The Edmondson Blog

The Big Four

I don't usually agree with Simon Heffer, but I do agree with his piece in today's Telegraph.

Those of us who live in the country know too well the effect of a superstore opening outside our local market town. It was summed up by a notice our fishmonger put up in his shop about 15 years ago, shortly after a new hypermarket opened just over a mile away: "Please do not mention Tesco, as a smack in the mouth often offends". He closed a few weeks later, and his premises are now a charity shop.

By contrast, the butcher in the same town appears to be going from strength to strength. His meat is of a far higher class than the rather bland but wholesome stuff the supermarket offers. He can supply cuts that they don't stock. He will also pluck and dress your pheasants and partridges during the autumn and winter, something I have yet to find a Sainsbury's offering to do. There are lessons here, if only we choose to draw them.

The big supermarkets flourish not because they are an implicit force of nature, but because people choose to let them flourish. If we didn't choose to shop there, they wouldn't be so successful. I was at a dinner party a few years ago where one of the other guests blathered on about the evil of Tesco, and how wonderful local shops were being threatened by its very existence. Not long afterwards, on a Sunday, I met her in that very supermarket, buying emergency supplies for her lunch table that she couldn't get anywhere else. I still don't think she got the point.

Many smaller shops survive, and will continue to do so, because they have customers who like what they get there. If the Government really wants to help such people, it should urgently set about the reform of business rates, so that more small shopkeepers can afford to set up and compete with the big boys, and deregulate the employment market for small retailers, so that some of those statutory burdens are lifted, too. It should also tell local councils to be more innovative about matters such as parking and general access to traditional high streets. Oddly enough, that will be helped by directing more traffic to the hated out-of-town stores.

Above all, the Government should never forget that the success of any business is down to the exercise of the free will of its customers who choose to shop there. Sentimentality is all well and good, but it doesn't pay the bills.

And before any of you write to complain that I am being unfeeling towards small shopkeepers - which I expressly am not - ask your conscience this: will you promise never to set foot in a Tesco again?

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