The company was founded by Jack Cohen in 1919, selling wholesale goods to market traders in London's East End. Cohen expanded his business into high street shops, but it wasn't until 1929 that the name 'Tesco' first appeared, above a lock-up in north London. The name is an amalgamation of TE Stockwell - a partner in the firm - and Cohen.
By 1939 Cohen was running a chain of 100 branches and, after the war, was in a position to float the company on the Stock Exchange. The company opened its first self-service supermarket in Malden in 1956.
Rapid expansion followed as the company went national and started selling non-food products in 1960, then opened the UK's first superstore, in Crawley, Sussex, in 1968. This was when the battle for out-of-town supremacy began, coinciding with the large increases in car ownership.
Supermarkets were growing fast in the consumer boom of the 1960s and Tesco responded with a major innovation, its famous Green Shield Stamps, which customers could collect and redeem against household items. The programme ran until 1977, when Tesco aggressively targeted Sainsbury's with a price-cutting drive called 'Checkout at Tesco'. The promotion was a turning point for the retailer and is regarded as the start of its rise to supremacy.
But the real thrust came in the 1980s, when Tesco raised £145m for a superstore development programme and invested £500m in building 30 new stores. It also set about altering perceptions of its brand after extensive research revealed that Sainsbury's had a better reputation for quality and service and was even making inroads into Tesco's traditional strength of offering the best value for money.
Tesco, with a new agency in Lowes, responded with its 'Quest for Quality' advertising campaign, kicking off in 1990 with ads starring Dudley Moore as a Tesco buyer scouring the world for free-range chickens. On his travels, Moore discovered other quality products that would sell well at Tesco.
The campaign, which broke new ground for injecting humour into supermarket advertising, had a dramatic effect on Tesco's image as a quality store.
Another crucial initiative in turning the tide was the 'Every Little Helps' campaign, launched in 1993. The strategy of highlighting Tesco's attention to detail in its quest to improve the overall shopping experience for its customers was a huge success. The retailer launched more than 100 different initiatives, including baby changing facilities, parent and child parking and removing sweets from checkouts, which it communicated in a series of ads, culminating in 1995.
In the same year, Tesco made arguably its most important tactical move in the 'supermarket wars' by launching Tesco Clubcard, the loyalty scheme famously dismissed by David Sainsbury as "electronic Green Shield Stamps".
The scheme, whereby customers can collect redeemable points on their purchases, allowed Tesco to begin building a database of its customers' shopping preferences. This invaluable intelligence allowed Tesco to target its customers with special offers according to their likes and dislikes, and kicked off the customer loyalty boom of the mid-1990s. Soon, every retailer had a scheme like it, including Sainsbury's.
In 1996, Tesco led the field again by launching an internet shopping service, Tesco.com. Originally only available in London, the service now covers 95% of the UK and, in 2001, moved into profitability (an amazing feat, given the difficulty of making a profit in the world of e-business).
As these mammoth initiatives helped it edge past Sainsbury's to claim market leadership, Tesco changed its advertising strategy with the launch of a campaign starring Prunella Scales as Dotty, the 'mother of all shoppers'.
With her daughter, played by Jane Horrocks, Dotty puts Tesco's customer-friendly initiatives to the test, including shopping in the middle of the night. Now in its seventh year, the campaign remains the centrepiece of Tesco's annual £24m advertising spend (ACNielsen MMS).
The company continues to confound analysts with its turbo-charged growth, announcing profits of £1.2bn for 2001 and a plan to open 80 new stores.
It is also expanding rapidly overseas, with 65,000 staff working in nine countries.
It's all a far cry from Jack Cohen's market stall in the 1920s, but all business empires have to start somewhere.
Tesco founder Jack Cohen starts market stall business
Opens the UK's first superstore in Crawley, Sussex. Tesco is at the
forefront of the trend toward expanding choice and catering for
consumers with cars
Launches Tesco Metro inner-city stores, followed by Tesco Express in
1994. The focus on convenience shopping breaks new ground for
supermarkets and the format has been widely copied
Launch of Tesco Clubcard. It now has 10 million members. This year also
sees Tesco overtake Sainsbury's as the UK's biggest supermarket
Tesco.com is first UK supermarket to offer online shopping and home
delivery. It is spun off as a separate business division in 2000 and
moved into profitability in 2001
Tesco's profits hit £1bn.