The protracted sale of Iceland looks like giving analysts and media commentators lots more opportunities to comment on the space race of the big four (and both Waitrose and M&S are hardly slouches, either).

Having raised this issue over 12 months ago, and examining the supermarket expansion programmes in great detail at various junctures ever since, we decided to take a different tack this week by examining the capex programmes of food and drink manufacturers. And the results are startling.

As we report, capex by the leading fmcg suppliers increased marginally in 2010, to £1.5bn, but levels of investment have fallen massively since the start of the decade (they totalled £2.4bn in 2000, for example).

There are many reasons cited for the decline: the recession; consolidation; offshoring; a focus on investment in emerging markets; the parlous state of the finances of certain very pickled suppliers; and the refusal of supermarkets to offer own-label suppliers, in particular long-term contracts.

But hang on a second! I know times are tough, but this £1.5bn capex total is lower than the £1.7bn spent by Tesco in the UK alone (£1.9bn if you include its investment in its banking operations). And in 2011/12, it intends to pick up the pace, with a £4bn commitment globally, up from £3.7bn.

If you add to this figure the capex for Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S, it totals over £4bn (over £4.5bn if you include Asda’s estimated spend). And based on various promises by these major mults, and including Ocado’s new DC, capex will easily surpass £5bn in the next year.

As increased competition, low consumer confidence and the growth of online shopping threaten sales projections and future profitability, suppliers listening to the latest snappily titled retailer sales plans must surely be thinking ‘Oh yeah?’

Maybe the balance of power is about to shift.