"is there one or two? Well, if you lot can’t agree how do you expect me to decide?" So might the imaginary conversation go at the Competition Commission during its investigation into the grocery market. Predictably, the arguments put forward by the hypers et al are very much along the lines of self-interest. Tesco says there’s only one. Morrisons agrees (although I’m not quite sure why) while, predictably, Asda and Sainsbury claim there are two. And as for good old M&S’s suggestion that you have to consider the type of retailer, well that could lead to a definition of four or five markets!
All of this is very relevant to us, as the eventual decision will determine which, and how many, of these unwanted rivals will pop up on our doorstep. The depressing part of this debate is that all the big boys are arguing that current planning regulations are restricting their growth. They want more freedom to open stores wherever they choose. From my viewpoint, the current rules and regulations haven’t stopped our market being ripped to shreds, so heaven help us if even more growth is allowed.
So what would we ideally want? Well we certainly don’t want any more Tesco Expresses etc, but then again we don’t really want any more hypers either. Perhaps our only real chance is a plea to the WWF to have UK independent petrol stations declared an endangered species, and thus be afforded total protection from all predators!
If you really want a scary moment you might reflect that, up until now, the main reason our industry hasn’t suffered the same fate as the butchers, florists, fishmongers and greengrocers is the power of the oilers trying to protect their investments. Once Shell and Total have followed BP and Texaco and sold off their real estate, there will be nobody left to fight our corner. I’ve excluded Esso from the equation because they seem hell bent on destroying their real estate all by themselves.
On a recent trip round some of the hypers, I was at least comforted by the observation that a shopping trip to these emporia now seems to take even longer. The introduction of self-service checkouts may have led to staff reductions on the ’10 items or less tills’, but the combination of out-of-order equipment, poor bar code reading, extended look-up times while the great British public tries to find its unwrapped fruit in the picture dictionary, and the average punters’ inability to follow any simple instruction, means that a quick nip down to a superstore to buy a pint of milk, a loaf of bread and a packet of fags is anything but quick!
The other thing that struck me on this exercise was how it has taken the ’sophisticates’ of the retailing market 20 years to catch up with what us dinosaurs used to do. When we first moved from the pile of oil cans and an accessory stand kiosk to something vaguely purporting to be a shop, we used to display our sweets and chocolate by cutting away the front of the manufacturers’ outer and putting the box on a shelf. How amateurish said the experts. You’ve got to unpack and cherishingly display every single item if you want to maximise sales. Obviously the increases in the National Minimum Wage have persuaded the likes of Tesco and Asda that plonking cut-a-way boxes on a shelf ain’t so terrible after all!
And finally, if proof was ever needed that the world of pure economics is a little removed from the UK in 2006, I give you the example of the price of a packet of well-known cigarettes. They were £4.86 at the hyper, £5.01 at the convenience store, £5.05 at the Shell site and a whopping £5.15 at Esso. Proof, if ever it was needed, that convenience is almost as powerful a motive as price.
By the way, Competition Commission. The hyper mentioned above was Tesco. The convenience store selling at £5.01, instead of £4.86, was Tesco Express. What was that about there not being two markets?