Tesco: convenience, at what price?

Alice Bloch 20 January 2008

Is there anything good about Tesco? It has a 30% share of the UK grocery market, doesn’t think twice about crushing small businesses, and one in seven pounds spent in Britain goes straight into its pockets. And that’s before we even start on its condescending advertising campaign this Christmas.

Yet Tesco ploughs down a one-way high-street to uniformity and market monopoly. Last week, planning officers at Cambridge City Council recommended the approval of a store on Mill Road, perhaps the city’s last bastion of independent retailers and long-nurtured diversity.

Tesco was delighted, saying “the new store will provide more convenience food choice that can help to keep people shopping locally.” By this incredible feat of reasoning, if I today purchase a DVD in Borders, I am apparently shopping locally. Well, we’re all shopping locally all the time then – lucky us!

Of course, this is far from true and misconceptions must be addressed. By disliking Tesco, I could be accused of being snobby, and belittling those who cannot shop at independent butchers, bakers and grocers.

Yet this is not the case. I am as much opposed to the ‘oh-so-trendy-faux-bohemian-middle-class-Jamie-Oliver-loving-mother-en-route-to-yoga’ organic lifestyle shop epidemic in this country as I am to Tesco. Neither is ideal.

But it is Tesco, along with other supermarkets, that forces independent retailers to raise their prices by opening stores in a flurry of aggressive price-cutting.

It’s not even the case that Tesco always saves us money – research by the New Economics Foundation showed that fresh produce in street markets was on average 30% cheaper than at supermarkets. In 2000, the Department of Health recommended that local authorities discourage the provision of new supermarkets over 1000 square metres outside existing town centres in recognition of the value of local shops to low income households.

So much for Tesco being the social entrepreneur that deluded apologists portray it to be. As Corporate Watch notes, Tesco exploits “cash-poor, time-poor” shoppers. The problem is, nobody dares say this because we all shop there. As its CEO says, “we’re just giving customers what they want'” This seems infallible, but is it really true?

After all, do we really want identical high streets, for British producers to lose out, or for our children to not understand what seasonal produce is?

It is time that we asked ourselves what “convenience” really means, and whether we are prepared to sacrifice the diversity and integrity of our communities.

This, however, rests on the hope that we are not all as apathetic as the media claims. Tesco may exist on Mill Road if Councillors decide it, but if consumers don’t shop there, it will fail.

Still, as a generation raised in the age of super consumerism and endless short-term gratification, do students of today have the power to resist their autopilot tendencies? This challenge lies not with the supermarkets but with ourselves.

Alice Bloch