Tesco (hearts) Booker – Every Little Helps

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

01 February 2017

Well – no-one saw that one coming. Tesco's £3.7bn merger with Booker seems to have taken everyone by surprise.

It's certainly a big shift in strategy for the retailer compared to a few years ago, when it was stocking up on restaurants and coffee chains (Giraffe and Harris & Hoole) in an attempt to make the weekly supermarket shop a more immersive experience.

A change in shopping habits, however, has seen that strategy binned faster than a bag of putrefying salad. Both H&H and Giraffe were unceremoniously dumped last summer.

The new move is arguably even more ambitious; a big-money attempt to become top dog in the C-store and cash and carry market.

As part of the deal, Tesco also acquires Booker's £100m Chef Direct business, which supplies, among others, Byron and Prezzo.

Tesco, in other words, has become a significant player in the on-trade virtually overnight. But this time, rather than trying to run on-trade operations (at which it had no real expertise) this time, it’s in the business of supply, which it understands very well.

'We are bringing together two very complementary businesses,' Tesco's CEO Dave Lewis told the BBC. 'We see this as a very low-risk merger.'

The acquisition of the likes of Londis, Budgens and Premier C-stores is of no immediate concern to the on-trade – though it wouldn’t surprise me to see some stores being rebranded, others closed and others enlarged to take on new roles down the line.

Tesco is nothing if not unsentimental when it comes to property…

But buying the Bookers and Makro cash-and-carry businesses is potentially significant, not least for some of the companies who may already be supplying Imbibe readers.

Tesco does several things very well: logistically, like all supermarkets, it is super-slick, and all areas of Booker’s business will benefit from that.

Likewise, its digital operation is one of the best of any business in the UK – particularly its marketing and analytics, which are at the heart of all that it does. Its sourcing power, meanwhile, is legendary. There’s probably no-one better at sourcing big volumes at low prices – as anyone who’s ever supplied them will doubtless attest, probably through gritted teeth.

I'd suggest that inside the next year Bookers/Macro could well have bigger and better drinks ranges, probably with a sizable chunk of competitively priced own-label that has been re-badged from the supermarket's current off-trade suppliers.

It's not unrealistic to expect the company to make the most of its vast network of stores (of all description) across the country either.

Majestic Commercial makes much of the fact that most venues in the UK are within ten minutes of one of its stores. The Tesco/Bookers network, however, is even more comprehensive.

Majestic remains adamant that there will be 'no immediate impact' from the Tesco Booker merger. 'We target a specific segment of the on-trade market with a tailored range and service that is very different to Booker's,' says the head of Majestic Commercial Ben Nichol.

He's right – at the moment. But Tesco is unlikely to stand still, and this move could open some intriguing new doors for the company.

Imagine a situation where Bookers’ enhanced analytics is able to suggest what drinks it thinks you might need, and offer to drop it at a Tesco pick-up depot within a couple of miles of your door inside a few hours.

For many venues, that's a compelling proposition, and the threat to some large operators is obvious – as are the potential benefits to certain sectors of the on-trade.

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