The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has written to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) calling for a Competition Commission inquiry into the monopoly position of the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets in the grocery sector.
Tesco and now Sainsbury have cleverly warded off this enquiry by presenting their in-town and forecourt shops as convenience stores. If these premises are left out of the calculation there is no monopoly. If the figures are combined however, Tesco alone will have almost 40% of the market – enough to trigger an enquiry.
Between 2000 and 2004, 7,337 independent retailers closed down or sold their businesses to Tesco who was at that time paying top dollar for high street shops just to gain market share.
The FSB believes that this trend will continue unless action is taken to address the inequitable practices that have allowed supermarkets to dominate the grocery and convenience store sector.
The FSB is calling for:
- A Competition Commission inquiry into the monopoly position of the supermarkets. This should include an examination of supermarket relationships and trading practices in dealing with their suppliers.
- A revision of Government planning guidance to local authorities. This will ensure that local government is not ramping up town centre parking fees whilst permitting still further large out of town shopping centres with accompanying car parks.
- The Supermarket Code of Practice to be more strictly enforced because, despite being statutory, it is not influencing supermarket behaviour sufficiently.
- Below cost selling should be banned, as it is in France*, to prevent supermarkets enticing customers in to the store, away from other retailers, by selling products at far below cost price, with other sales then covering the cost of this loss. This is an abuse of a dominant position using the size of the supermarkets to unfairly eliminate the competition.
Clive Davenport, FSB Trade and Industry Chairman, said, "If the convenience and supermarket sectors are analysed together, as common sense suggests they should, there would be an obvious monopoly situation where an inquiry would be triggered automatically. The way they are looked at separately cannot be justified.
"Such domination of a vital part of UK commercial and family life, based on overly-favourable government policy decisions and unfair trading practices, cannot be allowed to stand. With a full and open inquiry now, a balance can be found where supermarkets and small shops can co-exist, providing value for all consumers.
"Supermarkets have their place in the UK retail mix. We are not arguing against them because they are successful - profitable businesses are to be congratulated. However, unfair public policy decisions and inequitable trading practices play a large part in that success at the expense of smaller retailers. This is where intervention is now needed by the OFT. Inaction and timidity is no longer an option."
*Interestingly, the situation that has favoured small shops in France could be drawing to a close. Jaques Chirac, who championed the laws restricting growth and cost cutting, is approaching the end of his second and probably final term in office. There is some unease among small traders and a fear that the laws will be relaxed. However, the restrictive laws imposed on larger companies were set up following militant uprisings by a group of small retailers known as the Poujadists in the 1950s and the memory of this unrest may be enough to ensure the interests of small traders are considered fairly.
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