Trolley Wars: The Battle Of The Supermarkets, by Judi Bevan

Walking up the aisles: how Tesco wooed us
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The Independent Culture

When in doubt, blame supermarkets. As we struggle to understand why our nation is so fat, our high streets so bland, our farmers so poor, our out-of-season tomatoes so tasteless, the finger of blame is pointed straight at the giants of food retailing that so dominate our lives. The power of the once-humble shopkeeper was illustrated by the recent revelation that Tesco, the country's biggest supermarket chain, had become the first UK retailer to break the £2bn profit barrier. Getting there, it had helped itself to £1 in every £8 we spend on the high street.

When in doubt, blame supermarkets. As we struggle to understand why our nation is so fat, our high streets so bland, our farmers so poor, our out-of-season tomatoes so tasteless, the finger of blame is pointed straight at the giants of food retailing that so dominate our lives. The power of the once-humble shopkeeper was illustrated by the recent revelation that Tesco, the country's biggest supermarket chain, had become the first UK retailer to break the £2bn profit barrier. Getting there, it had helped itself to £1 in every £8 we spend on the high street.

Yet the growing backlash against the likes of Tesco, the US-owned Asda and even poor old struggling J Sainsbury fails to take account of the flip-side: that supermarkets have also been a force for good. This is Judi Bevan's starting point in Trolley Wars, her attempt to tell the story of a corporate phenomenon.

Her timely book charts the rise of the big four supermarkets that control three-quarters of the grocery market (the fifth, Safeway, was acquired by Wm Morrison for £3bn last year). Bevan's focus is on how the upstart Tesco managed to elbow its aristocratic rival, Sainsbury's, out of the lucrative top slot. The battle lines were drawn decades ago, when the onset of consumerism in the 1960s marked the end of postwar austerity. The book is part biography, and throughout the early chapters you find yourself willing "costermonger'" Jack Cohen, who founded Tesco from an East End market stall with his demob cheque, to trounce the "smug" Sainsbury's.

Bevan provides colourful case histories for the business student, yet there is plenty to interest any reader with a passing interest in shopping. As much social as corporate history, the book stresses that victory for each combatant hinges on its ability to catch each changing trend. Thus Morrisons and Asda steal an early march over Tesco and Sainsbury's by favouring edge-of-town "big box" stores over their high-street counterparts as soon as car ownership makes one-stop shopping practicable.

Trolley Wars may not have all the answers to how Tesco has beaten its rivals, but it deserves credit for trying to find them. What Bevan does hammer home is that supermarkets are a scale business. Which is why Walmart's purchase five years ago of Asda struck such fear into even the likes of the Tesco boss, Sir Terry Leahy. Her description of the cat-and-mouse antics that led to the disposal of Safeway makes you question why it was not sold sooner.

Given all the takeover speculation surrounding Sainsbury's, the most pertinent revelation of the entire book could turn out to be a throwaway comment by its president, Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover - JD, as he is known. He is said to have confided to one friend: "Our only hope of survival is to be taken out."

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