Janet Street-Porter: Superstores want to take over the world

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The Independent Online

Not content with being the world's wealthiest corporation, Wal-Mart is now seeking to prevent other retailers using the smiley face symbol, adopted for its "rolling back prices campaign" in America.

The innocent smiley face, so beloved by ravers, computer game players and sentimentalists the world over, has turned into a marketing tool worth spending millions in lawyers' fees to ring fence.

So a single aggressive action lays bare the current mindset of the dominant retailers in the grocery business - we are witnessing a battle in which they seek total domination of the market and elimination of all competition - nothing else will do.

This week's announcement that the UK grocery business is being referred to the Competition Commission for the third time in three years is welcome news, as the big four - Asda, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Morrisons now control 75 per cent of the sector.

Since the last full-scale inquiry in 2000, the Competition Commission has increased its powers - now it could intervene to set prices, for example.

Hopefully the Commission will also be looking at the huge number of sites built up by the main retailers - Asda, for example has an astonishing £400m of land awaiting planning consent. Often this land may be sold on with restrictive covenants preventing a grocery store operating on it for decades to come. There are estimated to be 69 such sites in the UK.

So, is the inquiry a sign that at last the tide may be turning in favour of small retailers? Hardly - this week the market share of independently owned corner shops dropped to below half that of convenience stores for the first time.

And for the small businesses that operate in the Queen's Market in Newham, there are no smiley faces on show this week. They face closure, despite a petition signed by 12,000 people, as the local council seems determined to press ahead with a £75m scheme to demolish the site and replace it with housing and a supermarket.

Asda, owned by Wal-Mart, is the preferred chain, although there is already another Asda less than two miles away.

You could just say that we have the power to change all this by refusing to shop at supermarkets. And the residents of Newham voted for their district to remain a Labour stronghold at last week's local elections - with a whopping 54 seats they lost only two in spite of the outcry over Queen's Market.

This week sees the timely release of a shocking film about the way retailing has decimated America. Wal-Mart, the High Cost of Low Price is directed by Robert Greenwald, who previously stirred up a storm with his controversial look at Rupert Murdoch's television news network Outfoxed.

The film documents the Wal- Mart effect - the death of town centres, the closure of family-owned local businesses, the appalling pay and conditions meted out to staff, who often have so little cash left for themselves that they sit through lunch breaks in the canteen, not eating.

No one is accusing British supermarkets of treating their employees like that, but there are many chilling lessons to be learnt about how superstores destroy local communities.

Recently, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced the appointment of Lee Scott as one of the "wise men" advising him on how we can take advantage of globalisation .

Yes, the same Lee Scott who features in Mr Greenwald's film in his capacity as the CEO of Wal Mart - a company whose track record on environmental, welfare and people management issues in America have led to a nationwide protest movement.

Mr Brown would do well to quietly dump Mr Scott sooner rather than later.

Size: why bigger is still better

The fashion business is cut throat at the best of times. I have moaned endlessly about the glossy magazines' obsession with stick thin schoolgirl models who bear no resemblance to real customers and offer appalling role models for impressionable young girls.

So it's heartening to find that N Brown, a Manchester-based clothing company who make clothes for larger women, has posted a whopping 26 per cent rise in its annual profits.

Interestingly, N Brown doesn't try to sell its clothes through the whimsical world of fashion editors, but via the internet, mail shots and catalogues. Pop Idol winner Michelle McManus was a fan, but then went on a diet. Meanwhile, plenty of other normal-sized women are obviously happy to stay with what the company has to offer.

* Near my cottage in Yorkshire is the Menwith Hill listening station, a series of giant white domes which dominates the landscape and serves as a listening centre for the American Intelligence Agencies. In 1993, Helen John set up a peace camp outside the site gates, which was later moved by the police to another site on the side of a busy main road. Full marks to Mrs John for her bravery and determination in the face of local indifference and sometimes hateful opposition. Now she and fellow campaigner Sylvia Boyes have been arrested and told to report to Harrogate police station later this month to face charges under the Government's new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Remember the words "butterfly and wheel"?

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