A look at ten supermarket chains absorbed by Tesco since 1945
For social historians and retail commentators, the recent history of Tesco is peppered with twists and turns. Contemporary hagiographies focus on the store chain’s tax affairs, or their presence on our High Streets.
Much of the groundwork was set in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to Jack Cohen. After organic growth, the end of the 1950s onwards saw Tesco buying regional chains like Irwins and Hillards. Even so, their integration wasn’t all plain sailing: for example, outstanding debts; unsuitable sites; and planning issues. Its turning point came when Ian MacLaurin joined the Tesco board after being a management trainee. As Managing Director in 1977, he ditched the Green Shield stamps, a gimmick which only ten years before, drew shoppers to their stores.
The rest, they say, is your favourite humanities cliché. It set the store chain onto an upward trajectory. Stores grew in size as well as numbers: standard sized supermarkets; plus Extras, Metros and Expresses. Then global domination, and a loyalty card scheme that took the retail world by storm.
In our Lost Precinct Not So Perfect Ten, we look at the ten store chains that Tesco have acquired since 1945.
- Victor Value;
- William Low;
- Cartier’s Superfoods;
- Crazy Prices;
- Square Meals.
1. Victor Value
Complementing Jack Cohen’s ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ ethos, Victor Value seemed to have been a good match for Tesco. This increased his market share in Greater London, particularly among cost conscious working-class shoppers. In 1968, Tesco acquired the chain and integrated them into their portfolio. Where there was duplication with existing branches of Tesco, some smaller branches closed. Some larger stores became Tesco Home ‘n’ Wear branches.
By 1970, the original Victor Value stores disappeared but the name reappeared in 1982. This time in the North West of England, when MacLaurin was gradually repositioning the chain. Some of the smaller Tesco stores in less affluent areas became Victor Value stores, where there was competition with Kwik Save and Lo-Cost. In 1986, Victor Value was spun off and sold to Bejam, before being purchased by Kwik Save. Ashton-under-Lyne’s branch became Kwik Save in Autumn 1989 (now Home Bargains), whereas Openshaw’s branch became a catalogue discount shop. It is once again a supermarket, though independently owned.
One of Tesco’s first moves into Northern England was the purchase of John Irwin and Son’s grocery chain. They had shops in Liverpool and Birkenhead, on what is now Merseyside (or the Liverpool City Region). For £2 million, Tesco purchased the chain in 1960 with 212 branches.
3. William Low
It is hard to imagine that three decades ago that Scotland was a Tesco desert. For a time, Scotland was the preserve of Fine Fare, Galbraiths, Safeway, William Low, and various Cooperative societies. In 1986, William Low (or Wm Low) had a market share of 12.7% and its strategic importance attracted Tesco.
In addition to being a major player in Scotland, they also had stores in the North East of England, parts of Yorkshire, and Cumbria. 1994 saw a bidding war for the store chain, independently owned since 1868. J. Sainsbury tried to bid in July 1994, but the 02 September 1994, Tesco succeeded with a £257 million bid. Tesco doubled their market share at a stroke with 57 stores being added to their portfolio.
Prior to Tesco’s acquisition, Adsega were newcomers to the retail scene. They were formed in 1960 from a single grocery store in Gorton. In 1964, they had plans to more than double their estate from 35 to 75 supermarkets. Its success, short lived, was built on hard discounting – particularly wines and spirits and LPs. This led to the opening of a new head office in Bolton and bankers Samuel Montagu taking a 25% stake in the business.
With 47 stores around Cheshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire, Adsega was another good fit for Tesco. At the end of 1965, this increased their market share in a small yet strategically important area. Therefore, Tesco raised its game in what is now Greater Manchester. As a consequence, new shopping precincts in Stockport (Merseyway Shopping Centre, 1965), Ashton-under-Lyne (Metrolands’ precinct, 1967), and Hyde (MEPC’s precinct, 1967) had Tesco stores. The Adsega name was briefly revived in 1976 for hard discounting stores in the Midlands.
If you ask any Yorkshire shopper or Glossopian which supermarket chain they miss, Hillards may be top of their list. Founded in 1885 as Lion Stores in Cleckheaton, the name is taken from the Lion Chambers of their first store. John Wesley Hillard, its founder had 20 stores by 1900. In 1970, with expansion in mind, they changed their business name to Hillards.
By the time Tesco acquired Hillards in May 1987 (£220 million), their expansion plans would have seen the Yorkshire chain building further stores southwards. Only a year before its acquisition, Summer 1986 saw the opening of its Glossop branch. A popular store still in Tesco hands today (and the bane of many a driver approaching High Street West). Though the stores went thirty years, its name is kept alive as The Gay and Peter Hartley’s Hillards Charitable Trust.
6. Cartier’s Superfoods
Back in the mid to late 1970s, a chest freezer or a fridge/freezer was an object of desire for most households. Freezer centres had opened across the UK throughout the decade. In Kent, Cartier’s Superfoods went one better: they were a supermarket chain with oodles of frozen food. A bit like today’s Iceland stores or its bigger brother, The Food Warehouse. Cartier’s Superfoods did things differently: their frozen foods were locally sourced with the emphasis on quality. All from local brands instead of national players.
Their approach appealed to Tesco who purchased the store chain in 1979. Its founder, Lewis E. Cartier, had plans to expand into non-food areas. Instead, he upped sticks for Florida where he submitted plans for a theme park. Known as Little England, it would have been a very English style theme park for American tourists. The venture failed, so he sold the land off in 1983.
In 1997, Tesco took over all of ABF’s retail undertakings (except for Primark). This included three Irish supermarket chains which are given separate entries in our Not So Perfect Ten.
Quinnsworth was founded by Pat Quinn in 1966, a playful way of adding ‘…worth’ to the discount store’s name a la Woolworth. Shortly they were taken over by Power Supermarkets who retained the Quinnsworth name. A lasting legacy of Quinnsworth alongside its English equivalent, Fine Fare, was the Yellow Pack product line. Launched in 1980, they were used for private label value brands – cheap and cheerful basic items. The precursor of Tesco Value, Kwik Save’s No Frills, and Morrisons Bettabuy brands, and countless others in the last four decades.
Whereas Quinnsworth’s stores were taken over by Tesco Ireland, Stewarts’ stores in Northern Ireland were taken over by the UK subsidiary. They started out as Stewart’s Cash Stores and on acquisition they had nineteen stores. Their ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ equivalent was…
9. Crazy Prices
Also known as Super Crazy Prices, they had superstores in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Like today’s discount stores, pallets and rudimentary shelving were used for stacking products. They had nine branches in Northern Ireland and eighteen branches in the Republic of Ireland. Plus they pioneered, in Ireland, late night opening.
10. Square Meals
One of Tesco’s oddest and shortest lived acquisitions was Square Meals in 1973. They were a chain of freezer centres owned by Brooke-Bond Oxo. Their business plan was to sell freezers to households, then entice them into their showrooms with vouchers. Issues with planning permission and poor locations saw a quick exit.
Before I go…
Do you have any recollections of the ten Tesco precursor chains? Did you fight your way through Victor Value, or did you work for any of the companies? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 11 October 2017.