Neil Davenport asks why everyone is so down on the supermarket giant.
Nothing seems to preoccupy the liberal middle classes more than the unstoppable rise of Britain’s No.1 supermarket chain, Tesco. Barely a month goes by without an article in the broadsheets berating the company’s success and portraying the corporation as a monster rather than a retail giant. The latest attack came in Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary The Supermarket That’s Eating Britain, shown last night, which revealed more about the nasty mindsets of the programme-makers and the NIMBYist talking-heads than it did about Tesco.
It seems the critics’ main complaint is that Tesco is a big business that is motivated by making as much money as possible. That is hardly shocking; retail companies tend not to be altruistic, do-gooding charities. Only the naive could believe that Tesco, or any other major chain for that matter, should be the grocery equivalent of Oxfam. According to Dispatches, Tesco is a ruthlessly efficient company that ‘bullies’ local councillors into granting it planning permission. It also lobbies MPs to be favourable in its direction and allegedly has numerous tax scams up its sleeve. This might come as a shock to the programme-makers, but hundreds of big businesses do this kind of thing every day. Why is Tesco singled out?
The answer is that Tesco’s relative omnipresence on the high street and beyond is supposedly ‘killing local communities’ and imposing a stifling, one-size-fits-all homogeneity into the nation’s shopping trolleys. Actually, there is no real evidence that Tesco is closing down specialist shops and ruining the fabric of the UK. In fact, as a representative from Tesco has pointed out, supermarkets generate custom that can have a positive effect on surrounding retailers. What Tesco’s liberal critics really despise is that the big store makes them feel ‘just like everybody else’. Lashing out at Tesco is simply a cover for their disdain at being part of modern-day society and doing what millions of other people do each day.
Tesco does not impose a blue-and-red homogeneity (blimey, it’s only a shop, not a police state). Instead it sells a fairly staggering array of quality goods at very reasonable prices. By expanding on the ‘one stop shop’ ethos, it actually helps people save on a very precious commodity: time. Would Tesco’s critics prefer us to go back to the days when we had to trudge around different shops for hours on end? It’s hard to see how being chained to the shopping-basket could enable anybody’s individuality to flourish.
Many critics appear aghast at Tesco’s motivation to be the biggest and best. It is interesting to see how the company turned around its ailing fortunes and shook up the retail trade in the process. There was nothing sinister or malign about this development. In fact, you could argue that in an age where know-your-limits modesty and demands to rein in our potential are all-pervasive, Tesco’s ‘bigger, better, stronger’ drive makes a refreshing change. Far from shouting this down, we could do with a lot more of this guile and gumption across society as a whole - including in areas that have a greater capacity to revolutionise our lives than shops which sell food, clothes and cheap televisions.
Of course, in other ways Tesco is hardly ideal. For the quarter of a million employees who work in its stores, pay-packets and working conditions could be substantially improved. It was very revealing that for all the muck-raking on Dispatches last night, not one of the Tesco critics was remotely bothered about this particular issue. As when Michael Moore ranted against Ford’s car assembly workers in the film The Corporation, Tesco’s critics probably dislike the people who work there as much as the people who run the company. After all, the logical outcome of the anti-supermarket lobby would be to legislate them out of business and make millions of people redundant.
Back in the 1930s, one political party did rise to power promising to rein in the ‘excesses’ of chainstores. In Germany, the Nazi Party passed The Protection of Individual Trade Act on 12 May 1933. From then on, chain stores were forbidden to expand or open new branches. They were also forbidden from offering a discount of more than three per cent on prices (1). Essentially, small shopkeepers in Germany, together with their middle-class supporters, wanted the state to claw-back some prestige and status lost through the expansion of industrial society. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that the Nazi Party wouldn’t have looked favourably on Tesco, either.
Today, of course, there isn’t a similar mass movement making such demands on the state; and Tesco’s critics are not anywhere near to being Nazis. Instead, Tesco-criticism is simply the ill-informed prattle of chattering miserablists having an oddly disproportionate profile. The Dispatches programme made much of the protesters who ‘say no to Tesco’. But all that amounted to was elderly Middle Englanders waving a few placards around; traditionally, such groups have often resented any form of change. In the real world, millions of people actually say ‘Yes!’ to Tesco for convenience and cheapness. Indeed, even those who bemoan supermarkets will still more than likely shop at them. As with denouncing air-travel and other aspects of ‘consumerism’, criticising Tesco is simply a form of petulant, moral posturing. Ironically enough, far from making themselves look virtuous and ‘good’, such individuals only make fools of themselves. To complain that we live in a society where there is plentiful cheap food simply sounds irrational.
A few middle-class critics claim the High Street is going to hell in a handbasket; in fact it is these petit-bourgeois moaners who look like they’re off their trolleys.
Neil Davenport is a writer and researcher based in London.
Who’s afraid of…?
(1) Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich In Power, Penguin, 2006