Look out for the crossfire next time you go shopping

Their behaviour may be legal but is it fair?
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The Independent Online

We are supposed to live in an age of consumer choice, but a couple of recent rows among retailers rather undermine that assumption. They both relate to attempts to monopolise a particular market.

We are supposed to live in an age of consumer choice, but a couple of recent rows among retailers rather undermine that assumption. They both relate to attempts to monopolise a particular market.

For some time now, Dixons and John Lewis have been at war. The cause: Dixons' aggressive attempts to dominate the selling of personal computers. John Lewis has a motto - "never knowingly undersold" - which doesn't trip off the tongue but always seemed a pretty worthwhile aspiration to me. I can live with their grisly green and grey decor and the queues at the cash till because it does seem to have its customers' interests at heart. But John Lewis has a problem. Certain goods won't even be available for its stores to sell at all, never mind what price they are, because Dixons has signed a series of deals with leading manufacturers. Compaq, Packard Bell and now eMachines have all agreed to supply personal computers to Dixons - and no one else in the UK. Dixons controls 57 per cent of the high-street home-computer market, and would probably argue that its intention is to offer lower prices and better service. Shoppers would see it differently: choice has been removed from the agenda.

This behaviour may be legal, but is it fair? Until now, it has mostly been manufacturers of luxury goods who have signed exclusive deals with retailers in order to reinforce the desirability of expensive clothing or cosmetics. Lack of availability created a demand - and long waiting lists for Prada bags and Gucci sunglasses were the result.

If the only place in Britain you can pay £99 for a pot of face cream is Harrods or Harvey Nichols, then the basic rights of shoppers are hardly being undermined. But if such exclusivity is applied to everyday consumer goods, that is another matter.

The other squabble involves Tesco and magazine publishers. In the past couple of weeks some well-known magazines, such as Prima and Best, have disappeared from the shelves of Tesco, once again giving shoppers less choice. Like Dixons, Tesco is aggressively pursuing a policy of "streamlining" the wholesalers it buys its magazines from. In the future it proposes to sign an exclusive deal with WHSmith, which controls 40 per cent of the distribution market. Tesco claims it's in our interests, but is it? It might be simpler for the supermarket chain, but if you publish a magazine not handled by Smiths, you won't get it sold in any of the 640 Tesco stores. The publishers of Prima and Best refused to agree to these tactics, and so have been dropped as a punishment.

Now newspaper publishers fear that these strongarm tactics will be broadened to include them. The bottom line is that WHSmith will control an unacceptably large part of the market if this deal goes ahead. At the moment, distribution companies divide up the country geographically. In the future, big supermarkets and convenience stores will be favoured over small newsagents - but why should people in the countryside have to travel to a supermarket to buy their favourite magazine or newspaper?

The success of the Consumers' Association, Which? magazine and programmes like Watchdog has transformed our attitudes. The days of the timid shopper have long gone. Now, armed with various bits of legislation, we are more militant beings. Price is all too often given as the benchmark for purchases, but choice should remain a fundamental right. The Office of Fair Trading is looking at both of the cases I've outlined here. Let's hope it remembers that the Government's duty is to side with the customer, rather than the retailer or manufacturer. We have already seen football television rights carved up, and the public is the loser - paying more for less choice. As supermarkets and department stores slog it out in the high street, there is a danger that we will be the losers again.