Captain Vigilante

AWARDS. The best independent shops do not win awards, said our friend the independent retailer when we were discussing the approach of the judging season for the trade’s baubles.

Are the best independent shops those which are always packed with talkative customers, where kiddies dash along the aisles, where the merchandising is rarely text-book and where the constantly changing offers are sited on the shop floor, a display sin of the first order. Our friend believed that when judges arrive, often incognito but instantly recognisable, they look for a neat and tidy store with a clinical appearance and an almost de-humanised atmosphere.

Will the store be photogenic and the owners be willing to take a day off to attend the awards ceremony seem to be crucial questions. Ring a bell?

SCANDAL. How does your MP come out of The Daily Telegraph’s wonderful exposure of the excesses and expenses of our now heavily down-graded Parliamentarians? And what about MPs we have known as part of the lobby for fair trading terms for small shops?

Jim Dowd, MP for Lewisham, has been the only MP in recent years to speak at the FWD annual conference and he came over as sincere, knowledgeable and an all-round-good-bloke. His allowances record reveals great modesty. As an inner London MP he is ineligible to claim for the cash-cow known as ‘the second home’ and in 2007-8 he received just pound;2,812, the London supplement. How does your MP compare?

OWN LABEL. Sir Stuart Rose, once the boss at the now soaraway Booker, wears M S suits and, so he told a tabloid interviewer, drinks M S wine.

There has been some cynicism expressed about the latter claim but so what? If you have an extensive cellar you may not wish to fill it with bottles you can pick up in the shop every day.

But this raises a question. How many of the great and the good who run our wholesale companies, which in many ways are doing better than M S just at this moment, drink their own label wines?

Once these were called ‘exclusive labels’ without a hint of self-consciousness by wholesalers who wished to project an image for their wines suggesting they were so good that they could not be bought elsewhere.

Is there a brief feeling of guilt when a wholesaler chief uncorks a pound;25 plus red?

GREEN. Tesco has now discovered what the FWD My Shop is Your Shop campaign unearthed two years – it’s cool to be green.

Amid a fanfare of publicity, Sir Terry, pictured incongruously in leathers on a Harley, announced in The Sunday Times that he will provide charging facilities in his car parks for battery-powered vehicles. All retailers, said the front pager, are placing priority on promoting their green credentials. MSYS created Walk Shop in 2007, trialled it in 2008 and has launched National Walk Shop Day -a concept out of Sir Terry’s reach – on September 16.

Tesco’s recent results did not impress the City after its US launch returned heavy losses. Sir Terry’s bonus was slashed. Will they seek a bail out from the Government like the banks, asked one wag.

They’ve already had one – from the Competition Commission, responded another.

HABITS. IGD says three quarters of consumers who have changed the way they shop because of the recession will keep to their new habits after the economy recovers.

If it turns out that way it’s great news for wholesalers and the burgeoning Co-operative Group. Local shops report a significant increase in frequency of visits by local families buying for immediate needs to avoid throwing food away.

But think about it. Every superstore is packed with ‘value’ lines, many barely acceptable in terms of presentation and actual value. They have a serious negative impact on giant retailers’ margins, and big brand owners are sick of the sight of them.

Downward pressure on margins and blocked big brand NPD create unhappiness in the food and drink marketplace.

Is it not a capitalist certainty that when consumers once again catch the prosperity bug, they will return to the big shop like old times? One major wholesaler is laying down a strategy to protect its trade from this eventuality.

PROFITS. Never in the past decade has there been such a wave of good news from wholesalers reporting an exciting surge in profits. Booker has reported a 30% rise in full year pre-tax profits to pound;47.2m and Costco’s pre-tax profits soared 52% to pound;25.8m in the year ending August 2008.

The latter was due, said the company, to better working capital management, wider gross margins and branch openings. Costco’s ambition is to open two depots a year if it can negotiate planning consents from local authorities. All this, added to recent sales uplifts by other wholesalers, produces more evidence of the consumer swing back to the local shop.

IGNORED. As it seeks planning consents, Costco might reflect on the way Tesco can circumvent local opposition to new stores aided and abetted by council officers.

In a south coast resort, the local community rose up as one against a proposed new Tesco Express. The local MP supported the protest. The local planning committee rejected the application for planning consent so Tesco, as is its wont, appealed.

The giant asked for a paper consultation rather than a public inquiry. The chairman of the planning committee supported a public inquiry but council officers, surprise, surprise, agreed to written submissions only. Why?

The appeal was heard, or rather read, by a Government inspector who, surprise, surprise, has now approved the store. The shopping street affected by the approval will never be the same again.

GROWING. What is behind the amazing, but unremarked, growth of the farm shop. IGD/William Reed Business Media research puts the latest total of farm shops in the UK at 3,072, up from 1,796 in 2008, a leap of 71%.

It is not price. In our experience you pay over the odds for most things at a farm shop even though some products are grown virtually in the field next door to the premises. So it must by the ‘shopping experience’ which fails to impress the author, as many farm shops are untidy and not shopper friendly.

Or is it ‘localness’, that magnetic value which persuades an increasing number of people to buy items that they believe will help someone nearby to survive in the business jungle dominated by the ‘faceless gnomes of Zurich’ as financial wizards were once known.

We still do not see in independent stores here the array of genuinely local products to be found in France or Spain, particularly the latter where the marketing of produce ‘grown near where you live’ is remarkable. Why?

FAREWELL. A well-honed phrase or saying is a requirement when the occasion demands. So what did John Murphy choose when he was nearing the close of his retirement lunch with staff, marking the end of his long stint at FWD? He turned to successor chief executive James Bielby and quipped: “Well James, my ship is your ship…”

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