Review

The Chronicle of the 20th Century, a boot sale bargain costing £1, provided some interesting holiday reading. A newspaper clipping dated January 8 1940 began: “For the first time since 1918 Britain faces food-rationing today. Butter, sugar, bacon and ham can be bought only on production of ration books. The rigid rationing laws demand the compulsory registration of every household with their local shops.”

Note that the word “shops” is plural, conjuring up that bygone era when everyone shopped locally at a wide range of establishments. Well, God forbid we ever need food-rationing again, but imagine where we would be if we did at some point a few years down the line. If the OFT has its way, most us would be queuing up in some out-of-town superstore car park.

The foregoing is just by way of introducing a few thoughts on the OFT’s decision to do nothing but tinker with the supermarkets code of practice following its extended review.

Most everyone in the trade will by now have heard the witticism that OFT no longer stands for Office of Fair Trading, but Office of Furthering Tesco. Its latest decision, both disappointing and at the same time predictable, certainly endorses the jibe.

Realistically, the CoP is all about the relationships that farmers and manufacturers have with the supermarkets – it has little or nothing to do with wholesaling as such. However, the OFT offered a glimmer of hope when it widened its review in March to include “other issues”. This enabled FWD and others to comment on how dangerously skewed the UK grocery market has become on the procurement side.

After all, it is the huge buying clout of the big four, and the inequitable terms they are able to extract from suppliers vis a vis wholesalers, that makes their assault on the convenience sector all but unstoppable.

The OFT refused FWD’s repeated offer to open wholesalers books to its auditors to prove that this widely acknowledged imbalance exists.

To mix a metaphor or two, it has simply washed its hands of the matter while managing to bury its head in the sand at the same time.

So where do we go from here? Well, Westminster this autumn is the next stop when FWD will give evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group inquiry into the future of the high street. There is a ground swell of support building among MPs who believe in diversity and it is crucial that we tap into this.

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