Supermarkets: Britain's new barons battle for shopping supremacy

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The Independent Online
They have reshaped British towns and cities, changed our eating habits, made and broken hundreds of small businesses, and wield huge political and financial power. The supermarket chains are the new barons of Britain, and the `big four' are engag ed in a deadly battle for supremacy. The tastes and habits of consumers are the battleground. So how are they trying to win us, and what does their struggle mean for the British way of life? Ian Burrell and Jojo Moyes begin a four-part series on British supermarkets, profiling the big four and analysing their power.A generation ago, Tesco and Sainsbury were just shops in the high street. But their metamorphosis from grocers to out-of-town superstores has transfigured the British urban landscape almost beyond recognition. The price of convenience has been an increase in traffic pollution and inadequate nutrition among the inner-city poor.

The planners now admit that they got it wrong. Allowing the unchecked march of the supermarkets to new sites on the leafy fringes of Britain's towns and cities created a host of social and environmental problems.

"They got planning permission far too easily," said Chris Griffin, of the National Housing and Town Planning Council. "That has been to the detriment of town centres."

For his predecessors, the planners of the Sixties and Seventies, the problems were far less obvious. Supermarkets offered to build extra roads and expansive car parks to accommodate their customers and cause minimal inconvenience. Some bartered with planning officers by promising to build health or community centres.

The result is that today Britain has more than 1,000 superstores, while in town shopping centres many stores are empty and derelict.

Mr Griffin said: "Lots of green fields have gone and some sites of special scientific interest have gone. Then again, a lot of people would say shopping is easier these days."

As the stores have moved out of town, so the shoppers have followed in their cars. In the past 20 years, shopping travel has increased by 300 miles per person per year. The proportion of shopping trips made in the car has increased from 32 per cent to 50 per cent over the same period.

Simon Festing, planning campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said the out-of-town supermarkets had contributed to suburban sprawl and increased car dependency. "The retail trip is one of the fastest rising sectors of traffic growth," he said.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is thought to be considering the imposition of a tax on supermarkets for the provision of free parking, as a way of encouraging the use of public transport.

Despite the building of access roads, some of the out-of-town supermarkets have created traffic congestion which is now at crisis point. In the Newbury area, where environmental protesters have repeatedly clashed with developers attempting to build a bypass, many locals trace the roots of the problem to the building of two out-of-town supermarkets, whose car- borne customers now clog up the original bypass.

But the supermarkets' colonisation of the green fields has enabled what were once family-run grocery concerns to grow into the blue-chip monoliths which offer the British consumer a quality of service and breadth of choice unparalleled in equivalent stores anywhere else in the world.

While the largest high-street sites offered only 10,000 square feet of space, the supermarkets - Asda and Tesco especially - have been willing to spend upwards of pounds 20m on building stores of up to 40,000sq ft. David Hughes, professor of agriculture at Wye College, London University, said: "We've got cars. We like to do one-stop shopping and it was impossible to provide that in the centre of town."

Lord MacLaurin, chairman of Tesco, is widely credited for first spotting the potential of out-of-town shopping - setting up "Operation Checkout", which transformed the company's financial position.

The scale of operation of the big four - Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Safeway - has enabled them to drive down cost and price. High-street stores cannot compete: a generation ago, there were 40,000 independent retailers. Now there are barely 10,000. Grocers are closing at the rate of 800 a year, butchers by over 1,000 a year. Similarly, the number of market traders has halved in the last four years.

Douglas Henderson, chief executive of the Food Produce Consortium, pointed out that 30 per cent of the population does not have access to cars. "Elderly people and those on low incomes find getting to supermarkets extremely difficult," he said. "We have a growth now of people who are becoming nutritionally vulnerable."

He said there were many areas in the country, such as parts of Glasgow, where nutritional food was simply not available. "As a social consequence of the collapse of the independent retailers, people are getting their energy from the fat on chips," he said.

But there are signs that out-of-town shopping may have peaked. new curbs on the building of new superstores are beginning to take effect. Furthermore, says Richard Hyman, chairman of Verdict Research, which monitors the sector, out-of-town superstores are at saturation point. "It's the law of diminishing returns. Many people now have access to three or four superstores competing in the same area."