I was interviewed last week by a journalist trying to get my thoughts on the current flurry of bid and counter-bid for Safeway. Buried among her questions were a couple about the fact that the Co-operative Group had started to claim it was the biggest c-store operator in the UK. I was asked what I had to say about this and whether I thought this was a legitimate claim based on the fact that the Co-operative group directly owns all its stores and Spar's are mainly in the hands of independent retailers.
To be honest, I avoided answering the question, because as far as I can see the issue between the Co-operative Group and us is fairly irrelevant. Spar is the largest collection of c-stores in the UK and that's indisputable. The Co-operative Group has more stores under one owner.
But why is the issue of size relevant? That should be the question, because in my opinion we are fast approaching a situation when size will matter more than quality unless something is done to slow down the march of consolidation in food retailing.
We are already in a situation where the big box grocery market is owned' by four players and that could soon be three. How long then before the pricing policy of the big two makes it difficult to sustain a third?
Lack of competition and consumer choice arises, not particularly because there are a small number of players in a given market, but because it's too difficult for someone new to come in and give the rest a wake-up call! It doesn't matter whether you have three or four major multiples.
With their scale and dominance there is no hope for a new entrant ­ the costs are too heavy and the efficiencies too far away without critical mass. As long as it's too expensive to enter the market, no-one will.
That makes everyone complacent and lazy. When you talk about market size at a macro level like this it takes no consideration of the real impact on communities. How many customers will really have a choice of where to shop when there are only three players? How many have a choice now?
It's this that frightens me most about the threat to the local shopping market at the moment. I have been amazed at how inventive, entrepreneurial, innovative and visionary the players in our market sector are compared to the sterile formula-driven corporations that exist in the world of big box retailing. It's not surprising why. It's because they have to be. Competition for a fair price from suppliers, for sites, for store managers, for staff, and for customers produces innovation, flair and good practice by the spade-load.
We are the sector that has made post offices work despite the restrictive practices that come with the relationship ­ can you see Tesco doing that? We are the sector that makes bill payment work for the benefit of many parts of the community that cannot pay for their utilities any other way, despite the fact that the margin is laughable ­ can you see Asda doing that?
In our world we don't create jobs' ­ we employ real people in the communities in which they live.
Just in our organisation alone we have individuals who have built multi-million pound businesses from scratch. People who have invested their own money in the sector. These are the real captains of our industry. It's not that I don't have the upmost respect for Messrs Leahy, DeNunzio, Davis ­ it's the system that beats me. How would people enter the convenience store market if it was sewn up in the style of big box retailing? The answer is, of course, that they wouldn't.
Competition is good for us and good for the consumer, but for it to work you have to nurture it in a fair, balanced environment. And that's what seems to be missing.
Local retailing is far more important to the community than any other institution. It is still the place where small businesses can be built ­ where retailers can still develop a business to be proud of.
Spar's Keep it Local' survey now shows that 92% of respondents want local shops above all other facility.
I don't want an unfair plan ­ I just want a plan. To allow our industry to go forward now, without a coherent retail strategy from central government, is nothing short of scandalous.