Leading article: Shoppers deserve a fairer deal

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The Independent Online
THE NAMES of Karel van Miert and John Bridgeman ought to be on the lips of every consumer heading for the shopping centre this morning. Sadly, it would be surprising if one person in a supermarket car park could identify either the European competition commissioner or the director- general of the Office of Fair Trading. It was Mr Bridgeman who told Le Coq Sportif last month to stop fixing the price of its pounds 40 football shirts. "I will not tolerate attempts at price-fixing," he thundered. Quite right. It is illegal for manufacturers to hassle shops which sell their goods at discount prices, or to refuse to supply them. But it happens all the time. Businesses simply refuse to see anti-competitive behaviour as malign. "We broke the law, but commercially I don't see anything wrong with charging a proper price for a highly sought-after brand name," said a spokesman for Le Coq. And the law is notoriously difficult to enforce. Recently, Tesco has seemed rather better at the job than Mr Bridgeman. It sells the Umbro England football shirt, recommended retail price pounds 45, for pounds 33, at which Umbro has taken Umbrage. As we reported yesterday, Tesco is also being sued by Tommy Hilfiger, an American fashion label, which alleges the goods being sold cheaply in the supermarket are fakes. The case should be thrown out and Hilfiger forced to supply its goods direct.

It is possible to argue that anyone prepared to pay silly prices for fashionable labels or football insignia deserves to be fleeced for all they are worth. Possible, but dangerous. Because price-fixing is not limited to high fashion. Tesco sells a range of electrical goods for less than the recommended retail price. CDs, hi-fis and computers are all overpriced. Above all, British cars and motorbikes are notoriously more expensive than on the Continent - still, a quarter of a century after we joined the Common Market.

Mr Bridgeman and Mr van Miert have failed the public: they should be much tougher. Price-fixing is against the law and the law should be enforced rigorously. To the extent that our "trustbusters" need new powers, some are on the way - fines of up to a tenth of a company's turnover. But the politicians should also give them the power to act quickly - speed is of the essence, so they can swoop on any malpractice and order immediate action. Until the consumer knows who the trustbusters are and can summon them, like superheroes, to the scene of any infraction, our protection against monopolists remains scant.