Saturday, 6 August 2011

Why shouldn't we shop at Tesco?

Today's Guardian's Weekend Magazine led on a story about how 'across the country people are battling the relentless march of the 'Big Four''.  Have the four horsemen of the Apocalypse come at last?  Is there a nationwide movement to find 11 footballers good enough to beat Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool? No, the Guardian doesn't think we should shop in supermarkets.

The article itself tells a harrowing tale.  According to one banner near a Norfolk village 'TESCO IS A PARASITE - it fastens on to healthy, vibrant market towns and KILLS them'.  Valiant freedom (from supermarkets) fighters in Bristol have damaged an evil new Tesco store so badly that it had to close for a month, but still the monstrosity matches on.  'Once one of the Big Four has a town in its crosshairs, it can usually be assured of eventual success... Once planning permission has been granted and another supermarket goes up, the inevitable happens: local traders suffer, and many go out of business'.

Leaving aside the ridiculous metaphor that suggests big supermarkets want to shoot towns, the biggest problem with this narrative is that it totally overlooks the crucial step in the process.  When Tesco opens in a town local traders do not 'inevitably' suffer and go out of business.  There is no magical corporate voodoo whereby Jerry's Butchers down the road suddenly wakes up to find itself bankrupt.  Instead, shoppers can choose to spend buy their food (or clothes, or life insurance) from the supermarket rather than the small business, and if they do the small business loses income.

The Guardian focuses on the suffering of small business owners in the article, and that is indeed one side of the debate.  However what about the shoppers, who can now save 10% on their food bills across the year, and thus afford to give themselves a holiday?  Or those who previously didn't have time to get the film they wanted to watch that night because they couldn't squeeze in a trip to the DVD shop and the food shop in the small window of time they had free, but now thanks to a late-opening superstore can settle down in front of Titanic and have some dinner too in the bargain.

You might argue that those are small and superficial benefits, and they don't compare to the loss to communities and companies that are the necessary cost of such comforts.  But if the benefits are so small and the damage to the community so great, then why are enough people shopping in supermarkets to keep them running?  If the anti-supermarket campaigners are right and the appearance of Sainsbury's in their town will ruin it, then they need only convince enough people of this truth (which they consider so obvious it is acceptable to cause criminal damage in defence of it) and the new superstore will be choked of custom and move away.

The other side of the equation is that small businesses can save themselves by providing products or services that are more attractive than what Tesco can offer.  Even if they can't compete on price due to economies of scale, there is nothing to stop small businesses going the extra mile to provide superior products or superior customer service.  Residents in these towns can support small businesses not by opposing the arrival of supermarkets and denying choice to those who want it, but by continuing to shop in their local butcher even though they could get a wider range of cheaper meat just down the road.  Unfortunately, the facts would suggest that (in the main) they don't.

And what of the Guardian's other claim against supermarkets, that thanks to the heinous Town and Country Planning Act of 1990 they can 'swing the debate by offering to fund no end of sweeteners: libraries, public spaces, housing, even schools'(!)  How immoral, Tesco unscrupulous sinks small businesses by resorting to such disgusting bribery.

Except, isn't the Guardian angry about closures to libraries, claiming they're a vital service to communities and education?  Aren't we all aware of the great need for housing at the moment, and the corresponding need to ensure there are available public spaces?  Didn't Tesco give over £9 million to schools in the UK last year, providing vital equipment that will only become more important in an era of cuts?  Isn't the whole argument that Tesco comes to areas and destroys communities completely undermined by the fact that the Guardian are claiming that they buy their way to success by investing in precisely the same communities?

Of course it is unfortunate for a very hardworking shop-owner if they close down as a result of losing custom to a supermarket.  But given that supermarkets also provide jobs, produce products that need workers to produce them and form an important part of the communities they find themselves in, it is simply ridiculous to describe Tesco as a sinister parasite.  If you prefer to help local shops then noone is stopping you from doing so.  Just don't try and claim the moral high ground if I'd much rather nip down to Asda.

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