Pie-eyed in the battle of the buns

In all of marketing there is no battleground bloodier than the nation’s high streets. The conflict is unceasing; there are no outright victories – mere survival is a form of triumph; but defeats abound, the death toll is high, and even the mighty can fall.

Who would have thought, just a year ago, that those two swaggering giants, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer, would today be laid low, eyes terror struck, cold steel at their throats? Ah well, sic transit gloria mundi, as Thomas ÃÂ Kempis moodily reflected as he pushed his trolley to the eight-items-or-less checkout. (That should, by the way, be eight items or fewer, but who goes to Asda for grammar?)

Given the intensity of the conflict, it is understandable that to emerge top of the heap is to enjoy a heady elation of the kind imparted by a whiff of laughing gas.

Such, for the time being, is the experience of Tesco, which, until Ian MacLaurin took over some years ago, was itself a basket case. There are disturbing signs, however, that the company is suffering from folie de grandeur. Then again, it could be punch drunk.

The evidence is accumulating piece by piece. First, the store announced that its Hastings branch would be open one night a week for the sole use of nudists. The windows would be blackened to protect the naked shoppers from intrusive eyes and the shoppers would wear plastic pinnies to protect the fruit and veg from intrusive privy parts.

In its facetious way, this column suggested that the spectacle of a junoesque, naked lady shopper sashaying around a gondola end might remind others to add melons to their basket. There is no greater folly than to speak in jest. For just a couple of weeks ago Tesco revealed that retail psychologists had advised it to reduce the size of melons to keep pace with the current fashion for smaller breasts. What of the lady naturists of Hastings, whose pendulous melons cannot be shrunk at will to conform to the dictates of fashion?

The suspicion that the gods might wish to destroy Tesco gathered strength last week with the supermarket’s announcement that it was subjecting its cream cakes and custard pies to ballistic tests after a new craze for cake-throwing raised concerns for safety.

Aspects of this report suggest that Tesco is suffering from delirium popularis, the medical term for those who are crazed by publicity. Those skilled at spotting a phoney will have looked askance at the chain’s claim that the trend for throwing pies was “first noticed by checkout staff, who reported a surge of enquiries about which cakes would make the best, and safest, missiles”.

What constitutes a surge? Ten enquiries? A dozen, maybe? Are we being invited seriously to believe that the figure runs into many hundreds? For if it doesn’t, it must be counted infinitesimal as a percentage of those shopping weekly at Tesco, and therefore be unworthy of consideration. Secondly, who would ask a supermarket checkout person for advice on anything more challenging than the whereabouts of a plastic bag? Common experience suggests they are hard put to recognise a grapefruit when they see one, let alone provide sound information on the aerodynamic qualities of a cream tart.

Thirdly, and for much the same reason, even assuming that customers in their droves enquired about cake-flinging, it is unlikely that the torpid checkout staff would report the matter to a higher authority.

Further evidence that the whole thing has been got up comes from Alan Page, a Tesco spokesman, who said: “We have a legal responsibility to make sure that all the food we sell complies with the Food Safety Act, regardless of how it is subsequently used.”

Even allowing for the fact that the law is an ass, that must be drivel. There is nothing in the Food Safety Act, nor any other legislation that I know of, that compels retailers to take account of the unusual or perverse use of foodstuffs. If there were, for example, a sudden craze for consuming sardines per rectum (anything goes in Mr Blair’s exciting, classless new Britain), nothing on the Statute Book or in common law would oblige Tesco’s staff to push small fish into each other’s bottoms, the better to advise customers.

Yet we are told that Tesco personnel were sent to a gym to fling pies at one another and model figures from a range of four feet. Moreover, according to Mr Page, further tests “in the splatter and ballistics properties of key ranges of lemon meringue pies, fruit tarts and egg custards” are to be conducted. Nor could he resist intruding upon the territory that is the proper reserve of those whose profession is facetiousness. Warning against buying frozen rather than fresh cakes, he said: “Getting clobbered by a partially defrosted gateau could cause serious injury so we would strongly recommend defrosting these products thoroughly in a microwave or not using them at all.”

Not everyone is amused. After the report appeared, a reader wrote to a national newspaper to express his profound disgust at Tesco’s contemptible encouragement to squander “luxury food” and to announce that he was handing back his loyalty card.

Not quite the same as returning an MBE, but a warning nevertheless. Publicity-crazed frivolity carries a price.

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