Independent retail campaigners still face an uphill struggle to force the changes they crave to the grocery market, despite the eagerly anticipated MPs’ report on the future of retailing coming out largely in their favour.
As The Grocer went to press, hopes that the All Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group’s High Street Britain: 2015 report would bring about rapid change were being dashed as government departments and watchdogs played down some of the key recommendations.
Calls for a retail regulator were dismissed by the DTI, and a recommendation for a moratorium on acquisitions was thrown out by the DTI and OFT.
The DTI said a regulator was out of the question as the government was “committed to reducing the burden of regulation on business”. A spokeswoman said: “A regulator would be unproductive and contrary to government policy and the wishes of the wider business community.”
The OFT said it would be considering the report as it decides whether to refer grocery to the Competition Commission for a full review, but it was not within its powers to introduce a moratorium on acquisitions. “Any changes to the existing regime would have to be introduced by government,” said a spokeswoman.
However, John Bridgeman, former DG of Fair Trading, backed a key recommendation - the scrapping of the two-market definition, which gives the multiples a free rein to gobble up c-store chains.
He admitted the OFT had arbitrarily decided on market definitions when he referred the sector to the Competition Commission in 2000. “I think we perpetuated the myth that two separate markets exist but that is not true. I hope the OFT recognises the huge overlap - convenience shopping.”
The report found little evidence of wrongdoing by the big four, despite predictions that many c-store retailers were likely to close in the next decade.
Jim Dowd, APPSSG chairman, stressed the group was not anti-supermarket and was not asking for favours for independents but for recognition the market was slanted in favour of larger retailers. “All we are asking for is a sustainable, fair environment where good businesses of any size can survive. The problem at the moment is that perfectly good businesses cannot survive.”
The FWD and the ACS, which have been campaigning for a moratorium on acquisitions and a change in the two-market definition respectively, both admitted that no direct action would come out of the inquiry.
However, they both claimed the report would raise their campaigns’ profile. Waitrose MD Steven Esom said that the APPSSG report was a stimulating contribution to the debate on the key issues in grocery. He added: “The time is now right to widen the discussion and undertake a comprehensive review of the supermarket, mid-range and c- store markets.”
Fiona McLelland