The year is 2013. Tesco has passed the milestone of having a superstore in every square mile of Britain. The megalithic multiple is then granted planning permission to build a store on the side of a cliff.
Having no more room to expand, Tesco wages war on Denmark in a bid to create "the first retail super-state". Its tag line - ’Every little helps’ - is replaced by ’We control every aspect of your lives’. No, this is not some prophecy based on the long-term effects of the Competition Commission’s report into the power of the supermarkets. It is, in fact, a sketch from BBC2’s Time Trumpet - a spoof nostalgia show looking back at history from the vantage point of 2031. It would hardly surprise me if it transpired that the authors of the CC report had watched this and taken it as an inspiration - nay a template.
In fact, in light of the CC’s championing of competition between the supermarkets - potentially paving the way for more edge-of-town stores - this dystopian scene seems barely a parody. Political expediency favours the supermarkets, which have kept inflation in check through forcing down food prices by 7% in real terms since 2000. It is true that the public may benefit from the supermarkets offering low prices, as the report concluded. And the multiples can hardly be blamed for growing their business and meeting their obligations to shareholders. Neither can the buyers, who are themselves under enormous pressure to cut costs.
But the CC continues to see the supermarkets in splendid isolation from the shockwave effects they have throughout industry. And there are some real horror stories from suppliers complaining of late invoicing, hidden charges and take-it-or-leave-it price reductions having a strangling effect on their business.
As the saying goes, ’Don’t blame the player, blame the game’. The supermarkets operate within the rules that they are given and, although they have a powerful influence on the lobby process, there is reluctance from government to acknowledge that the broader social need of supporting small business must be served. The alternative is that consumer choice is reduced to a handful of mega-retailers. Which is no choice at all.