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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 April 2007, 07:12 GMT 08:12 UK
Neighbourhood watch on Tesco growth
By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News

Tesco store in St Margaret's, Surrey
The residential location of Express stores has inevitably caused friction

It is just before 7am on a Sunday morning and you are sorely in need of a pint of milk and perhaps some aspirin.

It is a relief that your local Tesco Express is just about to open and that it also has a plentiful supply of pastries as well as your newspaper of choice.

Having a Tesco convenience store just down the road may justifiably be seen as a luxury by many people.

But Tesco's extraordinary growth - further evidence of which has emerged as it unveiled its annual profits of 2.55bn - is making this a reality in more and more parts of the country.

The Express convenience chain is Tesco's fastest growing format, both in the UK and abroad, and one of its most lucrative operations.

Expanding and diversifying

There are now about 750 stores in the UK and although opening rates slowed slightly last year due to expensive property prices, the chain is set to hit the 1,000 mark in the next two to three years.

At the same time, existing stores are expanding and diversifying.

In addition to their staple range of fresh bread, canned goods, ready meals and alcohol, they are starting to sell non-food goods such as books and CDs.

Tesco has said it is trying to synchronise deliveries. The improvements have taken a long time to come through
Ben Khosa, councillor, Richmond Borough Council

Most Express stores are in town centres or city suburbs, often close to railway stations and other transport links, ensuring a high level of passing trade.

These are often residential areas, giving the stores a ready customer base, but making it essential they maintain good relations with local communities.

Inevitably, the cheek-by-jowl location of many of these stores has led to friction.

"The Tesco store is an asset and I think its representatives have shown a willingness to work with the community, but I think they could do more," says Ben Khosa, who represents the Liberal Democrats on Richmond Borough Council in south west London.

He has fielded numerous complaints about the Tesco store in neighbouring St Margaret's, mainly due to the traffic chaos it caused after it opened.

Several delivery vans often pulled up outside at the same time, blocking access to the bus stop on the High Street and causing long tailbacks.

Delivery of bread to Tesco Express store in Kew, west London
Delivery times have angered people living near some stores

"Tesco has said it is trying to control its fleet of vans and synchronise deliveries.

"The improvements have taken a long time to come through and it has taken a lot of head bashing. It has been a little bit slow in coming for my liking."

Agreement may have been reached in this instance - only one van can now wait outside the store at any one time - but similar tensions are simmering across the UK.

Opening hours

Most of these concerns surround the noise and congestion generated by the stores, which often open 16 hours a day - 7am to 11pm - seven days a week.

They are not far off being 24/7 hour operations, and their emphasis on fresh food means deliveries can take place late at night or early in the morning.

Add in the bright lights and litter which are inevitable features of any retailer, and it is clear some people regard them as an ubiquitous nuisance rather than a real convenience.

When Tesco was refused a licence to sell alcohol at a new Express store in Bournville - a non-drinking village near Birmingham - earlier this year, it was widely portrayed as a victory for old-fashioned community values against the onslaught of ravenous consumerism.

The first Express store opened in 1994. Up to 3,000 square feet, they sell 7,000 product lines. They make up about 5% of Tesco's UK retail space

One Tesco critic says the firm should understand that some sites are not suitable for Express stores due to their size and location.

"Delivery lorries arrive at all hours causing even more noise and congestion," says Rex Needle, from Bourne in Lincolnshire, where Tesco bought a petrol station from Esso in 2002.

He says disruption has increased significantly since then and he is worried about the knock-on effect on the town's conservation area, which the store borders.

"Planning permission allowed it to become an off licence and the result is one of the worst planning blunders in Lincolnshire in recent times."

'Good neighbour' policy

Always attuned to public opinion, Tesco moved last autumn to address some of the concerns about the wider social impact of its Express stores.

It has redesigned many shop fronts to make them less obtrusive and more in keeping with their surroundings and is currently reviewing noise levels and delivery patterns to stores.

Deliveries have already been banned at certain times while smaller vans are being used to reduce noise and limit congestion.

Van delivering bread to Tesco store in Kew, west London
Suppliers have been encouraged to use smaller vans

These efforts are part of the firm's "good neighbour" approach to convenience store retailing in urban areas, one of ten objectives laid out in its community action plan.

Keeping customers onside should not be rocket science and Tesco has, so far, proved itself adept at staying one step ahead of the criticism its substantial market power has attracted.

With their attractive mixture of low prices, wide ranges and long opening hours, Express stores have a large body of fans, dismissive of what they say is the hypocrisy of their critics.

"People complain but then they go into the shop" says one resident of the south west London suburb of Kew, who lives a few doors down from an Express store.

She says complaints about the frequency of deliveries are misplaced, arguing that other stores are as bad if not worse than Tesco.

"It is ridiculous. They have to deliver."

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