New Internationalist

Oh no, Tesco!

A few months ago, the giant Tesco supermarket chain opened a new branch in my local town, Keynsham, near Bristol in Britain. The High Street is more or less unreconstructed 1950s, where people know each other and there’s a farmers’ market on the second Saturday of every month, which I usually forget. My daughter, who lives in London, comes here for clothes from the half-dozen or so charity shops. A while back, when I told someone that I once worked with homeless people in the East End of London, she said: ‘It’s not like that here!’

An ageing, almost entirely white-working-class town with its own Town Council, but hitherto without a proper supermarket of its own, the giant Tesco supermarket used to run a free bus service from here to its nearest store in Bristol. It felt like a matter of time. Sure enough, the new Tesco eventually opened on what used to be a public car park.

The one convenience store - and the only ‘off-licence’ (liquor store) - closed down on the very same day, followed shortly by a cobbler that actually repaired shoes while also cutting keys and selling me a reliable watch for next to nothing. I have no idea where I shall have to go to find any of these things now.

Fellow members of the Green Party faced something similar in a neighbourhood of nearby Bath, and suggested we do a survey of shopkeepers in Keynsham to see what the impact of the Tesco opening had been. We were in search of ammunition. Besides, I never use Tesco, on principle.

For the first time in my life I entered a Wedding Shop - as yet, not a service provided by Tesco, though for how long remains to be seen, given that the average spend on weddings in Britain is said to be in the region of $30,000. The proprietors were delighted with Tesco and the increased ‘footfall’ both the store and its free car park had generated. The town’s remaining car park imposes charges, which means you have to check for the right change beforehand - a major impediment.

A pattern soon emerged, even in my favourite greengrocer, where you can find almost anything - a prime candidate for closure. No, my friend the greengrocer said he just wished he were in Tesco’s foyer, and railed against the Council’s charges in the public car park. Only the tender in a bar right by the store itself complained about the high-handed behaviour of the corporate giant during construction, breaking almost every commitment they made ‘as if they owned the place’.

Oh dear. Our collated results showed that a potentially overwhelming 67% of shopkeepers thought that the impact of the new Tesco store had been ‘positive’, despite the Great Recession. And Britain is, after all, a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. Worse - if, in Keynsham, they were unhappy with anything, it was with the scarcity of free car parking.

The promise I made to my Green friends to write up something about our survey for the local press stopped short of being prepared to write what would look like a puff-piece for Tesco. A pause for reflection was in order.

Well, on reflection, of course I won’t be party to suppressing the inconvenient truth. Of course I can insist that Tesco’s victims were unable to take part in our survey because they had closed already. Of course I can argue that in due course the apologists for Tesco in Keynsham will prove just as misguided as the apologists for the giant Kraft food corporation, which promised not to close the local Cadbury’s factory before they took it over, then did precisely that once they had. Of course we should talk with shoppers, as well as with shopkeepers. Of course, shopping is not necessarily the noblest of deeds.

Even so, it’s a blow. Even so, if you’re arguing against the mainstream, it’s hard to be confronted with the fact that opinions don’t always coincide with your own, without concluding that humanity in general is irredeemably daft.

I went to Tamlyn, my barber, just round the corner from Tesco, in preparation for a funeral.

How’s trade?’ I asked.

Never been better!’ he said.

Has Tesco helped?’

Sure it has!’

I never go to Tesco.’

Somehow I don’t think they’ll miss you much.’

He kept up this riff for a while. I resisted the temptation to ask Tamlyn if he felt the same way himself. After all, he gets a bargain from me, with nothing much left to trim.

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  1. #1 onedaywonder 11 Feb 11

    intriguing

    Thank you for this - it has my mind abuzz.
    I suppose one way of looking at it, is that it is difficult to take the long or distant view when convenience and self-interest are offered up on a plate by supermarkets. If every product on their shelves could pipe up and talk about their monopolistic practices, their strongarming of producers or disregard for the environment, would we shop any differently?
    It doesn't surprise me that local shopkeepers are concerned first and foremost with getting people into their shops - and if Tesco is actually helping to do that, then they're alright Jack. Are these shopkeepers interested in fairtrade, environmental blah-de-blah - in the main, I think not. They're after the bottom line, just like Tesco - well, most of them. Only difference is they aren't corporate giants. So they are quite happy to be lice on Tesco's bloated body - while it lasts.
    The conflict here is between a dominant business point of view and an alternative point of view that doesn't just brush aside all the negatives attached to our consumer habits. I think the latter is as valid as ever, regardless of what shopkeepers think of Tesco.

  2. #2 Tom Ash 11 Feb 11

    Were the convenience store or the off-license that closed down superior to Tesco in some way? Quite often these places sell similar products to Tesco - so with no ethical advantage, at least on that score - for higher prices, to the disadvantage of people for whom budgets are tight.

  3. #3 Posh Dave 13 Feb 11

    I know Keynsham quite well. Those of us who grew up with Radio Luxembourg knew it well too from Horace Batchelor, who advertised on it and always spelled the name out: 'That's K E Y...'
    It has quite an interesting history, including the last 'logwood' dye factory in the country which closed because logwood (used for red) was logged out in the Atlantic forest of Brazil.
    The store that closed was Eurospa, before that Somerfield, taken over by the Co-op, which has the nearest supermarket on the bypass.
    The town is surrounded by agriculture, so many people know a fair bit about it. It's a 'Fairtrade Town', has a Transition Town group, a nearby Community Farm and a fair number of 'green' activists of one sort on another.
    Even so, we're all induced to think of ourselves as royalty when we consume, slaves when we produce. If fair trade can do anything at all to help us to put the two parts of ourselves back together again, then it is doing something useful.

  4. #4 Giedre 14 Feb 11

    Oh no, Tesco or wow, Tesco?

    The encroachment by supermarket chains into our lives not only has to do with direct financial consequences, both good or bad, to small businesses - there are often hidden costs, too. These corpomarkets have already changed our shopping habits - so we're no longer visiting a cheese-eria followed by a bakery followed by a veggie market and so on. Instead, we pile stuff onto our trolleys and happily gather club points for our next shopping.

    But another worrying tendency is the outrageous behaviour of these corpobusinesses (approved by the authorities, of course) - for example, in Lithuania, where I come from, Tesco's cousins are making town centres their home, town centres with ancient buildings and plazas for people to hang around. Now these areas are surrounded (at best, often - replaced) by faceless supermarkets; yes, some people complain, but others are happy because they don't have to walk that extra mile to buy food.

    How will that affect local communities in the long term, both culturally and psychologically? And will those bankrupt small business owners be forced to accept cashier positions for a minimum wage in order to feed their families from that very same corpomarket's shelves?

  5. #5 Tom Ash 14 Feb 11

    I completely take the aesthetic point - is that what strikes you as superior about visiting separate cheese, vegetable, etc. shops or does something else lie behind that point?

    I'm still not convinced we should privilege the finances of small business shop owners over others though (be they customers or Tesco employees).

  6. #6 Giedre 14 Feb 11

    It's not only an aesthetics issue. Corpomarkets and shopping malls have come to replace other leisure time activities, to a point where going to one of those is the highlight of the day, simply because other forms of entertainment are not encouraged and even neglected (I'm talking here about my experiences from my home country, but it might also be the case elsewhere). The consequences of this are obvious.

    I take your point about prices, but again - it shouldn't be this way. Corpocrap should not be the only option for people on low income; we should all be able to afford potatoes from a farmers' market and other organic and fairtraded goods.

    Small businesses - aren't they a positive model of people making a decent living for themselves instead of slaving for somebody else to enjoy the benefits of their labour? Whole families depend on them... but who is one human against an international monster?

  7. #7 Tom Ash 14 Feb 11

    A glib response would be that people should get other hobbies than shopping!

    On prices, we need an actual proposal on how to deliver a low cost alternative, and that's not going to be easy, as megacorps like Tesco can rely on genuine efficiencies.

    Small businesses are great for their owners, I'm just not sure that they're that much better for everyone else - at least, not better enough to justify active policy efforts to support them in this case.

  8. #8 Giedre 14 Feb 11

    I'd be very much interested to see what David has to say about this!

    (Shopping not as a hobby; shopping - or rather, hanging around a shop and maybe buying a can of Coke as a ’style’ symbol - as the only form of activity, after the local cinema was forced to close, the theatre had never had the chance to breathe, the swimming pool was drained to save on maintenance costs, local park is too filthy to enter, and the newest book in the library was published thirty years ago.)

  9. #9 Posh Dave 14 Feb 11

    One thing is getting overlooked - the often hidden subsidies for industrial-scale agriculture, which in turn feed in to industrial-scale retail and are not real 'efficiencies' at all.

    Add in environmental impact (industrial agriculture produces a third of all carbon emissions), transport (including private transport to megastores, distribution systems and international freight) and you're confronted with a cul-de-sac, from which more localized, smaller-scale production and retail are probably the only way out.

    I think Giedre's point about 'aesthetics' applies here too.

    How alternatives are organized, whether as smaller businesses, co-ops or whatever, is another matter altogether.

    As for 'shopping' as culture, it's a curious thing that people are apparently more willing to accept recessions and financial markets as some sort of compulsory restraint than the prospect of consuming away life itself.

  10. #10 Jane 18 Feb 11

    As a shopper

    I hate shopping, however it is a boring necessity of life as I do not have a cow in my back garden to provide milk and have yet to get a working veggie patch etc. The advantage of Tesco et al is that I can get it all done without having to trudge round from shop to as I remember from my youth when shopping was just as much disliked. Then I can get on with the more interesting things in life. Ethically I am agin the big giants, practically I find them useful.

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About the author

David Ransom a New Internationalist contributor

David Ransom joined New Internationalist in 1989 and wrote on a range of issues, from green justice to the current financial crisis, before retiring in 2009. He was a close friend of Blair Peach, once worked as a banker in Uruguay and continued to contribute to New Internationalist as a freelancer until shortly before his death in February 2016. He lived on a barge on the waterways of England’s West Country.

His publications include License to Kill on the death of Blair Peach in 1979 and The No Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade. He also co-edited, with Vanessa Baird, People First Economics.

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