For many students, the Tesco on Market Street is quietly a central part of life. Though it is by no means the most exciting destination in town, many find themselves in it every day, whether to pick up groceries for the week, alcohol for a night out, or a quick meal deal in between classes.
Over the summer, several changes were made to the store’s internal layout, creating some chaotic lines at busy hours of the day. Many, including myself, thought the changes were connected to crime prevention. Towards the end of last semester, there had already been a notable increase in the number of security cameras in the store.
I emailed the store to find out what spurred the recent changes. Soon, I found myself journeying into Tesco’s elusive upstairs section (perhaps not as exciting as it seems — it largely just contains offices and areas for staff to congregate and leave their belongings) and sitting down with the store’s manager, Gillian Cunningham.
Beyond simply explaining the changes over the summer Cunningham gave valuable insight into the ins and outs of managing a local supermarket. She has been working at Tesco for 28 years, starting out on part time shifts at the checkouts and making her way up the hierarchy to store manager, a role she has had for roughly 20 years — the past seven of which have been in St Andrews.
Earlier this year, rumours seemed to spread the false notion that the store’s recent changes were designed to prevent crime. But while crime is sometimes a problem, there’s not much the management can do about it, Cunningham said.
Generally speaking, shoplifting won’t be noticed until it’s too late. At that point, all the store can do is send CCTV footage on to the police, hoping they might recognize the perpetrator.
“Crime is an issue, absolutely. Most of our unknown loss comes from shoplifting, primarily of alcohol”, Cunningham said. “People are desperate, and not necessarily just driven by what you would expect shoplifting to be driven by, which is addiction to alcohol or drugs. People have less money, and they need to eat.”
But some are driven by vices, Cunningham said, stealing alcohol from stores to trade it on the street for drugs and other narcotics.
“It’s like- ‘I’ll give you that, if you give me that’”, Cunningham said. “Alcohol is the [most commonly stolen item], because it’s expensive. And that’s where we lose most of our money.”
“But, the whole layout was nothing to do with crime”, she added. “[The change] will have slowed [potential thieves] down, because you now have entrance and exit gates. But that was not the purpose of [the changes]”.
Tesco also has initiatives with other local organisations working to provide food for community members living below the poverty line, which Cunningham said could help keep people from becoming so desperate they need to steal food from their local supermarket.
“When people have found themselves in desperate situations, they have been able to go to…. all these charities that are able to supply people with food”, Cunningham said. “That’s so they don’t…. go and do something as desperate as steal food.”
So if it wasn’t because of crime, what were the changes for? Ultimately, it largely came down to some re-aligning at the national level.
In May 2021, Tesco decided to disband the ‘Metro stores’ — its mid-sized retail locations — breaking 58 of them into smaller ‘express’ stores and sizing 89 into larger ‘superstores.’ The St Andrews’ Tesco was turned into an Express, requiring a change in the layout of its checkout points.
Other changes involved the store reassessing its stock to ensure it wasn’t selling too little or too much of any single item (apparently it had been selling a whole 50 different brands of mayonnaise). Another notable change was adding gates both at the entrance and exits of the store.
Customers have responded warmly to the new look — which some say is larger and more spacious — Cunningham said
“The feedback in the main is really good. The customers like the fact that everything is together. They love the fact that there’s more space in the foyer when you walk in, because it used to be really congested, really tight”, Cunningham said.
Many have noted the busier checkout lines around noon, though, which Cunningham said often snakes into the wines and spirits aisles. The problem behind it might have been caused by an execution gap, she said.
“The only thing that we need to do differently is create a proper queueing system. Because we, as British citizens, just join a queue, don’t we?”, Cunningham said. “Everything always works on paper. It’s not until you have the practicality of it that you start to see that maybe things could be a little bit different.”
The store has since made some tweaks to the queueing areas to better organise and separate the respective checkouts. That hasn’t solved the congestion issue entirely. Peak times, particularly when many students are entering the store after lectures, around lunch and dinner, are always busy. But it seems to have largely eliminated the confusion around which lines everyone should be standing in.
For many St Andrews students, the local Tesco is where they will purchase the majority of their food and supplies. To make sure they have a say in how the store is run, Cunningham encouraged students to take the time to fill out a viewpoint survey on their experiences at Tesco. The forms can be accessed via QR codes either on the bottom of a Tesco receipt or at the checkouts.
“If you love it, tell us you love it”, Cunningham said. “If there’s things that we can do differently then tell us.”
For Cunningham, that’s important. The store is a staple for many students — and she wants to be there for them.
“We love having the students. It’s great, the town’s vibrant”, Cunningham said. “You are all very respectful in the shop. It’s such a pleasure having you here.”
To make them loyal customers, it isn’t just about being a convenient one-stop-shop for every grocery need. It’s about building a relationship
“We’re here to serve, at the end of the day”, Cunningham said. “We want the store to be really successful, and we want everybody to come here through loyalty not just because it’s convenient — although we are very convenient.”
Photo: Tom Story