In a repeat of the Competition & Markets Authority’s “initial findings” in July, which cleared retailers of wrongdoing after a war of words involving everyone from Tesco’s former chairman John Allan to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, it appears suppliers are also in the clear despite all the mudslinging.
Having trawled through the profit margins of companies across 10 sectors, the authority has found the vast majority of businesses saw profit margins squeezed, rather than inflated, with factors such as the war in Ukraine – and not boardroom greed – a driving factor.
The most it found was a lack of competition in the baby formula market, which whilst an issue of major interest to some, is not the sort of widespread profiteering hard-pressed families were led to believe was going on as they struggled to put food on the table.
Angry takedown of the CMA
The lack of evidence neither comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with the cutthroat competition of the UK grocery sector, nor suppresses the anger of those who believe the CMA has strayed into political territory where it doesn’t belong.
Whilst in some ways the report is testament to the strength of that competition in the industry, finding consumers have consistently been protected from any profiteering during the cost of living crisis by the lower prices provided by the own label sector, many worry some of the mud is bound to stick.
And some of that mud was slung by national newspapers falsely shouting the report found branded suppliers had contributed to rampant food inflation – when in fact it makes clear they did not. This of course follows months of MPs, including senior government ministers, accusing companies of being rip-off merchants.
Shore Capital analyst Clive Black, whose angry takedown of the CMA in response to its findings was almost as long as the report itself and pulled no punches, accused the regulator of tactics that belonged in “Beijing” rather than “Westminster”.
Supermarket loyalty cards
Black is among those who angrily point out the CMA does not exist to tell companies what profits margins they can make.
Indeed, while it does not say so publicly, the regulator admits many of its biggest criticisms are in areas that lay outside of its remit, the sort of turf normally ploughed by the likes of Which?.
So, have the two reports and the prospect of two more to come – including one that will investigate the impact of supermarket loyalty cards, the main weapon used by retailers to keep a lid on prices over the past year – been anything other than a spectacular waste of time and money?
There is certainly no less evidence to suggest that is the case the CMA has unearthed this week.