Dominic Lawson: Supermarkets deserve their success

Their opponents base their arguments on the perverse view that the customer doesn't know best
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The Independent Online

What unites the Socialist Workers Party and the British National Party - apart from a talent for losing deposits in parliamentary elections? The answer is: a loathing for supermarkets. Their websites, admittedly, give different reasons for their virulent opposition to the likes of Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's. The SWP's site contains articles accusing the big grocery chains of drugging the British proletariat with food stuffed full of chemically dangerous additives. The BNP's website charges the supermarkets with "driving British farmers to ruin".

A good general rule of political life might that be any opinion which unites those two groupuscules is something which ought to repel the rest of us. Or so I would have thought. But tomorrow the rent-a-mob brigade will have company. The All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group is to produce a report which calls on the Government to introduce regulations specifically tailored to damage the supermarkets - such as a special tax on their out-of-town car parks.

It is certainly true, as the Small Shops Group points out, that the big supermarket chains now control about 75 per cent of the country's grocery market. That has not happened by accident, but it is not a conspiracy, either. Their pre-eminence has been achieved by the simple expedient of offering shoppers a wide range of food produced to a high standard at low prices - what every family most wants.

Moreover, the constant improvements in the service provided by the supermarkets is itself the product of ferocious competition amongst each other. The firms most threatened by Tesco's extraordinary growth and dynamism are not the small retailers, but other supermarkets.

Now I must declare an interest. My paternal grandfather was a tea merchant who made a good business selling his leaves to Tesco, in the days when it was still run by Jack "Pile it high, sell it cheap" Cohen. My mother's family founded J Lyons & Co (starting with one barrow) which similarly enjoyed the warmest commercial relationships with the nascent British supermarket industry.

But it can't just be genetic conditioning that causes me a frisson of pleasure whenever I enter a well-run supermarket. How can anyone not be excited by such vast vistas of food? My wife, for a start. A retailer herself, she describes supermarkets as "over- lit, over-refrigerated warehouses in which sad people mutter to themselves while banging into each other's trolleys".

Well, it's a view. But the truth is, that while the old-fashioned corner shop may well be dying out, for those who have the money and the interest there has never been such a wide choice of delicatessens, farmers' markets, and specialist grocers. Such businesses cater for the most fastidious foodies and so by providing a service not met by most supermarkets they enjoy excellent prospects without any need for special protection by the state.

But what of the traditional corner-shop owners? The Guardian recently published something of a lament about those businesses, accompanied by a range of photographs of the interiors of a few of them. The clearest picture was of Bill and Debbie Hartnoll behind the counter of their very own Fort Stores in Barnstaple, North Devon. The only products that I could discern in the picture were tinned and processed foods, ice-creams and TV magazines. In other words, a typical old-fashioned village corner shop.

Now I am sure that Bill and Debbie are scrupulous about not stocking anything past its sell-by date. But in general, one of the biggest distinguishing differences between the big supermarkets and the smaller chains is that the latter are notorious for selling foods past their due date, or - more often than not - with no date on the pack whatsoever.

Perhaps anticipating that argument, the latest case now being made against the big supermarkets is that their sell-by-date fetishism is just a collective conspiracy to make us throw out food that is still perfectly edible, leading to waste on a vast scale.

As usual , the anti-supermarket lobby bases its arguments on the perverse view that the customer doesn't know best. And it is a lobby, have no doubt about it. The All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group gets some of its secretarial services provided free by a PR company which lobbies for an organisation called the Independent Retailers Confederation which, in turn, campaigns against the big supermarket chains. What a coincidence.

And, by the way, the lobbying company in question, Quintus, numbers among its clients Krispy Kreme, the American doughnut chain whose sugar-saturated product has been described as "about as addictive as crack cocaine".

I have nothing personally against Krispy Kreme, or indeed any of Quintus's clients in need of a bit of political help (such as the Wholesale Confectionery and Tobacco Alliance, the Wine and Spirit Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Interactive Gaming Gambling and Betting Association). But, in lining up with the independent retailers against the big chains, the MPs are simply tools of one group of companies in a private commercial battle with a different group of companies.

There is, instead, something which the All-Party Small Shops Group could do to help the businesses they claim to support, and which would not need the intervention of central government. There is no doubt that the single factor which leads to most bankruptcies among the small independent traders is the escalating business rate in the nation's high streets. The big supermarkets are increasingly based outside city centres, and so avoid the worst of such increases (although, having been criticised for dragging consumers out of the town centres, the likes of Tesco are now being damned by the very same critics for introducing new smaller high street stores).

Will any of the MPs on the Small Shops Group campaign for a reduction in the business rate? I notice that the group's chairman Jim Dowd, the Labour MP for Lewisham, was for 20 years a Lewisham councillor. What, I wonder, was his voting record on business rate increases? How many small independent stores have he and his Lambeth Labour Party colleagues over the years helped to put out of business by implementing some of the highest rates in the country?

Mr Dowd might, however, like to know that his All-Party Group is approvingly cited in the latest monthly newsletter from the British National Party for its fight against the supermarkets. Nevertheless, warns the Voice of Freedom newsletter, "the BNP is the only party that will take decisive action against the supermarkets." I hope the BNP is right about that.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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