Captain Vigilante

AFTERMATH. Be careful about what you ask for… the answer may surprise you. The warning from the OFT on the outcome of the Competition Commission “inquiry” into the grocery market has come true.

Expect the unexpected. That’s a maxim wholesalers will take to heart after an intelligent, reasoned and highly professional rationale seeking fair play was put to the CC by FWD and its allies only to result in a scenario which will encourage the arrival of more supermarkets! An Orwellian future awaits our children?

As the smoke and dust of the battle for justice subsides, what have we got?

First, the CC has shown a yellow card to Tesco – it’s in the small print but it’s there. Any more unacceptable behaviour, says the CC, and it’s a red. Source: Richard Fletcher, of The Daily Telegraph (1/11/07).

Second, the farmers have won an ombudsman or supervisor or other type of watchdog mechanism to bring teeth to the Code of Practice.

Third, Tesco will be invited to divest some current or planned sales acreage. They are fuming about this.

Fourth, the inquiry has been played out in the media with the bosses of the giants hurling insults at or otherwise seeking advantage over Tesco. All this has been noted by the consumers in Middle England. Tesco has been demonised in print.

Fifth, the quoting by Peter Freeman, the CC chairman, of the name of our most distinguished wholesaler as an example of success, proving to the CC that the sector is thriving, is an outrage.

IMPACT. Commentators are missing a point. Context here is important. Competition inquiries over recent decades have produced enough whitewash to threaten the Dulux market share. The Freeman probe, given its exposure in the newspapers, has produced a different result which will have a crucial internal impact in the market.

First, the days of bully-boy “negotiations” in the giants’ buying offices are over. Senior manufacturers are already telling Vigilante that red-necked buyers have been reined-in.

Second, it’s true that many wholesalers currently are doing well due to increased professionalism and marketing skills. This should encourage intelligent suppliers to invest a disproportionately higher level of resource and funding in the wholesale sector.

Taken in the round, the cup is half full, not half empty, and FWD should be encouraged by this. Since the 1990s FWD – sometimes alone – has demonstrated its dogged persistence in the fight for fair play.

Peter Freeman, like his predecessors, is wrong. Powerful men, lawyers and bureaucrats, who don’t do the shopping, are blind to the realities of local store trading. FWD has won the argument. The CC has lost the plot.

And the show is not over until the fat lady sings. Next March we’ll know the score after playing stoppage time. Expect the unexpected.

EXCLUSIVE. On a lighter journalistic note, Vigilante claims a world exclusive by forecasting in the September issue the appointment of an ombudsman regulator and the divesting of sales space by Tesco.

And what of Lucy Neville-Rolfe, everybody’s favourite PR girl?

“It’s the Sun wot did it” said our favourite tabloid when Blair won his first election. Will Lucy be able to claim a final victory in the war of words come March?

Answers on a postcard please.

NEXT. What happens next will engage the industry. Perhaps the lack of interest in the wholesale/independent sector by the CC will encourage wholesalers – whose responsibility it is – to recognise a new dawn where an added dash of old fashioned marketing will become a necessity to drive more turnover in the independent sector.

The My Shop Is Your Shop campaign is not anti-multiple but it is now a well established platform for sending signals to the consumer and the trade. The consumer and the retailer are the people who will influence wholesalers’ future profitability or lack of it.

In the absence of recognition of the value to the community of the local independent store by the Establishment, it could be just the moment for MSYS to become a higher priority.

SCANDAL. In 1983 a trade press editor of our acquaintance was summoned to the High Court. And about time too, some of you say, thinking about the recent antics of the one who just can’t get it right!

But this was a serious hearing which could impact on the businesses of thousands of independent retailers. A Basildon retailer was asking the court for a definition of the words “groceries and provisions” which appeared in the list of categories he was allowed to stock under the terms of his lease.

The editor of our acquaintance – an expert witness according to the court – won the day by eventually helping to persuade the court that the description should cover all those food products which could be found in the giant multiples.

Common sense, you would think.

MYSTERY. But when a West Country independent was prevented from selling prepared foods following a protest from a nearby takeaway, his solicitor was confronted by what could be a big-time legal mystery.

The Basildon legal precedent has been quoted frequently in lease cases.

But when the West Country retailer’s solicitor, digging deep to confront the takeaway, attempted to consult the actual papers from the original High Court hearing, guess what?

The solicitor found that these crucial documents are missing from the High Court files.

Vigilante is bringing this issue to the notice of wholesalers who could lose customers in the context of these lost High Court papers.

BOOKISH. What’s going on in the book market where the giant multiple corporations are losing ground to independent booksellers?

Yes you can read that again it’s correct.

Small bookshops have increased their share of the market by 11% since 2003 – and the giant corporates have lost 2% in share over the same period. Why is this?

Our local once-loved Waterstones, now a supergiant chain, has descended into a shambles – bonkbusters merchandised in pile it high and sell it cheap fashion, prices slashed, ranges reduced, birthday cards and wrapping paper displayed, cut price stickers everywhere… a nightmare.

But Harper’s, our local indie bookshop, is filling the vacuum with range, rapid order fulfilment, pleasant browsing atmosphere, intelligent book talk, a classical music department, and – crucially – smiling staff.

This is the My Shop Is Your Shop campaign brought to life in a bookshop – the giant corporates just can’t replicate it.

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