The Competition Commission is taking its investigation into the UK grocery industry to Northern Ireland next month, as its schedule for personal hearings builds up a head of steam.

This week, the inquiry team, led by Commission chairman Peter Freeman, met Nisa-Today's, Waitrose and the Association of Convenience Stores. Next week will be the turn of the larger retailers, Sainsbury's, Asda and Marks and Spencer, as well as Dairy UK, with Tesco to follow later in October.

In its hearing with the full panel of Competition Commissioners on Tuesday (26 September), the ACS claimed the buying power of the big four was the root cause of the uneven playing field in the grocery market, including predatory price flexing, local price manipulation and an abuse of the planning system.

Director of public affairs at the Association of Convenience Stores, James Lowman, who led the delegation, told the inquiry: "This investigation must uncover the differentials between the buying prices achieved by the big four and those paid by convenience retailers and wholesalers."

Following the meeting, Lowman told The Grocer: "We had a fair hearing - there's a genuine interest there to hear from smaller stores. Two independent retailers came with us and they talked first hand about the impact the big four are having on smaller retailers."

Martin Beaumont, group chief executive of The Co-operative Group, said that although he was yet to

have a date set for a meeting with the Competition Commission, the inquiry had already taken up enormous resources.

"We're involved with another 17 societies on this," he said. "It's tying up a huge amount of management time and is costing us well into seven figures."

A spokesman for the Competition Commission said that it now wanted to set up meetings with interested parties in Northern Ireland and would be placing ads in the press in order to raise awareness.