Captain Vigilante

TENSION. It was unbearable. In thousands of homes throughout the country, BBC Radio 4 and BBC TV Breakfast were switched on as the first light of dawn broke on the awakening of a bitterly cold January day.

The most powerful Ruler of our particular Kingdom was to make an announcement which would influence the lives and livelihoods of its inhabitants for ever.

Notepads and pens to hand, recording machines at the ready, the seconds ticked by agonisingly slowly as presenters trailed and hinted what our Ruler might or might not say.

At 6.30am, hearts raced at the news that his announcement would be made at 7am.

At 6.45, TV cameras appeared in a butcher’s shop, in an obscure Home Counties market town, and an anorak-wrapped reporter, microphone in hand, barely suppressed his mounting excitement to confirm, yes, the news we were all awaiting was imminent.

BEMUSED. 7am. The Ruler’s ruling came right on cue. The Competition Commission, said the butcher’s shop- based reporter, did not find any evidence that small businesses were being squeezed.

He said the report was a “fillip for the supermarkets”.

And, he added breathlessly, suppliers were not being abused and manipulated by the giants.

The giants who had stalked the Kingdom bringing fear and trembling to many small people, were still, according to the Ruler, bringing benefits to the population at large.

This was not what the small anti-giant insurgents of this Kingdom wanted to hear.

EMERGING. Peter Freeman appeared. He is a robust Ruler, despite emerging from the screen as an understated lawyer (cv Simmons Simmons).

His “emerging thinking” was cold and clinical. His ambition is to get his high-profile market review over and done with. He yearns for a return to being a self-professed “professionally boring” administrator.

But the next five years of the Ruler’s life could be taken over by the review and its tormented aftermath of likely law suits and appeals and counter-actions.

Peter Freeman was told by The Daily Telegraph on January 29 that he, and no one else, held the fate of the supermarket giants and their customers in his hands.

Strewth!

WALLPAPER. Then, after the Ruler and his thinking had emerged, we were subjected to wall-to-wall media coverage responding to the thinking.

It was not, shall we say, informed.

The small shops lobby did not achieve high visibility in media coverage of the reaction to the Ruler who had added, almost as an afterthought, that he would now look into local situations where shoppers may not enjoy the fruits of competition.

Radio 5 gave air-time to supporters of Tesco. These sounded genuine enough and it’s churlish to believe these were put up to it by the giant which is the centre of the Ruler’s inquiry.

Vigilante knows people who shop at Tesco from choice. Lots of ’em.

BUTCHERED. Why did the BBC choose a butcher’s shop in a prosperous Hampshire market town from which it broadcast its report on that fateful January 23?

It beggars belief. Butchers in cosy county towns in the South are thriving – as the rosy-cheeked affluent owner-manager told millions of viewers.

Where was the hard-working independent retailer who lives over the shop, competing with a Tesco Express or a Co-op owned c-store or both? It is this category of wholesalers’ customers who are at risk, for God’s sake.

TESCO-BAITERS. The Ruler has no time for these. He refuses to demonise the once company which is responsible for the whole shooting match. Without Tesco there would have been no review.

It was in 2004 that the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, acting alone in the absence of any lobby, initiated the now fashionable anti-Tesco campaign.

FWD identified the right door on which campaigners could knock. It was the door to the Competition Appeals Tribunal where FWD, making history, highlighted and appealed against Tesco’s acquisition of Adminstore as an abuse of power.

FWD withdrew from this court when Tesco suddenly joined the Office of Fair Trading to fight the appeal. Too many highly paid lawyers appeared on the other side for FWD’s liking!

But FWD had made its point.

DISCREDITED. Now, of course, the Office of Fair Trading’s decision to allow the acquisition of Adminstore by Tesco is seen by almost everyone as disastrous.

It gave the signal to the giants that they could blitz the small store sector not only by their low price strategy but also by buying any group of small shops they fancied.

Now the Ruler has said that the crazy, bureaucratic “two-market” definition, invented by what must have been a deranged economist in the back office of the OFT, is no more. This means market power will be measured correctly.

The old OFT has a lot to answer for.

RESULT. So the end of the two-market definition is a good result for the anti-giant lobby.

But Andrew Murray-Watson, business editor of The Independent on Sunday, said Tesco must “not be allowed to run amok but should not be punished for being successful”. Pardon?

City folk pushed the share price of the multiples upwards as the thinking emerged.

COMMUNITY. In The Guardian, Nils Pratley said Tesco might be forced to sell a store or two in, say, Inverness, but that was it.

More to the point, and more to the thinking of the Guardian’s readership, he said the potential damage Tesco could inflict was on local communities.

The My Shop Is Your Shop campaign is, of course, devoted to the beneficial culture of independent retailers and their interface with the community.

REMEDIES. What happens next? The CC will now be persuaded by the energetic FWD lobby and friends that it cannot ignore the central issue of prices and terms to which so far it has given only scant attention.

Powerful – although anecdotal – knowledge has been imparted to many wholesalers by people who know that the multiples DO extract prices from suppliers which discriminate against wholesalers and therefore against independent retailers.

This is a truth, no matter how uncomfortable this reality is for some.

DESPAIR. Rod Liddle, a well-heeled Sunday Times columnist, headlined his comment (28.01.07) on the review with this: “Don’t shed a tear for the moaning corner shop.”

He said these were the shops clamouring most loudly about the wickedness of Tesco et al. He was on the side of the billionaires on the issue.

Dear me.

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