Bus operators can learn from the methods that Tesco is employing to entice shoppers back into its large retail park stores, argues Marc Morgan Huws

Just days after writing my last article for Passenger Transport on the subject of our generally underdeveloped and undervalued bus stations (PT065), an article appeared before me on Yahoo!, taken from Reuters. It examined the initiatives taken by Tesco to try to “help tempt Britons back to its retail park stores as part of a £1bn push to revitalise business”.

Tesco-watching is one of my inadvertent pastimes. I never set out to spend time actively looking at Tesco and its developments and initiatives, but it’s a business with a strong brand that I find to be quite alluring.

To me the brand is much cleaner than its competitors – Sainsbury’s looks a bit wishy washy, Asda a bit brash, Morrisons a bit well – just too yellow! Tesco though, is strong and defining. The red white and blue colours are striking but safe and reassuring; the application in the aisles clear and used well to ‘signpost’ products and offers as much as to market and sell them. And the staff are well presented, smart and professional looking – not dressed in funny floral or stripy frocks, but in clean crisp uniforms.

I suppose that I feel comfortable with Tesco – it isn’t too posh as to make me think that it won’t give good value; it’s a brand that inspires confidence. And so, when I see the Tesco brand, the products, and the sales location, I look with interest. In many ways, that image portrayed by Tesco is one that most bus operators would benefit from. Others may do it differently and carry it off – TrentBarton for example, but for most, the safe, professional front, without looking ‘too posh’ would be something of benefit.

Look behind the brand at the stores, the products and the sales and marketing techniques, and Tesco becomes a fascinating case study for bus operators inspired to position themselves positively to existing and new customers. Naturally, therefore, the Tesco article caught my attention and I read it.

The article on Yahoo! wasn’t long, and didn’t contain any great detail, but it nevertheless opened my mind and made me think about what we could learn from Tesco.

The story behind the revamp was explained as follows…

“Like other retailers, Tesco, which makes about two-thirds of its revenue in Britain, has seen online shopping, rising petrol prices and weak consumer spending curb the need for its largest stores and their big ticket items, with supermarkets now betting more heavily on online and smaller local convenience stores.

“To tempt shoppers back into their cars, Tesco is reinventing some of its near 250 out-of-town stores into leisure destinations for families. Unused space is being developed to house everything from artisan coffee shop Harris + Hoole and an upmarket bakery, to a clothing department, restaurant chain Giraffe and community space for yoga and baby classes.

“Other concepts being trailed include nail bars, hairdressing areas and gyms. It will open two more revamped stores next week.”

What on earth is Morgan-Huws on about now I hear the naysayers cry! Yoga on the town service and nail bars in the bus station?

I’m not suggesting that we take the initiatives too literally, but look at what Tesco is doing; finding new ways of getting people to visit its stores. Creating footfall; reasons for people who have drifted off to come into their stores for a secondary purpose, then hopefully shop there too?

You see, my real point is that Tesco has recognised that it is no longer good enough to just expect that people will come into its stores to buy their shopping, and other items while they are there. They realise that there is a benefit to providing non-core reasons for people to visit their stores. It must follow that they know that there is a barrier to getting people into their store, and once that barrier is overcome it leads people to shop there that wouldn’t otherwise do so.

And what is the relevance to the bus industry? Well I think that the issue is an even greater one for us. Our customers don’t use our buses because they like travelling on buses. Few buy a bus ticket just so they can go for a ride. So in terms of growing our footfall, and getting more people to buy our products, we are at an even greater disadvantage than retailers like Tesco. We don’t really control the reasons for travel. Employers, retailers, tourism providers and marketing bodies, leisure operators, prisons and hospitals are the drivers for our success.

If we do nothing, then we will only benefit from customers who have been persuaded by a third party of the need to buy our products. There is a real danger that as local bus operators, we sit back pretty much reliant on the need of customers to travel on our buses, simply as the means to get to someone else’s product or service – driven by a desire not for our product, but for another over which we have no control.

I’m not knocking the great work good operators do in making bus travel more attractive; marketing the options, value for money and the quality of the product, attractively and with a degree of sophistication. But, as I said earlier, we are not really the reason people travel by bus. So, if we want to grow our businesses; if we want to do what great retailers like Tesco are doing – maximise every opportunity to increase our sales – then we need to work harder to influence and create the reasons for people to travel on our buses.

Take an open top tour; not a great example of mainstream bus business, but a clear example I can use to explain the logic we need to adopt. I’ve run open top tours between tourist attractions over the years. On one of those, we partnered with a zoo park – the zoo was the attractor that had the potential to get more people on our tour. We marketed the attractions with the tour, and with those ‘emerging’ attractions and those who didn’t have the resources to invest in advertising, we gave them the advertising for free. The zoo park gained two full rear end adverts on our two open top buses. The logic was obvious to me – advertise the zoo with the bus, and we’ll get more people on our buses. Then along comes someone who removes the advertising because the zoo park wasn’t paying the going rate for the adverts – today the same buses still run the tour, but with plain blank rear ends!

So my point is that we have to understand what we can do to grow customers on our buses; valuing things like advertising space not by the equivalent price that Viacom would charge, but by what it can grow our revenue by.

Surely as bus operators we should be promoting and advertising the reasons to travel – shopping centres, leisure centres, beaches, walking opportunities, cinemas, all manner of activities that potential customers would use buses to reach.

Perhaps we concentrate too hard on promoting leather seats and WiFi; perhaps we should rebalance our promotion by spending more of our resources and imagination promoting those destinations and activities that could attract more reasons to travel and more people to travel.

But perhaps Tesco’s ideas for its stores may have something directly transferable in them too. Perhaps we should look at our underutilised and undervalued bus stations and think about what we could do with empty areas of those properties, from the closed kiosk to shops and offices. Perhaps we could find community groups, organisations and fledgling businesses to provide opportunities in them that could drive business onto our services and into these bus station?

As the folks at Tesco say, ‘every little helps’.


About the author:

Prior to forming tcuk (Transport Consultants UK), Marc Morgan Huws worked for Go-Ahead Group as a divisional director at its Go South Coast business. He has previous experience in the local government, campaign management and public affairs




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