I have been trying to wean myself off Tesco, but it isn't easy. I spent an hour in the car this week driving to their Northallerton branch in North Yorkshire to return a faulty CD player. The last piece of electronic equipment I bought at Tesco, a DVD player, also had to be returned. Surely supermarket shopping is one of the most insidious forms of addiction there is.
I'm a reasonably intelligent person, I love shopping in the small butchers, grocery stores and greengrocers in the towns near my cottage in the Dales, and I don't want to see them go out of business. Their variety, friendly staff, and quality of produce are one of the reasons why I enjoy spending time in the North. I made a new year's resolution that in 2006 I would shun superstores and support local traders - and I've already broken my vow. There needs to be a self-help group, the retailing equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I accept that I have the time and money to allow me to exercise choice when it comes to where I shop. Every time I criticise supermarkets, and their aggressive tactics in the pages of this paper, I get loads of letters from readers who point out that when time is at a premium, when you have small children, convenience is all. So who is right?
Yesterday saw the publication of a report entitled High Street Britain 2015, written by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Small Shops. It makes gloomy reading, predicting that unless drastic steps are taken our high streets will change for good within 10 years, and most small retailers will be forced out of business. Yesterday also saw the launch of a new internet project on the Tescopoly website, designed to link each of the 150 anti-Tesco disputes which are raging all over the UK. The website's motto is "every little hurts", and it aims to help protesters communicate with each other in order to maximise their efforts to prevent the further expansion of the Tesco empire.
Clearly, feelings are running high, and with Tesco accounting for almost a third of every pound spent on food in the retail sector (and one pound in every eight spent altogether), it is easy to see how small traders feel under threat. Over the last decade, 30,000 independent food, beverage and tobacco shops have closed - and 700 newsagents went out of business between January and October last year. Between 1991 and 1997, more than 4,000 food shops closed in rural areas, and, with the growth of superstores and hypermarkets, retailing, not farming, has now become the biggest employer in the countryside. The problem is that about half of the retailers in Britain are sole traders, and they are being hit particularly hard by the big four supermarkets, Asda/Wal-Mart, Sainsbury, Morrisons and Tesco.
The might of these supermarkets in achieving their desired rate of expansion and total dominance of the market is awesome - and, by taking over smaller convenience chains, Tesco has increased its sales in that area by £200m to £2.4bn. The real might of the giant chains is demonstrated by how fiercely they take on protesters, planners and local opinion. A good example of their philosophy is demonstrated in Inverness, where Tesco controls 51 per cent of the retail market, and is now planning a fourth (!) store in the area. It has spent eight years fighting campaigners in order to win the right to open a superstore in Sheringham, north Norfolk, and opposed an application by Asda to open a town centre store in Bangor, North Wales, claiming it would hurt local retailers. Two months later, Tesco opened a hypermarket on the edge of the town. Profit is all. Now, two out of every three new shops are being located on the edge of towns, where it is easier to circumvent planning restrictions and the effect on the High Street is catastrophic.
In the future, town centres will cater only to the very rich - the affluent middle classes will be prepared to pay to park and shop in individual boutiques, selling everything from home furnishings to crafts to clothing to designer bread, perfume and bath oils. The other shoppers will be the very poor, catered for by convenience stores and charity shops. They have no cars and are reliant on public transport.
Can this report really arrest this inevitable trend? Some of it makes pretty feeble reading - suggesting, for example, that large supermarkets catering to once-a-week shoppers means that it is hard to achieve the Government's daily healthy-eating target of five portions of fresh fruit and veg is just potty. Most people are intelligent enough to know how to buy the correct amount of cabbage for a week - the problem is, they may not have children who want to eat it.
Supermarkets operate predatory pricing designed to eliminate competition. Again, shopping at one of the big four is never going to be cheaper than taking longer and shopping at small local suppliers. But we do have a choice - unfortunately most of us are hypocrites (just as I admittedat the start of this column) who want a diversity of local shops, but still visit superstores. Organic food sales have soared 33 per cent over the past year, especially via farmers' markets and box sales, but in supermarkets the percentage of organic sales has actually dropped - it is not in their interest to concentrate on a market that is still a niche. Supermarkets are not interested in health issues, no matter what they say, but shareholders' dividends.
The report calls on the Government to block any further mergers and takeovers in the retailing industry, pending a full investigation into diversity and vitality in the sector. But how exactly do you decide the ideal components for any high street - is it one butcher, two newsagents and a grocer? It sounds ludicrous. More practically, the report calls for local competition to be taken into account when granting planning applications, proposes rate relief for sole traders and an end to rent reviews that only go one way - upwards. All pretty sensible, but then the committee suggests the appointment of a retail tsar who could protect consumers by setting price guidelines. Look how completely useless all the rail regulators have been at securing low ticket prices! It just wouldn't work.
There are two ways to stop the whole of Britain being turned into a giant branch of Tesco. One is via local government. You can vote in elections for candidates with a known position on retailing. You can attend planning meetings. You can shop locally and put your money where your mouth is. After all, it is the consumer who holds the pounds that the stores are desperate for. Secondly, it should be possible to discriminate fairly in favour of small traders in town centres in terms of council tax and rent. But at the end of the day, they are all going to go out of business if we don't buy their meat, their newspapers and their carrots. It's not a battle the Government should take on.Reuse content