Asda faces social media boycott backlash after declaring independent Scotland retail costs could rise

UK retailer Asda faced accusations of interfering with the Scottish referendum from social media users on Thursday after its CEO and president Andy Clarke declared that supermarkets would incur significant costs setting up new Scottish operations.

The supermarket's head, on Thursday pitched into the debate, less than a week from its conclusion, announcing that the price of goods in an independent Scotland would rise.

The comments also contradicted a previous Herald column, published in December last year, in which he claimed Scottish prices would drop if an independent Scottish government revoked the levy tax - saving the supermarket, and allegedly consumers, £2bn a year.

Andy Clarke, president and chief executive of Asda, said: “This is a matter for the people of Scotland, but as the leader of a business with a large presence in Scotland there is no excuse to remain a spectator. I would be ducking my responsibility if I didn’t offer an honest assessment of what independence could mean for Asda.

“It will be no surprise to voters that, if Scotland votes for independence, it would be imperative to establish a separate Scottish business. Currently, our systems are set up for one single UK market, we use the same currency and we operate under the same rates of VAT. By operating in a market serving 63 million customers we achieve major efficiencies and economies of scale.

“If we were no longer to operate in one state with one market and – broadly – one set of rules, our business model would inevitably become more complex. We would have to reflect our cost to operate here.

Clarke added: "This is not an argument for or against independence, it is simply an honest recognition of the costs that change could bring. For us the customer is always right and this important decision is in their hands."

The comments aggravated social media users, especially those in the Yes camp, who even called for a boycott of the supermarket.

This turn of events could send customers towards Aldi and Lidl instead warned Mike McGrail, digital marketing director and founder of Velocity Digital.

McGrail told the Drum: "​For Asda to step in now and start communicating with the negators on social media wouldn't be a wise move, the volume of tweets has been large and people have been really riled (as they have been with Waitrose et al). Any attempt to engage with the public now would most likely lead to further negativity and only serve to fan the flames. ​

"You'd like to think that Asda would've been aware of the likelihood of a public backlash and made a decision how how to deal with the social media fallout. If they were to have got involved online, it would really have to have been a swift and measured response, as leaving things to stew is rarely a wise move in social."

"Will people back up their tweets and boycott their stores? I would imagine that many Yes supporters actually will, but Lidl and Aldi will be jumping for joy at the news."

McGrail added: "Whether it has a long-term effect on business remains to be seen - people are very emotionally charged in Scotland just now and it may be that people are back at Asda tills after a short-term boycott."

Many voters took to Twitter to complain about the comments from Asda. Clarke’s stance seemed to alienate Yes voters who were upset with what they called an intervention in the referendum.

Additionally, 1,260 Twitter users used the hashtag ‘#boycottasda’ between Thursday and Friday, according to Topsy Analytics social media tool.

Morrisons on Thursday offered a conflicting view declaring that prices could actually decrease in an independent Scotland.

This comes after both the Guardian and the Scotsman declared for the no campaign earlier this week.