A general media backlash against the power of the multiple supermarkets seems to be well and truly under way with Tesco cast as the chief whipping boy. Virtually every day stories appear in the national press and on TV that bring their increasing share of the total retail market and their effect on town centres into question.
This is all well and good, and about time too, but will it help to drive some fairness back into the UK grocery market?
A year or two ago, the general consensus was that there were no votes in it for MPs if they knocked the supermarkets. Thankfully, that perception appears to be changing – aided in no little measure by the media clamour now in progress. Perhaps our legislators are, at last, beginning to question the wisdom of allowing UK retailing – both food and eventually non-food – to pass into the hands of an oligopoly unchallenged.
Well to the fore at Westminster in this respect is the Parliamentary All Party Small Shops Group chaired by Jim Dowd MP. This group has just completed a series of evidence sessions for its inquiry into the future of the high street.
The first voice it heard was that of a wholesaler – Steve Parfett, managing director of AG Parfett Sons – who attended with me giving evidence at the first session in mid-October. The last scheduled commercial voice they heard four weeks later was that of Lucy Neville-Rolfe, company secretary and head of corporate and legal affairs at Tesco.
She might well have had the last word, but somehow I do not think she will have won the hearts and minds of the listening MPs as did Parfett and a host of others who called for a fairer marketplace where independent retailers can flourish.
Gerry Sutcliffe MP, from the Department of Trade Industry, was one of three ministers questioned on the same day as Tesco. As Competition Minister, he expressed concerns about balance in the market, but said these had to be addressed by the Office of Fair Trading while he merely kept a watching brief. However, he did volunteer that in his contact with suppliers, he noted that they “could not say all they wanted to”.
In my evidence to the Small Shops Group, I told the MPs that the OFT had missed a golden opportunity to reveal once and for all evidence of the extent (if any) of superstore abuse of buying power. This was by not taking up the FWD’s offer to allow OFT auditors access to wholesalers’ books during its recent flawed review of the Supermarket Code of Practice. This will run and run, as they say.
Meanwhile, may I wish you all a very happy Christmas.