Industry groups are scrambling to bring together evidence of breaches of the supermarket code of practice in time for next week’s deadline.
In March, the OFT concluded the supermarkets were working to the guidelines. But it said its audit was hindered by lack of hard evidence and gave interested parties until Tuesday (May 31) to put up or shut up.
Trade associations have since been searching for evidence that could lead to the OFT taking a different view of supermarket compliance.
The Association of Convenience Stores chief executive David Rae said that its new report on entry barriers
into the c-store sector, set to be subitted to the OFT before the deadline, focused on buyer power and why the big four multiples should be examined in a full market review.
The ACS is also submitting evidence covering fuel pricing, below-cost selling, voucher-based discounts and consumer research indicating that 75% of consumers are concerned about the multiples’ expansion into the convenience sector.
“The enormous discrepancies in buyer power between the multiple grocers and the rest of the market makes competition unbalanced and ultimately against the interests of the consumer,” claimed Rae.
The NFU, however, said it had failed to produce new evidence of anti-competitive behaviour, despite offering members the opportunity to take part in a confidential survey into supermarket prices last month.
“We have had lots of replies from members and loads of comments, but the black and white evidence just isn’t there,” admitted Emma Holyfield, NFU food chain adviser.
Meanwhile, Conservative MPs have launched a campaign to toughen up the code.
Shadow agricultural minister Jim Paice has tabled a motion condemning the present provisions and is pressing the government to take a fresh look at the code. He said it was open to abuse and should be changed to enforce written contracts between suppliers and supermarkets.
n Consumers could be able to comment on OFT investigations in future. It is consulting on the proposal, which would allow consumers to comment on provisional findings of inquiries into anti-competitive behaviour.
Fiona McLelland & Ronan Hegarty