Something has been niggling me about Tesco’s new discount supermarket chain, Jack’s. Obviously, Tesco is entitled to take on the likes of Aldi and Lidl and, in this era of food banks, it’s difficult to argue against cheap produce. If the reports from the first Jack’s store, in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire (“80% British”; “Cheap alcohol”; “Like shopping 30 years ago”) make the general ambience sound a bit like a low-cost grocery emporium that you might find in a third-wave-austerity theme park, then that’s just a sign of the times.
What I’m concerned about is what Jack’s (named after Tesco’s founder, Jacob “Jack” Cohen) might be saying about an evolution in retail segregation. While different supermarket chains are obviously aimed at different people, on varying incomes, there’s something about Jack’s that whiffs a little too strongly of poorer customers being rather unsubtly “zoned”, and in a way that steers them well clear of the core Tesco brand. Basically, I’m concerned about why Jack’s is called Jack’s.
Obviously, this type of zoning goes on throughout retail. At the opposite extreme to Jack’s, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop opens a pop-up store in London (from this week until January). With its famously high-end ludicrous musings, products and prices (vaginal steam-cleaning, Brain Dust supplements, a mere £11,500 for a gold-plated sex toy), Goop’s $250m-niche boutique concept (basically Space NK for rich, gullible simpletons) is clearly not catering for the austerity pound. Brands such as Goop are probably wary of being contaminated by the mega-discount market. However, so seemingly is Tesco.
Which brings us back to the question of why Jack’s is called Jack’s and for this particular venture? Tesco is a good supermarket chain, but it’s not Fortnum & Mason – it doesn’t have a luxurious image to protect. Therefore, conceivably, it could have just done its own branded mega-discount range in-store. It could have riffed on the existing Tesco Value range, even opened next-level (Tesco Budget?) stores. It could have used the huge asset of the Tesco brand name, as it has frequently done before (Tesco Direct, Tesco Bank, Tesco Mobile). The fact that, this time, for this enterprise, Tesco opted to keep the Tesco name more or less out of it seems significant and ever so slightly creepy.
Maybe I’m paranoid and Jack’s really is just a homage. However, a suspicious mind might wonder whether Tesco is endeavouring to protect its core brand from the “contamination” of discount shopping. Whether it wants the increasingly lucrative discount shopper pound, but not the actual shoppers – for very poor people to be overly associated with Tesco.
Tesco is the only major chain to pointedly distance itself this way or maybe just the first – a portent of supermarkets to come? (“Poor people over there.”) In this way, Tesco and Goop are both engaged in full-on retail segregation – but only one is being upfront about it. With Jack’s, it’s not the produce that got rebranded, it’s the consumers.
• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist