pressure when it emerged that the French operations were experiencing difficulties. The company found themselves locked into the business through various exit clauses – out‐manoeuvred by Catteau's management – bidding competitors and the investment banks facilitating the completion of the divestment:

Tesco have learned that advisors can advise but that's all. Don't trust any investment bank. The management were misguided and ill‐advised with Catteau in France. There's no question that the management of Catteau are to blame. International retailers should never trust anybody they are buying assets from.

It was clear that Tesco's management learned from this experience by improving the techniques to prevent the commingling of the management lock‐ins and sunk costs, which made divestments very difficult, in terms of future acquisition due diligence processes. While the idea that continuous dissatisfaction from failure may seem particularly useful to initiate learning (Butler et al., 1991; Barwise, 1997; Arino and de la Torre, 1998), it remains difficult in practice. The acquisition of Catteau for Tesco and the subsequent years (i.e.1992‐1997) marked a continuous process of management dissatisfaction with the French operations. This dissatisfaction generated negative press commentary, but also weakened management and investor confidence and visibly undermined the strategic credibility of the company. The company's most high profile divestment had led to management evaluating progressive store‐by‐store expansion not with a view of proactively developing an exit strategy in the planning and due diligence phase of expansion as the following management viewpoint suggests:

… but with a view to our investment being underpinned by assets. Now that comes back to my point about the long‐term liability of assets. If you are in a market where the currency devalues and the asset value diminishes in this unstable environment – that is a due diligence mistake. Rather retail multinationals must invest in assets which are underpinned by asset value rather than nebulous goodwill in the context of organic growth.

In central and eastern Europe the company divested approximately 20 small‐scale stores while recouping the initial investment. Again, by way of illustration, management commented:

If you acquire good assets, then you can exit without losing money. Now that may seem an obvious thing to say but in our desire to generate pace in our development programme we allow that to let us compromise on the quality of assets that we are providing. We would never build a second rate store in a second rate location. I think we have benefited from the fact we acquired small store operations internationally. This has helped us understand more about the market and given us a step on the ladder. Some have argued that it was chaos, but we feel it has helped us on the people side in particular. Moving forward I think it's less important because we have the experience.

Contrary to what is commonly emphasised in the literature, learning does not need to be exclusively related to difficulties or problems, it may also refer to what has gone right in a firm. For example, in later years success of the new hypermarket concept has played an important role for the continuity of the learning processes of Tesco's internationalisation process.

Locus of control experience. In the early phases of international development Tesco did not have a clear idea of the corporate model in which to transfer their core competencies. Retaining the essence of the UK company's core competencies was problematic given the local spatial nature of food retailing and the lack of awareness of the Tesco brand name. Several analysts noted that when Tesco acquired Catteau in France they did not fully understand how they would integrate and control the business. Put differently, whether or not they were trying to replicate themselves focusing on corporate brand, format adoption and culture or using a financial holding company structure. One sell‐side analyst stated that:

The life cycle argument is that initially there is logic being a holding company. However, eventually the company will have to add value. Tesco were caught in the middle and unsure which worked best. This was compounded by the view that the cycle for international retailers was getting shorter with emphasis of adding value immediately after the acquisition.

This led to indecision with the Catteau acquisition. For example, the company experimented with integrating some brands under the Tesco brand but then decided to retain the local brand. These mistakes made Tesco establish a clearer idea regarding how and why their international businesses would succeed or fail. Tesco underwent a gradual withdrawal from a number of local tasks, while at the same time re‐establishing ownership of important central functions. Following their second entry into Ireland, the company had a much clearer vision. Even though the Irish government insisted Tesco retain a regional headquarters, the company were determined that they would adopt a more industrial corporate model. However, as several analysts pointed out:

To replicate and duplicate identity across the world puts more pressure on the business, tends to be much slower – replicating product offers, merchandising policies, staff training, culture, etc.

These early mistakes provided a firmer setting within which subsequent strategic decisions could be addressed more confidently. Learning how to strike a sustainable balance between the two was an important lesson learned by Tesco.

Experience with learning structures and processes. Ascertaining whether a firm possesses an intent to learn is an important factor influencing their learning behaviour (Tsang, 1999). Intention relates to commitment. On the surface it appears that Tesco possessed a learning intent, however, it is questionable whether this learning genuinely went beyond the “official corporate line” at least in the early phases of internationalisation. When management were asked to discuss the structures and processes through which the international learning was disseminated back to the UK market, critically there appeared to be no planned, structured, nor systematic mechanisms or formal processes for capitalising on this learning. The company's acquisition of Catteau in France did not prove to be the platform from which to inspire experimentation abroad. Nevertheless, the next phase of the company's expansion into central and eastern Europe coincided with the company's ambition to broaden their non‐food merchandise in the UK market. The impetus was then on the diffusion of what the company had learned from developing a new format which accommodated non‐food items in the overseas markets. This had a catalysing effect. Over time, the company began to employ personnel whose sole responsibility was to transfer the hypermarket format learnings back to the UK from central and eastern Europe. These learning agents represented a new dimension in the company's organisational structure, but there were difficulties in this process as management highlighted:

The learning challenge following on from this is how do management then transfer those learnings to the home market and explain to the headquarters that they don't know everything, there is a better way of doing it. A new product, process – that is culturally incredibly difficult to implement. This is extremely difficult to understand and teach the domestic market.

According to the sell‐side analysts, these problems were much more acute in the aggressively industrial approach adopted by Tesco than the looser federal approach which emphasises the role of the international firm as a “vehicle” for investment.

External strategic processes

With regard to what had been learned by Tesco from the external strategic processes, a number of key themes emerged from the in‐depth interviews.

Competitor orientation experience. At the corporate level, the findings suggest that Tesco learned particularly valuable lessons when faced with abrupt competitive shifts, to new circumstances, and responses from other retail multinationals. Specifically, Tesco were faced with hard decisions centring on whether they should participate in the consolidation process (as a consolidator or consolidatee), knowing that the valuations placed on acquisition targets were over‐priced, and there would be a distinct possibility of losing strategic control. One sell‐side analyst summed up the pressure:

In going it alone, Tesco would be making a huge strategic call. If wrong, the business would be seriously disadvantaged and would eventually lose their independence. If right, their vision would be second to none, and management would be regarded as one of the best in the world.

Despite their relatively strong position against UK competition, the consequences of Tesco's relatively weak position against much larger and more experienced international peers were profound:

acquisitions outside the UK may prove highly dilutive;

the size of possible acquisitions are effectively reduced;

a merger with a large European retailer would leave Tesco as the junior partner; and

Tesco is more vulnerable to an aggressive bid.

Tesco resisted such pressures and decided to pursue international expansion independently through organic store‐by‐store expansion – albeit much more aggressively than had hitherto been the case (i.e. the development of 200 hypermarkets over four years). During what was rapidly emerging as one of the most intense periods of retail merger‐and acquisition‐driven internationalisation, the growing sense of unease among analysts began to surface about the long‐term endurance of Tesco internationally. However, management held their nerve – the speculative scenarios which had been envisaged in the early 2000s (see Wrigley (2002) for example) pointing towards a series of mergers and acquisitions at both the global and local level failed to materialise. Instead, quite remarkably, the immediate years following 2000 saw relatively little consolidation whatsoever. Through a series of competitive adjustments including exploiting the benefits conferred by the scale of their UK operations, it seems that Tesco's strategy paid off – and, importantly, deterred any hostile takeover bids. While the strategic effects of this intense period are difficult to determine analysts suggested that this period of vulnerability for Tesco led to a greater realisation of the strategic necessity of the company's international operations in ensuring the long‐term future of the company.

At the local competitive spatial level, Tesco adjusted operational retailing aspects, sometimes with minor modifications and at other times ensuring fundamental transformation of the format during the internationalisation process. Both buy‐ and sell‐side analysts believed that this international juncture was an area where companies could learn and experiment at the extremities of the company:

It will offer a company which is open to change the opportunity to observe and adopt best practice and apply it throughout the totality of their organisation. It will see Tesco competing directly with some of the best food retailers, notably the French hypermarket operators.

In central Europe and Asia, Tesco is competing directly with some of the best food retailers in the world, notably Carrefour, Auchan, and Ahold. As a result, Tesco is having to learn how to merchandise non‐food departments and how to hone their merchandising skills.

The above quotations serve to draw out how much of the learning takes place as the expansion unfolds and the competitive situation evolves rather than simply with prior market knowledge. In other words, as the company faces novel situations and makes small mistakes through trial‐and‐error expanding, management form more realistic perceptions of the foreign market. The need for learning‐by‐doing at the local spatial level indicates that learning from the internationalisation process will often be a gradual, reiterative process (Alexander, 1997).

External regulatory experience. Faced with the inevitable prospect of different degrees of regulatory constrains in dissimilar international retail markets, Tesco generated negative publicity and commentary in both the Irish and French markets. The contrasting cultural nuances were particularly apparent in the different ways of conducting business concerning the management of the planning process. In Ireland, in the context of an unclear planning policy frame, the company attempted to impose a process that had been utilised in the UK:

They [Tesco] underestimated how the planning process in Ireland worked at two levels. First, they underestimated the extent of local networks and contacts in the property industry. They didn't have enough agents and advisors. There was very much a local way of doing things, which relied on who you know as much as how much you know. Second, there is a different decision‐making process, slightly opaque series of planning policy guidance and framework. There was no independent planning inspectorate, with a lot of years experience in determining planning proposals for new stores.

When Tesco announced several proposals for new store development in Ireland and there was little guidance with regard to planning, this led to several years of independent planning and formalised inquiries. Although Tesco had been actively addressing the legitimate concerns of customers, suppliers and small retailers in these markets, it is clear that the company failed, at least initially, to communicate and negate the concerns that the local authorities and other stakeholders adequately. The strategic effect of this is difficult to determine in more recent expansion, but with experience, rather than conceiving of regulation simply as fait accompli in international markets and emerging markets in particular, Tesco embarked on a public relation campaign that would attempt to influence important regulatory decisions in their favour. In marked contrast to the early phase of development, Tesco noticeably changed by becoming proactive in enhancing their credibility and reputation in new markets with national and local governments as well as providing new opportunities for local suppliers to export produce. As a significant measure of the company's commitment to internationalisation, upon Tesco's entry into the Irish food retail market, management were willing to enter into an agreement with the government which meant that Tesco had to adhere to a number of promises and guarantees including operating an autonomous head office, retaining existing employees and the sourcing of Irish products.

Internal regulatory experience. Tesco learned from the importance of involving major shareholders during the internationalisation process. Tesco required the support and guidance of the financial institutions and, indeed, this forced them to invent communications and governance processes in order to stay informed of institutional investor concerns and perspectives. Arguably, Tesco's initial cautionary approach towards internationalisation was attributable to the restraints placed on the company by their shareholders’ expectations. According to management, at the time of Tesco's first high profile, albeit small international acquisition, the gist of the financial analysts’ perceptions towards Tesco's internationalisation was that the capital markets inhibited or constrained Tesco's international expansion:

Tesco wanted to do a deal in France in the mid‐1990s but were prohibited at the time by the City. They wanted special dividends and share buy‐back options and didn't want to take the risk of them going abroad.

Serious questions were being asked by the financial analysts concerning the financial requirements and the pressures to sustain international growth. However, over time, the question from the financial analysts then became how rapid Tesco should expand internationally rather than whether or not they should actually internationalise. One sell‐side analyst's report at the time succinctly put it:

The only question is the “haste” with which it is pursued and whether shareholders get a parallel sight of the cash through the dividend. In the context of Catteau, Tesco seems to be taking it reasonably slowly; it certainly is delivering a progressive pay out.

As previously discussed, Tesco came under intense scrutiny and found themselves subject of speculation of takeover bids during the mid to late 1990s. To combat this Tesco embarked upon a number of investor relations initiatives. Some, as reported in the press at the time, interpreted Tesco's emphasis on overseas expansion as “a coded plea to re‐rate the shares and put it in a stronger position to take part in the international acquisition‐driven consolidation process” (Osborne, 1999), so that the company would not become increasingly marginalised in the acquisition‐driven consolidation process. Management were obviously concerned about the company's valuation during this period relative to their international peers and deputy chairman David Reid (cited in Riera, 2000) suggested as much:

People should be concerned if share prices are lower over here, as there is a possibility that the whole UK food retail industry could be owned by foreign competition.

Unfortunately for Tesco, these efforts were interpreted as a one‐off public relations (PR) exercise. The findings tentatively suggest that a one‐off PR campaign for its own stake, in the context of intense consolidation pressures, will not be positively interpreted by the financial markets. Instead, it was interpreted as a coded plea to re‐rate the shares and put the retail multinational in a stronger position to take part in the international acquisition‐driven consolidation process, rather than an open and meaningful ongoing dialogue between the financial institutions and Tesco. Tesco's message was not being effectively relayed to investors – in part, because analysts were placing excessive weight on the company's past international (in)experience and this obscured the prospects for prospective earning power from future international investments.

Internal operational functions

Human capital experience. Another theme emerging from the interviews was that Tesco's management greatly underestimated the management capital required for international expansion. A significant measure of the company's attitude towards human resource capacity is reflected in the following statement by one advisor:

Probably every retailer that I have worked with within Europe on an international project has underestimated the amount of time that is required from senior people in the business to make a relatively small venture in a new market work. Retailers must be prepared to commit senior management, or director levels … often two years into the new venture they will become very frustrated that the venture hasn't grown into the third leg of the business. They must put their best people behind internationalisation and allow them to “champion” this expansion and drive it forward.

Investment in human capital, whether at the managerial level or store level, to handle international expansion constituted a significant lesson learned by Tesco. To achieve the necessary pace and scale of international operations Tesco have had to invest significantly in human capital, not least because the scale of the internationalisation programme significantly depleted the existing management resources. The strategic effect of this under investment in human capital for Tesco was that they acquired a number of small‐scale businesses in Central and Eastern Europe as a substitute for their lack international experience and local knowledge. The size of Tesco’s retail operations in their domestic market were a vital component in establishing successful international operations. By virtue of this size, Tesco had greater availability of capital and human resources for areas such as store management, site location analysts, marketing and financial personnel, supporting and sustaining international operations. Reflecting on this issue one buy‐side analyst made the following point:

The biggest lesson of all is a human resource lesson. Where do you get experienced international management? While Carrefour and Ahold have considerable management depth and breadth, relatively new internationalists have less human resources.

Also of increasing importance for the less experienced retail multinationals was the advisory support from external firms such as investment banks, management and property consultants and even manufacturers. The investment banking advisory support intensified when Tesco expanded via merger and acquisitions, making possible a deepening of the knowledge transfer process, closely co‐ordinating the activities with the investment banks, and expanding the learning process outside the boundaries of the company. Investment banks can therefore act as an agent for transferring knowledge regarding the dynamics in other international markets – in effect accelerating the learning curve for a less experienced retail multinational. Investment banks can be involved at any stage in the internationalisation process as one advisor explained:

We are not retailers but we can provide comprehensive information, which facilitates the retailers’ learning and helps to narrow down the potential options.

These networks also extend beyond the financial institutions. One important dimension for sustaining the company's aggressive expansion programme has been the close relationship with their largest supplier, Procter and Gamble. For example, Tesco utilised Procter and Gamble to fund an international field trip so that the executives got an insight into retailing practices in Asia.

Financial capital experience. Progressive international expansion is likely to result in the deterioration of the financial profile. From 1995 onwards, the conditions for international expansion were far more capital intensive. These costs were principally driven by the rising valuation (acquisition multiples) placed on acquisition targets, which, during the wave of acquisitions, broke decisively beyond historical ranges. On top of that, costs were exacerbated by the increasing sophistication of in‐store retail environments which, even within the emerging markets, required additional levels of capital investment as well as broader, supporting investments in information technology (IT) systems, distribution/logistics infrastructures and supply chain management. Developing markets have attracted considerably more international competitors, resulting in a virtuous cycle of heavy capital investment. One sell‐side analyst commented that for Tesco:

[…] the Polish market is developing at such a pace that in order to win custom, the in‐store environment needs to be highly sophisticated from the outset – especially in the highly competitive cities such as Warsaw.

Additional external sources of financing were therefore often required to supplement international growth. Tesco relied on external funding both in the form of debt and equity from the financial institutions. A key factor for Tesco, however, was the size of their cash generating domestic markets, which allowed them to invest with confidence in international emerging markets. In 2002, for example, Tesco financed the HIT acquisition in Poland (estimated £386 million) from trading rather than incurring debt, benefiting from the cash generating strength of their core UK business. Critical post‐integration investments were also supported from earnings from the UK business. Underlying Tesco's international programme was a relatively strong domestic position, which was in stark contrast to their main rival in the UK, Sainsbury's. Sainsbury's international expansion became more difficult in the face of opponents, who slowly undermined the company's international aspirations with resounding attacks on their under performing core business. Many buy‐ and sell‐side analysts that have followed this line of reasoning:

On the back of poor domestic expansion, retail multinationals should not plan on any foreign acquisitions as this will only accelerate the demise of the current domestic operations. To wield power across markets, a retail multinational must have some measure of strength in their domestic market. In other words, retail multinationals with under performing or insignificant positions in their domestic market will not have sufficient financial or human resources to fully implement their international strategy.

If you are struggling in your domestic market, what credibility do you have that you can manage a business in another country?

At the Global Institute of Grocery Distribution conference in early 2000, Tesco's management stressed that they would not make the same mistakes as Sainsbury's in their domestic and international operations. It is clear that management learned a considerable amount from Sainsbury internationalisation process, and briefly pointed to Sainsbury's under investment in the domestic market.

Marketing and communications. The experiences of Tesco highlight some important lessons concerning international marketing and communication issues. In the international retailing literature, Lord et al. (1989) have noted how multinational retailer expansion can often be a PR disaster – sometimes confrontational and controversial; leading to conflict with other retailers and suppliers, but also between the financial markets and the retail multinational (see also Wrigley, 2000). It is clear from the case findings that Tesco suffered from negative publicity in a number of ways. At the investor‐retailer level, Tesco's fiduciary responsibilities were often strained due to ineffectual and disjointed marketing communication programmes. A lack of PR activity during the early phase of internationalisation placed Tesco at a slight disadvantage, for their international peers wasted few opportunities to play gently on some of the financial markets’ concerns regarding Tesco's international expansion. One sell‐side analyst made this point:

One of the biggest risks of international expansion is to the reputation of the retail multinational. When a company's international reputation is questioned, valuation collapses, and as a consequence, management can't make further acquisitions. Then management spend all of their time on the back foot trying to build credibility rather than growing the international business.

Serious questions were being asked of Tesco in this regard, but management defended their position explaining that:

PR skills play a part in the way some of these perceptions get blown up. If pressed, we would say that the other retail multinationals are better at “talking up” their story than Tesco, which tends to take the old fashioned view that the results should speak for themselves.

Tesco experienced a chain of PR mishap after mishap, which undermined consumer confidence and excessively weakened their customer‐friendly image in foreign markets notably in the Republic of Ireland. Perhaps within a larger and culturally dissimilar market, Tesco may not have survived these mistakes in the face of larger and well‐established incumbents. Yet by the late 1990s, the company were forced to embark on an intensive PR campaign. Analysts postulated that the main reason for the intensification in PR was a direct result of management feeling more confident in making larger international profits than initially intended for the early phase of their international expansion, or, as a direct result of the pressures surrounding the acquisition‐driven consolidation process, which could threaten the strategic credibility of the firm if Tesco remained unresponsive to the consolidation pressures. What emerges from this evidence is the importance of an evolutionary marketing strategy within different competitive contexts. Tesco's retail marketing mix decisions have been characterised by trial‐and‐error behaviour where different possibilities are explored and thus the decisions taken are largely evolutionary in different cultures. In addition, the company began experimenting with a new type of hypermarket format that contained a larger element of non‐food stock keeping units. Management succinctly captured the essence of experimentation in a new market:

I think it's easier to develop new entrepreneurial formats in a new environment than it is in your existing market where your business is successful. The biggest barrier to change is success. If you have a successful business that does things in a particular way, stepping outside the box and doing something in a very different way always appears high risk. Why take the back off a watch when it's ticking. When you don't have the watch, the quality of your thinking will be much wider, management will challenge things much more in an apparently risk environment with no baggage than you will in the UK. If you look at the development of our hypermarket in the UK, it has been much more pedestrian in terms of small steps because it has been based around a highly successful format that already exists. So why change? You actually need to be in an environment where you can afford to change because you have nothing to lose.

As the above quotation suggests, retail innovation is facilitated by “shocks” or uncertainty in the international investment process. The danger facing companies pursuing a progressive step‐by‐step development model is that ideas may be inappropriately dismissed or overlooked simply because they did not work in the domestic market and the success and size of the domestic operations creates a barrier to change and innovation. This raises some issues associated with the benefits of a more aggressive and ambitious international programme undertaken by Tesco.

Global sourcing and supply chain experience. The capacity for cross‐border sourcing is generally seen as one of the long‐term “strategic” justifications for cross‐border consolidation in food retailing (Wrigley, 2002; Palmer, 2002a). Extracting longer‐term synergies and greater co‐ordination across borders – including the move towards price harmonisation – was increasingly being used as justification for international retail acquisitions. For Tesco, global sourcing was largely played down. Instead, the company emphasised that the debate concerning sourcing efforts did not shift the emphasis away from their core competencies, which were considered more important within the international landscape. In principle, Tesco believed that a competitive advantage rests more on the outcomes of learning to improve local merchandising methods, systems and processes than simply on a cost advantage in the distribution of standardised goods. There have been a number of strategic outcomes. First, Tesco have deliberately strived to occupy the top three position in all of their international markets. Tesco have performed less well and in some instances exited the market where they could not reach a sufficiently critical size. For example, management cited this as a reason for their divestment of Catteau in the French market. Second, Tesco's actual sourcing efforts within the broader international context also shows several visible attempts by the company to aggregate scale across multiple markets and establishing pan‐regional presence in contiguous markets. Third, attempts to re‐organise their global sourcing activities practises by establishing buying centres in emerging markets to develop the product range. Tesco has encouraged local food suppliers to develop retail brands, under the Tesco own brand. On the one hand, this prohibited the degree of global sourcing efforts, but on the other, it has substantially improved the overall diversity of the company's product mix which was increasingly being exported into other international markets.


As Tesco accumulates knowledge while internationalising, important insights and lessons have been learned from stimuli internal and external to the company. By reflecting on these different learning experiences, particularly when contextualised within detailed single case‐level research, various dimensions of retailer internationalisation have emerged. In spatial terms, it appears that Tesco concentrated their efforts with more experience on dissimilar markets in key regions or clusters aiming to achieve a market leading position. One explanation for this activity may be that as Tesco accumulated more experience they recognised the importance of local and regional scale economies for achieving profitability. In other words, retaining spatial focus was therefore more important than capitalising on opportunities in diverse markets. The decision of selecting a particular market may depend as much on the availability of suitable acquisition targets and the conditions of potential sellers as it does on the attractiveness of the market (Dawson, 2001). For Tesco, market selection was thus entangled with entry mode choice. Evidently, acquisition‐driven expansion had been a form of “postrationalised opportunism” where both management and the financial institutions partisan to the acquisition rationalise the acquisition after it is accepted by the other company. Market selection decisions mirrored this opportunistically‐driven behaviour. In this respect, the main lesson that Tesco had learned is that they must be in a position to quickly take advantage of unexpected events (threats or opportunities). How Tesco dealt with unexpected successes, miscalculations, mistakes and serendipity was of critical importance to the international operations succeeding. The preceding evidence of Tesco also suggests that acquisitions have proved to be an important prism for learning. On several occasions Tesco used small‐scale, nothing‐to‐lose acquisitions to minimise their own human and financial capital in the face of potential economic and political uncertainty in developing markets and to accumulate local market knowledge. These acquisitions have provided Tesco with invaluable experiential opportunities to be “surprised” by the marketplace and so to learn. The case evidence revealed that a willingness to experiment and feedback input on the results from local store managers and expatriate managers is a meaningful lesson.

The case of Tesco also indicates that the internationalisation process of retail multinationals is not always a progressive and straightforward process (Alexander and Quinn, 2002; Burt et al., 2002, 2003; Mellahi et al., 2002). The findings add new insights into the complexity of the international retail divestment process. It appears that Tesco had learned rather valuable lessons from their own divestment experiences, while other retailers’ international market withdrawals provided an opportunity to observe overt behaviour. From the Catteau experience, Tesco became locked into an inappropriate acquisition through various acquisition‐related contractual (earn‐out) clauses with Catteau's management which in turn prohibited a swift and timely exit. A lack of experience as an internationalist was visible in the Republic of Ireland when faced with the task rejuvenating, re‐branding and re‐launching relatively weak store operations as well. While it is true that such operations offer undeniable opportunities to improve the operations, Tesco later recognised that, in reality, these “turnaround” acquisitions were disproportionately demanding of critical management's time and resources.

Apart from underestimating the level of effort required for these “turnaround” operations, Tesco painfully learned from employing an inappropriate corporate model in the French market. Alexander and Myers (2000) have remarked that the differences between ethnocentric (centralised) and geocentric (decentralised) operating structures will impact the international learning process. Tesco viewed their early international moves abroad as a business extension and a redirection of free cash flow – effectively limiting organisational learning opportunities. From the mid‐1990s onwards however, publicly‐listed retailers had come under intense pressure from their shareholders to demonstrate where and how value could be added to the international operations. This had a catalysing effect. A lack of clarity in this respect would have severely undermined the strategic credibility of the retail multinational and inevitably placed financial cost of capital restrictions (Palmer, 2002a). Tesco were initially unclear and less confident about the most appropriate corporate model with which to proceed. Effectively, Tesco passed through a number of iterations of organisational structure before finally adopting a hybrid structure between centralised and decentralised operations, before ultimately adopting an aggressively industrial model. Perhaps more importantly, the initial experiences of Tesco's control capabilities have proved that it is impossible successfully to adopt both corporate models simultaneously.

What is clear from an analysis of the findings regarding learning structures and processes is that an organisational‐led learning multinational goes beyond the “official corporate line” that executives may use to justify minority entry positions or failures in new markets and deliberately establishes systematic internal learning processes to support international learning. Within the context of international retail expansion in Europe, Alexander (1997) suggested that retailers have lacked systematic internal processes to support their decisions with respect to appropriate host market strategies. The present study would largely support his findings at least as far as the development of internal learning structures is concerned. It is proposed that innovations and continuous improvements are more successfully absorbed by the proactive formalisation and development of internal learning mechanisms. The formalisation and development processes for learning were seemingly rather fortuitous insofar as market expansion into eastern Europe coincided with their ambition to broaden the non‐food merchandise in the UK. The impetus was then on the diffusion of what the company had learned from developing a new format which accommodated non‐food items in the overseas markets.

By considering Tesco's competitive behavioural dynamics within the context of the strategic international moves it was apparent that retail multinationals are frequently engaged in exchange of threats at the corporate spatial level. At the corporate level, learning takes place at a much faster pace, often precipitated by a catalysing event in the retail environment which could fundamentally alter the strategic authority of the company and ultimately investors’ evaluation of the company's worth. An illustration of a catalysing event was Wal‐Mart's entry into Germany which dramatically changed the status quo and the structural competitive dynamics for European retailers and Tesco in particular (see Palmer, 2000; Arnold and Fernie, 2000; Burt and Sparks, 2001; Fernie and Arnold, 2002). At the local spatial level, intense competitive rivalry for securing regional market share also existed. At this interface, retailers learned from each other, particularly with respect to competitive responses from in‐store and supply‐chain initiatives. It is proposed that much of this learning takes place as the expansion unfolds and the competitive situation evolves. This learning‐by‐doing activity indicates that learning at the local spatial level will be a gradual and reiterative process. Experience has taught Tesco to adjust to the deregulatory/regulatory related spatial pressures, but also covertly shape rather than respond to regulatory frameworks to obtain their desired spatial outcomes in international markets. A regulatory lesson, particularly in emerging markets, was the importance of investment in developing and maintaining good political relationships, while embarking on PR campaigns to facilitate the expansion efforts in new markets among stakeholders.

It is evident from the findings that from the mid‐1990s onwards, publicly‐listed retailers have come under intense pressure from their shareholders to internationalise. On the institutional front, the findings appear to suggest that shareholders insist that retail multinationals deliver not just instant sales growth from their foreign ventures but also substantial cross‐border synergies and thus more profits. By definition, these synergies can only flow through an industrial or “global category killer” model (see Wrigley, 2002). It is concluded, therefore, that those employing a federal structure model will realise the economic benefits of internationalisation immediately, while the industrially aggressive multinationals will take longer to realise tangible cross‐border economies, although such synergies will be higher in the long‐term. Higher integration risks therefore exist and serious miscalculations or mistakes may weaken the retail multinational's confidence and generate negative press commentary which, in turn, may eventually undermine the strategic credibility of the expansion efforts elsewhere.

A lack of experience and of familiarity with conditions in foreign markets created considerable strain on Tesco's human capital resources. This situation is somewhat different from the large fast‐moving consumer goods (fmcg) manufacturers such as Procter and Gamble and Unilever where the management ethos has grown up as a function, or by virtue of being international companies and overseas posts became important in the long run rather than a stepping stone back to a more senior position at home. Within Tesco, the international division was very much a tradition of a ‘stepping stone’ to a more senior position in the home market. Thus, while Tesco invested large amounts of financial capital in their international operations, management underestimated the requirement of human resources. The established international retail literature does not emphasise the importance of the human capital issue in the implementation of an international retail strategy. The current findings make a significant contribution to the established literature in that they illustrate that an international retailing financial‐human capital gap may exist during the retail internationalisation process. That is, for Tesco the process of reaching the necessary pace and scale of international operations, together with the desire to outmanoeuvre competitors, resulted in a medium‐term oversupply (or overhang) in the financial capital employed and a shortfall in the human resources employed. The immediate effect of this “gap” was immense pressure on the firm's recruitment processes. The strategic effect of this under investment in human resources is subsequent investments in “management accretive” acquisitions where the retail multinational immediately acquires strong management thereby reducing demands on managers in the domestic business.

The findings of this study also highlight some important lessons concerning international marketing and communication‐related issues. The findings suggest that at both the investor‐retailer and the consumer‐retailer interface, relationships were often strained due to ineffectual and disjointed marketing communications efforts. Surprisingly there was a conspicuous lack of action addressing negative rumours and this ineffectual and disjointed communication undermined both investor and consumer confidence. The strategic effect of this was that Tesco's credibility was undermined and that, as a consequence, they encountered difficulties at later stages in the development process in terms of either seeking further commitment from investors or planning permission for new investment from government regulators. The findings illustrated that customers can be easily alienated by changes in fasciae, assortments, store layouts or pricing following the post integration period (Shackleton, 1996a, b, 1998). During this critical period, the retail multinational may unintentionally disenfranchise customers that may make it more difficult to achieve post‐integration synergies, and even weaken comparable sales performance.

The present study identified fundamental movements of Tesco to reduce the price differential between markets of sourced merchandise in their favour during the retail internationalisation process. The findings suggest that the financial institutions and other investors believed that there were global‐scale advantages and disadvantages. Even under duress from the financial institutions, Tesco assumptions on global scale were similar to both Jackson's (1976) and Williams's (1992) studies who felt that local know‐how could alleviate deficiencies of a lack of scale and any other competitive sourcing‐related disadvantages. However, it should be noted that investment bankers may be over optimistic in estimating the power asymmetries, while management may play down the scale of this activity for disclosure reasons. Therefore, in attempting to ascertain the reality, it is possible to assume that the de facto power rests somewhere between these standpoints. It is concluded that it is equally important to have scale at the local and global level. In this regard, Tesco could draw financially on their domestic operations and other international cash generative retail operations while their costs were still being borne out in new markets but results had not been obtained. The present study also found that stronger local and global retailer‐supplier partnerships were increasingly critical for Tesco operating across different markets where distribution and logistics vary considerably from market‐to‐market. The findings suggest that initially the manufacturers realigned and re‐organised their organisational structures in order to support their leading brands fully. The impact of Tesco's internationalisation has dramatically altered the retailer‐supplier dynamics in strengthening and weakening relationships, and recovering and terminating relationships in other circumstances.


There has been a marked acceleration in the scale of international investment during the 1990s and as the process of internationalisation gathers pace, it is vitally important to understand what retailers have learned from their experiences. The aim of the paper was to provide an expository overview of one company's experiences of internationalisation, however it is anticipated that the findings arising from the study will help to develop understanding of the subject area in general. It has been shown that the concept of “learning” provides an important conceptual framework and a new perspective for reinterpreting, re‐evaluating and refining the existing literature on retailer internationalisation. Such learning accounts necessarily are richer and deeper but less elegant than success‐failure dichotomies. The preceding case study of Tesco illustrates a number of different dimensions of the company's international experience. Many important lessons have been learned by Tesco during the course of their internationalisation process, enhancing the adaptability and responsiveness of the company. Tesco has undoubtedly experienced several “shocks” in the marketplace – and as result the company was much more vigilant and willing to experiment, learn and react to the unexpected during later phases of expansion. How far Tesco could, or would, apply the lessons learned from their experiences for future expansion is largely dependent on the company's capacity to identify the sources of international learning in different contexts, absorb and institutionalise this knowledge. In some circumstances, it has also been shown that the company did not learn from their experience, even with the benefit of hindsight.

Figure 1 A framework of international retail learning

Case Details:


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Supply Chain Management

Case Length:19 Pages
Pub Date:2006
Teaching Note:Not Available
Countries :UK


This case discusses the best practices in supply chain management of UK based retailer - Tesco. Effective supply chain management can be termed as one of the factors that helped Tesco emerge as a market leader in the retailing industry in the UK. Tesco introduced lean management solutions into its supply chain successfully. It adopted path breaking techniques and systems like point of sales data, primary distribution, continuous replenishment and adopted RFID technology to make its supply chain more efficient.


» Analyze the SCM initiatives adopted by Tesco

» Understand the role of SCM in retail industry

» Evaluate the importance of using new technologies like RFID in supply chain



Tesco, Supply Chain Management, RFID Technology, Lean Management, Primary Distribution, Point of Sales Data, Continuous Replenishment, Cross Docking, Step Change Program, Procurement, Radio Barcodes, Inventory Management, Store Format, RFID Enabled Supply Chain

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