The All-Party Small Shops Group report, called High Street Britain 2015, was published last week, accompanied by a great deal of media interest. Over 100 journalists, including two from the USA, asked for copies.
All the written evidence and the five live evidence hearings in the House of Commons translated into 75 pages and 14 recommendations. Those recommendations went much further than I thought the MPs would. They are a blueprint for a sustainable, viable retailing sector. The report also looks at the most vulnerable kinds of retailers – those sections of retailing, which, unless the government acts, would be the most likely to go out of business. They are concerned for retailers – and their wholesalers, who share the same suppliers as supermarkets. T
he immense buying power of the supermarkets means that local independent shops cannot – sometimes at any price – compete on high-volume lines. Their wholesalers and cash and carries cannot supply the independents at anywhere near the price that the supermarkets pay. This is a crucial point for the wholesale grocery network; if it becomes unviable, it could collapse very quickly, thus hastening the closure of independent convenience stores. Newspapers and magazines also have one distribution network, but that system is heavily biased in favour of the supermarkets; any shortages and your local newsagent is the one who suffers.
Bakers have their own manufacturers, their own wholesale network and so do not face these problems. The MPs write of how bakers can produce fresh products of a quality and range much superior to that found in either the in-store bakery or on the shelves of supermarkets. I wonder who told them that.
Now we have the report, the question is what happens next. Next is politics. The inquiry from the evidence is gathered and the breadth of interest – indeed passion – from the people who contributed shows government that people care. People are voters and governments respond to voters. What I will do, as the chief executive of the National Association of Master Bakers (NA), toge-ther with my colleagues from the other trade associations in the Independent Retailers Confederation, is to seek meetings with those Ministers who have the power to decide if the report and recommendations of the MPs in the group are acted upon or become just words on a shelf in Westminster.
The report is not saying supermarkets are to be broken up, or to be stopped expanding. There is compelling evidence that the supermarkets form a complex monopoly, already described by the Office of Fair Trading as working against the long-term interests of consumers. It is now even more complex and more monopolistic and still against the long-term interests of consumers. It is no longer simply about food, but about everything we buy – from bread to babygrows, Cornish pasties to credit cards, Eccles cakes to eye drops, the supermarkets have become black holes, sucking all consumer spending into their shareholders’ pockets.