Boycott helpline at Tesco

Press one for Israel, callers are told

By Marcus Dysch, April 7, 2009

Pro-Israel groups have attacked Tesco for setting up a customer helpline for those considering boycotting Israeli goods.

Tesco says it provided the service in expectation of calls questioning its stocking of products from Israel and the West Bank.

Callers selecting the general information option on its customer helpline hear the recorded message: “If you are ringing regarding Israeli goods, please press one.” They are then connected to specially-trained call centre staff.

A Tesco spokesman claimed the dedicated line — introduced for “functionality” reasons after increased inquiries during the Gaza conflict in January — was removed on Monday. But it was still available when the JC rang later on. Tesco does not offer a similar service regarding products from elsewhere.

Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Morrisons said their helplines did not carry Israel-specific information.

Zionist Federation co-vice-chair Jonathan Hoffman said Israel had been made a scapegoat. “The risk is that supermarkets will say it’s too much of a problem to stock Israeli goods.”

Manchester customer Stephen Specterman was “fuming” after discovering the service when he rang Tesco about internet shopping. “A young man came on and I told him I’d pressed out of curiosity. He said they had two stores where people had wanted to know whether they stocked Israeli goods. I told him I had a bias against Iran for supporting Hamas and asked if they would set up a line for me. When he said no I asked why they were just picking on Israel. They have allowed themselves to be politically influenced.”

The Tesco spokesman later grudgingly conceded that the move may have been a mistake: “We have had very few calls [to the line]. In hindsight there may have been no need. It was pre-emptive in expecting boycott calls.

“I cannot see how anybody has been offended by this,” he added angrily. Call centre staff had been told to explain the company’s stance on Israeli products — that it uses labelling as advised by the EU — and not to discuss other matters.

Last week, the Cabinet Office hosted a meeting of food retailers, producers and suppliers to discuss the labelling of products from the West Bank.

It was agreed that the Department of Food would draw up guidelines, but there is no specific time-frame, nor intention, to introduce legislation.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign ran a “mass boycott” operation in the days before the meeting, encouraging supporters to telephone Tesco and Waitrose to question their stance on Israeli settlement products. Both supermarkets said they had not experienced a drop in sales of Israeli goods since January and had not altered their marketing or display procedures.

Last updated: 4:37pm, April 7 2009