The curse of convenience

The blanding process needs to be counteracted by creating the lure of excitement and massive choice. A brief excursion into the world of supermarkets reveals that in Britain, the big four control nearly 75 per cent of food retailing, a frightening figure. Tesco has 30.6 per cent, Asda (Wal-Mart) 16.6 per cent, Sainsbury's 16.3 per cent and Morrison's 11.1 per cent.100 They have drained the life out of the high street and cleansed it of diversity. The supermarket model is also space eating and they have wrenched space away from the edge of town and out of town.

Looking at their activities through a broader food miles and sustainability perspective, they are far less efficient than they make out. They have sidled into the imagination of the public as the one-stop destination for your every need. They have projected themselves as the only way. They are not stupid and they have a wealth of expertise and resources at their fingertips to lobby, to change minds and to get their way. And when the going gets tough, they adapt, chameleon-like, and pretend to be local in their desire to please. Many fund local initiatives, as long they can get on with business as usual. In sum, they pull the wool over our eyes so we do not understand the underlying dynamics of their operations and their impact on real life. These guys are professionals, exert immense power and are in it for the long haul.

Few other shops swallow such a huge chunk of our net income as supermarkets do. Tesco, for example, takes £1 in every £8 pounds spent in British shops. Do we get the value we are promised? Comparing the big chains and local, independent shops on the high street, the result is surprising. Guardian journalist Sarah Marks conducted an experiment over two weeks. In the first week, she spent £105.65 at Sainsbury's. In week two, a total of £105.20 at local shops was spent on the same groceries. A difference of 45p is admittedly not an enormous amount and she had to walk around more.

Nevertheless, local retailers suffer because there is a perception that the big four are cheaper and because they tell us they are 'good value'. But they rely on people only knowing the cost of a small number of goods, referred to as known value items (KVIs). These are items that supermarkets price check against their supermarket and independent competitors and keep as low as possible to attract custom. Other items can be much more expensive. Bananas are one KVI and the local market cannot match the price. But other fruit, like seedless white grapes, can be twice as expensive in the supermarkets. There is a 'hierarchy of value', with extra cheap ranges, everyday prices and premium brands. Basic sliced white bread cost Sarah Marks just 19p, but its country style with rye loaf was eight times more expensive at £1.49. Overall, chemist and grocery items in the supermarket were cheaper by 11 per cent and 28 per cent respectively, but fruit and veg, meat and fish were not.101 What are the gains and losses in shopping in different ways? In one you support the local economy and in the other the corporatized economy with global supply chains.

Supermarkets have maintained their power because of their convenience and seductive tricks like pumping out smells near the bread counters. But how else? The planning system is weak in practically all countries and favours multiple retailers over independent stores. In Britain, in contrast to France, the government's Planning Policy Statement 6 (PPS6) is failing to prevent out-of-town development, possibly as a result of supermarkets lobbying central government. Yet PPS6 forms the only formal defence that local authorities have against retail development that may negatively impact on the community. On the one hand the policy states it is 'facilitating and promoting sustainable and inclusive patterns of development, including the creation of vital and viable town centres'. On the other, about 60 per cent of development still takes place out of town, with a rising percentage in edge-of-town locations. PPS6 also states, 'Larger stores may deliver benefits for consumers and local planning authorities should seek to make provision for them in this context. In such cases, local planning authorities should seek to identify, designate and assemble larger sites adjoining the primary shopping area (i.e. in edge-of-centre locations).'102 But local authorities have no ultimate control. Supermarkets are beginning to have more power than local councils, as local decisions are being overturned on appeal by higher authorities. Councils are also influenced by the very high costs of appeal and are reluctant to lose. As one councillor, also a shop-owner, noted:

Tesco has hit the town really badly. My typical daily turnover went down 50 per cent the day it opened... They are too big and powerful for us. If we try and deny them, they will appeal, and we cannot afford to fight a planning appeal and lose. If they won costs, it could bankrupt us.103

This is the result of supermarket lobbying and leveraging planning gain whereby a developer agrees with a planning authority to pay for community facilities in return for planning approval. Supermarkets run lobbying and public relations campaigns focused on local authorities and communities respectively in order to increase the likelihood that planning applications for their stores and the stores themselves, once constructed, will be accepted.

The focus on out-of-town and edge-of-town development reduces creativity because it is geared towards branded, global chains. A feeling of public space may be propagated but in reality it is privately owned space that is tightly controlled to foster a consuming environment. There is little or no room for individual participation and invention. One could imagine food chains and other stores rethinking their service delivery so that people can use city centres without worrying too much about carrying things about. Internet grocery shopping with home delivery is one development but as are local pick-up points where shoppers collect their shopping without worrying about being at home at a certain time. Such delivery innovations lessen the imperative of supermarkets to locate on the edge of town.

Clearly some chains have better track records than others, such as Waitrose in Britain, which has a good reputation for quality and is owned by its employees and not shareholders. As one would expect, this produces a high level of commitment among employees and a far stronger commitment to locality. In contrast are Wal-Mart and Tesco.

Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer, with more than 3000 stores in the US and almost 1300 international operations, such as Asda in Britain. It is also the world's largest corporation. It employs 1.4 million workers worldwide and with over a million in the US it is the largest private employer there. More than half of Wal-Mart's US employees leave the company each year. They earn an average hourly wage of US$11.00 for non-management positions, with no defined benefit pension and inadequate healthcare. Wal-Mart was sued 4851 times in 2000 - or about once every two hours, every day of the year. Wal-Mart lawyers list about 9400 open cases.104 They pay below poverty-level wages. At 34 hours per week (fulltime at Wal-Mart), a person makes US$19,000 per year, well below the poverty level for a family of four. Six hundred and sixty thousand of its employees are without company-provided health insurance, forcing workers to seek taxpayer-funded public assistance. A US congressional study found that Wal-Mart costs the American taxpayer up to US$2.5 billion in public assistance to subsidize its US$10 billion in profits. But the going may be getting tougher. Wal-Mart won city council approval in May 2004 to build its first store in Chicago after months of delay and intense lobbying by the chain's foes and supporters. After a raucous debate, the council voted 32 to 15 to allow Wal-Mart to construct a 150,000-square-foot store in a poor, largely black and Hispanic neighbourhood on the city's West Side. In a second vote, however, the council rejected a huge store that Wal-Mart wanted to build in a racially diverse, largely middle-class South Side neighbourhood.105 In June 2005 Vancouver city council rejected (by eight votes to three) Wal-Mart's bid to build its first store in the city, a big-box outlet on Southeast Marine Drive, this in spite of the green design that Wal-Mart put forward after criticisms of its environmental practices. As councillor Peter Ladner noted, 'There was a real "undercurrent" that wasn't officially part of the council's debate about Wal-Mart's labour practices, its sourcing practices, the satanic nature of giant multinational corporations.'106

In 2005 producer/director Robert Greenwald made an emblematic film called Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost, which took the viewer on an extraordinary journey that could change the way people think, feel and shop.107 It tracked the conditions of workers at Wal-Mart, the company's intimidation of employees, its power over supply chains and the culture of fear it induces. It allowed these people to tell their story. The film really came alive when it utilized footage of deserted towns and main streets all across America, many of which had been affected by Wal-Mart and other big-box stores moving in and causing destruction. It was released through an alternative distribution network via thousands of house parties.108

Similarly, there is a growing movement of people in towns and cities across Britain who believe Tesco and other big superstores threaten to destroy their communities and reduce choice. Increasingly, local people are joining together to fight new supermarket developments that they believe pose a grave threat to the health of their local economies and communities. 'Tesco has driven down the supply price of meat, vegetables, everything, because they have such a huge share of the market. It's a monopoly position. they can simply go and find someone else who will supply them at the price they want.'109 The Tescopoly Alliance documents these campaigns. Britain is renowned for its apple varieties and quality, yet surveys by Friends of the Earth show that, at the height of the British apple season, over 50 per cent of Tesco's apples are imported and that supermarkets reject perfectly good British fruit for no good reason. Tesco says it has 7000 regional (i.e. Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English) lines on sale and many promotions related to regional produce. Yet this figure is less than 20 per cent of the total of 40,000 Tesco lines and many of these 'regional' products are sold throughout Britain so are simply British produce.110

Many people choose locally grown produce because of the associated environmental and social benefits. Yet ethics are increasingly marketed as a consumer choice rather than a corporate standard. Fairness and justice in trading, for example, are niched as fair-trade-labelled speciality products and not mainstreamed into business practice as of late 2005. Tesco sells only 91 fair trade product lines, a tiny amount representing only 0.2 per cent of its lines. In

November 2004 no more than 4.5 per cent of Tesco's sales of bananas were fairly traded.111

Tesco, like other major chains, claims to create more jobs, but the figures do not add up. In 2004 small grocery shops in the UK had a turnover of around £21 billion and employed more than 500,000112 while Tesco, with a £29 billion turnover, employed just 250,000 people.113 As retail chains grow, overall jobs are lost. This might be more efficient in narrow terms, but not when taking into account downstream impacts. Furthermore, the buying power of the big chains is considered to be distorting competition to a worrying degree.114 Londis, the national corner shop brand, has admitted that it is cheaper to buy brands from Tesco and resell them than to get them from its wholesalers.115 Tesco may claim to be a 'magnet for market towns, keeping people shopping locally',116 but the reality is that local shops close wherever Tesco goes, from Dumfries in the north to Penzance in the south. 'The new Tesco in Dumfries now sells chart music cheaper than me, so people now only come to me for the rare stuff and the staple 35 per cent of my income from the chart music has disappeared,' says an independent record retailer.117 The idea that regeneration can be driven by major chains needs close and sophisticated examination and appropriate and robust policy. Friends of the Earth suggest:

• a much stricter code of practice to ensure suppliers along the whole chain are treated fairly and which covers sustainability, labour and health standards;

• a supermarket watchdog to ensure that the grocery market is operating in the interests of consumers, farmers and small retailers;

• enlargement of competition policy to address impacts on suppliers (not just consumers) to prevent misuse of buying power; and

• a market study by competition authorities to examine the wider effects on society of the over-concentrated retail sector with a view to presenting policies to address market share.118

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