Tesco hits back at critics with new public relations offensive

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Tesco has rounded off a year that saw even the country's top competition watchdog weigh into the debate about its power with an attempt to slap down its critics.

The supermarket group, which takes 30 per cent of everything spent on UK groceries, has attacked claims that it stifles consumer choice, forces independent shops out of business, bullies suppliers and destroys town centres.

Tesco invited its shoppers to air their views on its Talking Tesco website, which it set up "to give consumers a voice" during the Competition Commission's inquiry into the £100bn grocery sector.

It has replied to some of its most vocal foes, including Lady Caroline Cranbrook, a rural campaigner, and Danny Alexander, MP for Inverness, batting off claims that Tesco stores are bad for the local area.

It said a telephone survey of residents in Inverness, where Tesco has three outlets and is planning a fourth, found that 95 per cent of shoppers "are satisfied with their shopping experience". It did not say how many people it polled.

In response to Lady Caroline's assertion that supermarkets are unable to deliver innovation or consumer choice, Tesco pointed to 8,000 new lines it introduced from 300 new suppliers. These included the Welsh Whisky Company, which doubled its staff to 20 after supplying 11,000 bottles to Tesco last year.

The supermarket chain is opening five regional buying offices to help fledgling food producers, such as the Cornish-based Incredible Fruitcake Company, to access its shelves.

Tesco gave a long defence of its project in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, to build a store over a railway track. Work is still on hold after the new tunnel collapsed in June 2005, pending a decision from Network Rail about the safety of the design.

Tesco said that the store would attract shoppers who today are "shopping in towns up to 20 miles away, reducing road miles and bringing shoppers into the town". It also described the site as an "edge of town-centre site".

Residents picked flaws in its claims, pointing out that just 5.5 miles away is Tesco's large Slough outlet, with others nearby in Amersham, Chesham and Uxbridge. One resident said: "The store is in the centre of a village and is out of all proportion to the retail units that surround it. Someone hasn't done their homework if they think it's on the edge of a town centre."

Tesco is still digesting a report from Costain, its new contractors, and Scott Wilson, its new structural engineers, about the viability of the project and said it would be in a position to make a decision about whether to proceed "very soon".

The Competition Commission will publish its initial findings on its investigation into Tesco's market share in January.