What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

June 21, 2006

Supermarket sweep

Simon Hoggart reports, rather deliciously, in today’s thegrauniad on David Cameron’s speech championing “the new politics” at the National Family and Parenting institute:

"We have got to big up Asda!" he told us, excitedly. I wondered which Tory leaders would have brought the same message to the people. "Swan and Edgar - Respec'!" Churchill might have said. Or "Let us give due esteem to Sir Thomas Lipton's Emporium of Quality Comestibles!" as Disraeli never tired of saying.
Indeed, supermarkets were big-upped - or is it bigged-up? - no end today. Daniel Finkelstein, who I’m sure used to be called Danny, was unequivocal in The Times:

Every battle for liberty has a front line. In the battle for economic liberty, many of my friends believe that the front line is the rate of tax. And I certainly agree that this is important. But for me the front line is the freedom of supermarkets — big, fat, galumphing, supermarkets with 26 varieties of Coco Pops and large car parks — to conduct their business.
The thing is, I agree with Danny, sorry, Daniel.

Indeed, not to do so would be entirely hypocritical, given almost all my food shopping takes place at my local Tesco, 30 seconds’ walk from my flat. It would be possible for me to buy everything I need (pretty much) at shops other than Tesco. But it would be more inconvenient, take me longer, and cuesta mucho dinero.

Am I guilty of rational self-interest in its most negative form? Perhaps, yet Finkelstein mounts a breathless, slightly glib, but robustly reasonable defence:

Concerned about food prices? Supermarkets drive them down. About inequality? Studies in the US have shown that the creation of superstores (particularly Wal-Mart) has disproportionately benefited those on low incomes. The environment? There is far more chance of persuading the big chains to accept their responsibilities than the old corner grocer. Concerned about pay and conditions for shop workers? Organic food? Labelling? Supermarket chains have raised the bar in all of these areas. And most important of all, they sell things, high-quality items and downmarket items alike, that consumers want to buy.
The ideal is, of course, a diversity of local retailers, so that the small, independent shops can co-exist happily alongside the large chains. Local and national government, in establishing regulatory frameworks, can both help to ensure the high street lions and lambs play happily together.

The larger role, though, is acted by us as consumers. The single biggest reason why local shops close is because fewer people are shopping there. We might lament the fact; but it would be more useful to face it, and understand why.

(I will also parenthetically add that, in my own council ward, Headington, though the large student population is sometimes unpopular with local residents, they are at least regular patrons of the local shops. They are not the ones driving to the out-of-town supermarkets, or ordering their weekly shop via the Internet.)

Supermarkets exist, and are popular, because they are good at giving people what they want. Simply to diss them - see, Mr Cameron, I can get down wiv da kidz’ argot as well - is to miss the point, or deliberately to avoid it. They are a creation of society’s aspirations to have a choice of quality foodstuffs available at reasonable cost whenever we need them.

Have a cheap pop at Tesco or Asda if you want - but at least address how else you would enable people to fulfil that basic want.


David Morton said...

Tesco? Tuition Fees? Quoting the Economist on single mums?

You'll burn in Hell!

Valerie said...

Although after I went freelance and was able to go to shops that close at 5.30, the market etc, I suddenly discovered I could pay about half what I had been doing for meat, fruit and vegetables. It did help to have a market at the end of the road, though.

P.S. Did you see the article in the Independent the other day about food miles? Essentially saying that the cost on e.g. sugar snap peas flown from Kenya is negligible (although I can imagine it being bit less so for heavier things) and that almost half of food miles are people driving to the supermarket...

Stephen Tall said...

David - it's alright, I won't burn in hell. I've already taken the precaution of out-sourcing my soul.

Valerie - fair enough. Most of my shopping is done after work and council meetings, c.9.30 pm. Tesco is the one shop that's open.

Liberals used, of course, to fight - and win - elections on a platform of cheap food...

Martin Young said...

It seems to me that the question is one of scale, or rather subsidiarity.

It's easy to defend supermarkets as perveyors of cheap food, cheap jobs and convenience at a time when money's tight and daytime shopping is increasingly inconvenient for working families. But this is praising their positive effects on individuals, not the supermarkets themselves, or the supermarket system.

A supermarket is essentially a traditional town market but where all the stalls are owned and run by the same vendor. This vendor also owns the marketplace, the stalls and the wholesalers. Oh, and the markets in the surrounding towns. That is to say, there's been almost complete vertical and horizontal consolidation in the market-market.

Large scale horizontal and vertical consolidation is commonplace in other businesses, true. But it usually has clear advantages that, one hopes, will eventually be passed on to consumers: combined R&D, unified manufacturing standards etc etc. Food retail, OTOH, by necessity has to happen at a human scale and near the point of consumption. There's no opportunity for, say, centralising supermarkets to a single location per region; normal sized lorries still have to take the food from the supplier to the shelves; somebody still has to stand behind the fresh fish counter and pick out the trout.

A collection of smaller traders working together could yield pretty much the same benefit for consumers whilst keeping the proceeds closer to the broad base of consumers. This would be clearly a better thing, no? Unfortunately semi-managed, capitalistic economies like ours are currently weighted heavily towards big businesses - hence Tesco.

This is to say, supermarkets add little unique value at a disproportionate cost (the problems often noted). Every good aspect of them could be achived without the broad, large-scale consolidation which causes such consternation. To praise Tesco is just to applaud a glytch in managed capitalism and to ignore the opportunity cost.

As liberals we should be looking at ways to remove the obstacles that stop individuals or small companies from challenging Tesco, not cheering them on.

Liberal Neil said...

I generally think it is unfair to blame the supermarkets themselves. They are simply the inevitable result of a free market and a particular policy regime.

I would, however, like to see changes in policy around transport costs, parking and competition law which would probably result in less dominance by supermarkets.

Large supermarkets are convenient for most people - but don't forget that if you don't have a car and don't live near one they are not.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

"Liberals used, of course, to fight - and win - elections on a platform of cheap food..."

I can't believe that. Gladstone was quite an elderly fellow and would have struggled to maintain his balance on a pile of cabbages.


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