Every Little Helps? | Lucy Whiteley

This morning I woke up, yawned, and padded through to the kitchen wearing my Tesco pyjamas. There, I poured myself a bowl of Tesco cereal and looked over the holiday photos I had developed at the Tesco Photo Centre. Then I got to thinking. I could go check my email using my Tesco Broadband, or I could text my friends on my Tesco mobile. If I was feeling particularly flush, I could buy a house with a Tesco mortgage, take out Tesco insurance for it, and heat it with Tesco Gas. If anything should happen to me, I could feel safe that I had written my Tesco will using Tesco legal advisors, and my friends could buy me Tesco flowers for my funeral…and so on.

Tesco has launched its attack, and we are welcoming it with open arms. “It’s so cheap!” we cry, “and it’s so handy to be able to get everything under the same roof!” Yet it’s worth stopping to think about the consequences of this supermarket giant’s growth, especially now that they have scheduled a summit with the council to discuss the demolition of the beautiful ticket office on Benalder Bridge in Partick to make way for a 24-hour Tesco hyperstore incorporating student residences and a 580-space carpark.

Scotland has reason enough to be worried about the supermarket phenomenon: a whopping 52p out of every £1 spent in Inverness goes to Tesco. Partick already has a Morrison’s and a Sainsbury’s, along with a Somerfield and an Iceland in Hillhead. Another supermarket that will also undoubtedly sell clothes, jewellery, hardware and homeware will ensure the death of many more shops on Dumbarton Road.

Try as they might to make us believe otherwise, supermarkets have a nasty track record of causing local businesses to shut down. On a national scale, the overall number of retail outlets fell from 273,000 to 201,000 between 1980 and 2000 (the decades in which the supermarket culture flourished). After the loss of these 72,000 shops, what we are left with is what Andrew Simms, author of Tescopoly, calls ‘clone towns’ across Britain, with identical shop-fronts on every high street.

Tesco already has 1932 stores in the UK, and they have reached an ‘unprecedented’ market share of 31% which is double that of its nearest rival. In other words, £1 out of every £8 spent in the UK is spent in Tesco (and by building on the land that they have already purchased in the UK, they are set to increase that figure to £1 in every £4). In fact, if Tesco were a country, it would have come 55th in the World Bank’s 2005 ranking of nations, with a gross annual income equal to that of Bolivia, Botswana, Barbados, Burundi, Bahrain, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Bulgaria and Bhutan – combined!

One of the reasons for Tesco’s success is the economic rule of 80/20. Retailers usually make 80% of their profit from the best-selling 20% of their stock. Taking the example of a bookshop, the bestsellers (20%) provide the financial basis by which that specialist shop can stock everything from French language novels to books about the growth of certain supermarkets. Tesco (and other supermarkets) stock only that 20% of high-turnover titles (which means that we are restricted to trashy chick-lit and celebrity biographies, enough in itself to make anyone want to write to their MP), robbing smaller retailers of that 80% share of bestsellers that allows them to stay open. The effect of this ruthless market domination is inevitably that the small retailers shut down.

All of this has obvious economic consequences, but it also leads to the ghastly phenomenon of social homogenisation. I may think that the matching pillowcase and duvet set that I picked up is just the ticket, but so do the 5000 other people in Scotland who own the same set. The same set is also sold in the other 1932 (it’s a figure worth repeating) stores in the UK, the 281 stores in Thailand, and the 144 stores in Poland. Tesco’s own retail information glosses this over by arguing that today’s busy customer ‘[does] not want to have to make ever more complex decisions about what they buy.’

All these statistics spell bad news for Partick: more congestion on the streets, less choice for shoppers, less personality for the area. Would you like to shop from an independent retailer with whom you can interact on a personal level, who cares about whether or not you return, who has extensive product knowledge, and who contributes to the life and diversity of the community itself? Or would you rather be sucked into a fluoro-lit warehouse, buying things identical to everyone else’s, and undermining the local community? It’s a loaded question, I admit, but one worth thinking about.

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