What recession? If you want to make money, invest in a supermarket. Last week Morrisons shares rose after they reported a sales increase of 8.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2009. Tesco increased sales by 10 per cent over the past year, delivering a record £3.13bn profit. Sainsbury's profits were up 11.3 per cent to £543m, which means their boss takes home about £6m in pay and bonuses. And, even though Marks and Spencer's profits plummeted by 40 per cent to £604m, which meant shareholders get a reduced dividend, it turns out that directors will still receive bonuses of 11.25 per cent of their salaries, even when profits fall 10 per cent below internal targets. If they only manage to achieve these targets, and don't do really well and exceed them, executives can still trouser a whopping 45 per cent of their basic salaries! Even more incredible, the chap M&S hired to run their food division, dismissed after a mere 112 days in the job, took home more than a million quid, including his "golden hello" of £500,000.
Good work should be rewarded, but these profits, bonuses and salaries reinforce a basic truth about our major supermarket chains – whatever crap they spout about the customer coming first it's the shareholders and the board who come before anyone, and we, the humble shoppers, followed by the small businesses and suppliers who depend on them, most definitely come second.
Last week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published their annual table of food inflation prices around the world. It showed that although the price of basic commodities is starting to fall, our food prices in the UK remain the highest in Europe – and we've got our "caring" major supermarkets to thank. In the year to April 2009, the cost of food in the UK went up a shocking 8.9 per cent, against the EU average of a 2.2 per cent increase. In Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Germany prices dropped, and even France only saw a rise of only 0.8 per cent.
Time and time again, supermarkets give us this sob story about how they are on our side – but these statistics lay bare just how hollow that claim is. The British Retail Consortium keeps coming out with drivel like: "Overall, food prices are rising, but retailers are keeping increases well below the extra costs they face."
What extra costs? Does running a supply network to superstores in a compact country such as the UK cost more than in a large country such as France or Spain? Are our labour, fuel and packaging costs that much more than in Germany or Ireland? Are we Brits so bloody picky about what we eat that it ends up costing more than in any other country in Western Europe? Of course not. Every day, in all media, we are targeted with propaganda from the big four supermarkets, each claiming to be fighting a "price war" on our behalf. They project themselves as tirelessly working their butts off to bring us value for money. But it's a completely phoney war, as these OECD figures prove.
Supermarkets say they are dropping Bogofs (buy one get one free) in favour of what they call "transparent" pricing. Instead, they bombard us with thousands of meaningless small cuts that fail to add up to anything significant. Asda claimed to have reduced 12,500 items in the period up to Easter 2009, but the Grocer 33 database, which tracks key items across 12 categories at all the major retailers, found that only 20 per cent of the items tracked at the supermarket were cheaper, and half of these were reduced by as little as 1p. You spend more than that in fuel if you drive to the shop. It takes a lot of penny savings to make a real difference to anyone's standard of living.
Some foodstuffs have risen almost as much (in percentage terms) as the bonuses supermarket executives award themselves – over the past year the price of broccoli has risen 43 per cent, salad tomatoes 26 per cent, onions 16 per cent, carrots 18 per cent, milk 6 per cent and fresh minced beef 20 per cent, according to the website mysupermarket.com. This government is determined that supermarkets should be allowed to expand even further and offer a wide range of health services, from pharmacies and opticians to dental and medical surgeries. This might seem convenient, but consumers will be the losers, because all the current evidence suggests we will end up paying more than anywhere else in Europe.
Fishy motives: Trust a celeb to campaign at a top noshery
Tomorrow is the first UN-designated World Oceans Day, and the plight of the bluefin tuna is causing widespread concern. In 2007, double the quota and four times the amount recommended by scientists was plundered from the Mediterranean, and at the current rate bluefin tuna will be extinct by 2012. A film released tomorrow, based on the book The End of the Line by environmentalist Charles Clover, charts how overfishing is damaging the planet. The best way to protect fish stocks is to eat what's sustainable, but more importantly, we should pressure governments to act together and force through changes in International law.
Nonetheless, a bunch of celebrities have decided to take matters into their own hands. They've written a letter to the owner of the swanky Nobu restaurant chain, asking him to remove bluefin tuna from the menu. It's the usual suspects – Sienna Miller, Sting and the ever-committed Trudie, and the glamorous trio of Donna Air, Laura Bailey, Jemima Khan.
The only reason most of these people eat at Nobu in the first place is because you can't get fat eating overpriced platters of thinly sliced raw fish. Then there's the clientele. You're dining surrounded by affluent footballers, actors, sundry Euro-trash and exiled Russians. Ordinary people, who don't need to be seen in this company, would be better advised to lobby their MEPs and write to the Prime Minister.
The song-and-dance escape plan
It's not surprising that we seek upbeat escapism at the moment, and new musicals are opening every week in London. The latest film to be plundered for material is Sister Act, which starred Whoopi Goldberg. The show has just opened at the Palladium. Tonight in New York, the creators of the sublime Billy Elliot will find out if they've won a record number of Tony awards. I doubt this latest bunch of song-and-dance extravaganzas will emulate that.
Romance at the sausage factory
The only bit of good news in a gloomy week was that the sausage maker Tom and PR Brenda have got engaged in The Archers, and he's even bought her a ring. I am addicted to the gore and misery of Casualty, but life in Ambridge has been getting a bit grim, with the quota of male shits far too high for comfortable listening. Property dealer Matt has turned out to be the dodgy character we always suspected, while landowner Brian remains a male chauvinist pig as well as a patronising bully. Can we have a wedding as soon as possible?