Sunday, March 19, 2006


The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has launched a Competition Commission inquiry into the UK's big four supermarkets - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrison's. OFT believes there is evidence that these stores have erected barriers to keep out new players and that their move into convenience stores could 'distort competition and harm consumers'.

This follows years of complaints from small shopkeepers and liberal commentators who bemoan supermarket's retail dominance. This week the London Evening Standard has launched a campaign called 'Save our Small Shops'. The popularity of the big four supermarkets, which account for nearly 75 per cent of the grocery market, suggests that consumers think otherwise. Compared with local shops, supermarkets on the whole provide more variety of goods at cheaper prices. Isn't that a good, or at least useful, thing?

As contributors on spiked have noted previously, supermarkets are increasingly coming under fire from certain quarters (see Supermarkets are super, by Jennie Bristow; Supermarket sweep, by Josie Appleton). The complaints that Tesco operates in shady business deals or 'manipulates' consumers sound a bit like sour grapes from competitors, and a suspicion of mass production from environmentalists. The charge that supermarkets are motivated by the desire to generate enormous profits points to a naivety about the business world. That's how things work in capitalist societies; even fabled local traders are not driven by charitable impulses.

There is something worrying about the continuous criticism of supermarkets. It's one thing to be preoccupied with consumerist issues regarding rip-off traders and poor services; it's another thing to get angry about low prices and the efficient distribution of goods. Getting rid of hunger, and improving our choice of food, has been one of the major success stories of the modern age - and supermarkets played a role in that. To bemoan these developments doesn't reveal a principled 'stance' for anything, but a generally misanthropic outlook. It's remarkable that anyone would see shelves groaning with plentiful food as a bad thing.

The logical conclusion of the anti-supermarket lobby would be to close down dozens of Tesco and Sainsbury's stores and their attendent benefits. Indeed, a recent article on the closure of 25 McDonald's restaurants in the UK cheerily welcomed such a development for food retail in general.

Some commentators are careful not to come across as saying: 'slash jobs/raise food prices'. Any sober assessment of supermarkets would find it pretty difficult to deny the benefits of cheaper groceries and better choice, a point that the OFT has already conceded. Instead, subtler critics have devised a new line of attack, arguing that local shops can provide mechanisms for community cohesion and a shared sense of belonging. Compared with the local butcher or baker, they say, the one-stop-shop experience reduces familiar points of contact with other people. As one editorial put it: 'The key question is whether the undoubted benefits and popularity of superstores are outweighed by the grave effects they have on a way of life that, once lost, will be irretrievable.'

Such misty-eyed annotations sound a bit like the ramblings of ex-Tory prime minister, John 'Back to Basics' Major. Only in soap operas does the corner shop double up as community centre. More often, local traders are seen as penny pinchers with a line in one-upmanship snobbery. Of course, it's ridiculous to believe local shops can engineer social solidarity, as it's ridiculous to try to cajole people into shopping there. For millions who live in big cities, shopping solely at local shops would neither be practical nor particularly desirable.

Evoking community, however, provides some kind of left-wing cover for what can be reactionary ideas. In reality, 'community' is meant as a buffer against society, the 'local' against the 'global'. It also begs the question: what type of 'community' is being referred to? For well-heeled individuals in well-heeled areas, it's probably a community of organic food buyers and concerned environmentalists. Residents in Highgate village, north London, for instance, campaigned in 2002 against the opening of a Starbucks branch there. They argued it would erode their 'distinctive' 'community'. Many probably didn't want vulgar displays of mass society in their backyard.

On this level, critics of mass retail in general, and supermarkets in particular, imbue them with more strange powers and 'meaning' than most of us who shop there do. One commentator believes that declining literacy levels in the West is down to the omnipotence of supermarkets (3). Leaving aside this head-scratching hypothesis, why should the ubiquity of Tesco be a particularly debased experience? Anyone would think the proposed alternatives - independent local shops - are the equivalent of exploring art galleries and exhibitions. They're not. On the whole, shopping is a drearily practical necessity best done with as little time and effort as possible. This is why one-stop-shops win hands down - most people are not as preoccupied with shopping as some critics and commentators seem to be.

Given the popularity of supermarkets, why the need for an OFT inquiry at all? There are no mass campaigns calling for boycotts or an investigation into, say, Sainsbury's ready meals. Those who do are usually small traders seeking state compensation for their own inefficiencies. Ironically, local shopkeepers believe supermarkets yield too much unrepresentative power and influence; but in this case, surely it's the other way round? While a small number of retailers have won a chance to hold supermarkets back, millions of shoppers could potentially lose out. This might not be so surprising; maybe it is what the supermarket critics wanted all along.


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