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Two-billion-Tesco: what does it mean for market towns?

Friday 24 September 2004

Countryside commentator John Sheard takes a welcome break from the fox hunting row to examine the non-too-agreeable role of supermarkets in country life

THE SUPERMARKET giant Tesco announced half-yearly-profits of some £800 million pounds this week and it is likely that they will pass the almost unthinkable two billion mark on the full year's trading, an event which has caused much celebration in the City of London.

In the countryside, however, the news was greeted with gloom in some quarters. For there are many small businessmen and women, and quite a lot of economists too, who feel that further growth of these mega-stores could be the final nail in the coffin for the market town as a shopping centre.

For those who read the profits statement closely, there was one significant fact which perhaps escaped the eye of people who use supermarkets just for food shopping - a practice now established as the norm for the vast majority of families.

This was the fact that a great share of these massively improved profits come from non-food sales like clothing, electrical goods, entertainment items like CDs and videos and, in some stores, medicines from in-house pharmacies.

Now this is really quite sinister. The damage done to small food retailers like butchers, grocers, fishmongers and the like is already monumental. For instance, there were once 30 butchers in Skipton alone. Now, aside from the supermarkets, there are just two.

But if supermarkets are to continue to push their way into more non-food retail operations, the same may be said of some of the few non-national retail shops for clothes, shoes and white goods which are still managing to survive - largely by offering good service and maintaining goodwill going back several generations.

Thankfully, a business can still survive - just - on such qualities today. But only if the local retailer can keep his prices only marginally higher than that of the supermarkets. With the mega-stores able to buy in their non-food goods at huge discounts, how long this can last is a matter of conjecture.

I have, sadly, seen this process at work all too often. Shops my wife and I used with the greatest of pleasure over the years have closed in dozens in Skipton, Kirkby Lonsdale and Kendal. And there is every sign that this trend will continue.

We should also remember that the supermarkets are no friends of farmers and market gardeners either for they cut prices paid to their suppliers to the bone. After foot and mouth, they set up a voluntary code to give suppliers a fair deal but they have since reneged, according to the Country Land and Business Association.

However, all is not lost. For, although most people don't realise it, the power exists to stop the onward march of the all-in-one superstore - and it lies in the hands of our local councillors.

When they grant planning permission, local planners can restrict the proposed store to sales of particular goods - food being the obvious ones.

This, I have to say, has been done quite well in Craven so far - but in Kendal, sales of clothing and other goods at the giant Asda have had a serious knock-on effect on High Street sales. Booths, with sites at Settle and Kirkby Lonsdale, deserve a pat in the back because they have a long-standing policy of selling locally produced foodstuffs.

That said, with two billion in its pocket and an aggressive expansion policy, Tesco is on the march once again. It is no easy task for the Davids who are local councillors to stand up to the Goliath of Tesco. But in all future planning applications, I urge them to take up their slings - or condemn our market town High Streets to a slow and lingering death.

Your views:

  • I agree with everything I have read in this article. I am hoping to re-locate soon to 'where there is no tesco'; this hope is becoming a never-never land. The planning issue seems to need looking at in parliament because Terry Leahey seems to insist that the public is choosing tesco and planners seem to fall for the employment/jobs carrot every time.

    Why don't councillors realise the damage caused by monopoly. My local tesco appears to be working towards only selling own brand products now. A rather insidious method is used, eg.a famous brand product is on the shelf, promoted, even sometimes discounted: customers enjoy buying it, get used to using it; then eventually you realise that it isn't available any more. At first you think it's out of stock temporarily and then you notice that it has been replaced by a tesco own brand product which is of course always slightly cheaper than your original product. This has happened with honey, cereals, crisps, biscuits, popcorn, mineral water, crackers, spices, herbs, flour. The list is increasing.

    I think the prices of these products will increase when the original suppliers have gone out of business and we will only have tesco products to buy instead of 'choose'.

    There is the separate issue of planners being over-ruled by central government, presumably through the environment agency. In Penzance, the planners refused permission for KFC but it is there in prime position at the once attractive roundabout gateway to the town.

    Susan Yvonne Fyans - Penzance, Cornwall

  • Susan, English planners operate within the policies decided by central government. The planning inspectorate, which "overrules", is the appeals board for aggrieved applicants. Such an organisation is a necssary check to ensure planners do not exceed their powers and stay within agreed national policies.

    I grew up in Penzance and have no recollection of the A30 Long Rock bypass roundabout being attractive! It was constructed in the late 1980s and has had retail development around it ever since.

    As for supermarkets - most towns only have a few of the chains; very few towns can support all of them. So you have either a monopoly or duopoly structure. This is often exacerbated by planning policies that prevent rivals opening. Now that would be real competition. As it stands, keeping the mono/duo system plays right into the hands of Tesco. You don't hear them complaining about restrictive planning regs.

    Unfortunately many people are all talk when it comes to local shops and markets. They will all decry the loss of the market but when push comes to shove, more than happy to buy everything in Tesco. Can't have it both ways.

    Marroc - Cambridge

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