Every Little Helps….

I was delighted to read the Labour Party are prepared to tackle, in their words, “the almighty conglomerate” Tescos and are asking the government to deal with the problem of the supermarket’s huge market share, gained at the expense of small retailers, farmers, suppliers and customers.

Even before the global downturn, in those halcyon days when credit was easy, I found pronouncements of Tesco’s pre-tax profits staggeringly large.  Billions of pounds return every year seemed obscene.  News that Tescos took £1 in every £7 in the UK strengthened my resolve not to put my money into their tills.  The practice of squeezing farmers and suppliers just to satisfy the shareholders seemed completely immoral.  Who were these insatiable shareholders who demand year on year increases regardless of the effect it had on everyone else?

It really made me question, for the first time, capitalism; everyone else has to pay just so shareholders get better dividends.  It felt wrong and deeply unfair.  I have since learnt about the John Lewis business model based on Quaker principles.  No-one in the company is allowed to earn more than 80 times the wage of the lowest paid worker.  It feels to our detriment that this did not become standard business practice, imagine the effects it could have had, helping to make our society a more equal one.

It felt as if I was shouting into the wind, a one-woman-losing-battle as friends would proudly tell me about all the deals they had got with their Teso Clubcard points.  But then I heard about the protests in Stokes Croft, Bristol over the opening of a new store, and everything changed.  I wasn’t a lone voice, there were other people who felt exactly the same way as me about Tescos.

The Bristol experience, where Tescos managed to open in an area despite strong local objection, is because the planning permission for change of use was acquired before the property was sold to the supermarket.  This happened in our local area too.  Leeds Halton could not be described as a bohemian area, but it was still a high street that contained plenty of grocery shops, Co-Op, Jack Fultons (discount frozen foods, think Iceland without the advertising budget or own store ranges) and a Lidl.   The Tesco site had previously been a pub and the effects have been very noticeable.  The Co-Op (almost directly opposite the new store) has been decimated, takings down 75%.  It is looking very likely the store will close.  If this is happening in Leeds and Bristol it must be happening all over the country.  There must be a way to prevent these stealth openings.

I know that the big four supermarkets are all guilty of these practices but Tesco is the giant, the far and away market-leader, a would-be monopoly.  It’s as big as Sainsburys and Asda combined.  If we don’t stand up to them now I worry there will be no come back for the high street in a couple of years.

Tescos often defend their actions stating that they provide much-needed jobs to the area, but recent calculations show that there are 276 net job losses (British Planning Retail Forum) due to smaller shops closing within a 7 mile radius of the new supermarket opening because they cannot compete.

I must confess I am swayed by the convenience of the one-stop shop, especially when pressed for time.  My most local shop IS a Sainsburys.  I convince myself  that with their wings at both the National Gallery and British Museum, Sainsburys are doing good, adding to the cultural wealth of the country.  That Sainsburys is a more ethically run company. That for me it is marginally greener.  That it isn’t Tescos.

But I know this is collusion, I should support our high street more.  We all need to, this is something where every single one of us can do our bit.  Support the local butcher or green grocer, ‘every little helps’… cuts both ways.

The Labour opposition minister is looking to Mary Portas as head of the government commissioned review into the future of the high street to bring in a competition test to prevent dominance by one grocery store.  Especially when they are trying to diversify into every area of our lives.  We now have a chance to halt the decline of our high street, to be a nation of shopkeepers once again, not a nation of empty shop fronts.

It is imperative this goes through, because as we have seen time and time again and most recently with Murdoch and News International, when one company dominates, none of us benefits.

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