One winner in this game of Tescopoly

LORNA MARSH A new word has entered the English language - Tescopoly. It is testament to how deeply the supermarket has infiltrated not only our high streets, but our lives.

LORNA MARSH

A new word has entered the English language - Tescopoly. It is testament to how deeply the supermarket has infiltrated not only our high streets, but our lives.

It seems in terms of its profits and the customers who flock to its stores, the giant can do no wrong.

But for those winners there are losers and it stands accused of ripping the soul out of towns and making its billions on the back of underpaid struggling farmers.

Its chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy, yesterday denied supermarkets were killing off the high street, as his firm banked profits of £1.09bn.

With £1 in every £7 spent on the high street going into Tesco coffers and every UK adult splashing out an average £63 a month in its shops, it is not just the country's biggest retailer, but a behemoth among stores.

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Its latest haul - keeping it on course for full-year profits of around £2.5bn - has angered environmental and consumer groups which have accused the chain of stifling competition and driving out independent traders.

No longer are our high streets full of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, but huge Tescos where shoppers can get meat, bread and candles under one convenient roof.

But Sir Terry claimed Tesco was simply delivering what customers want and in some cases could encourage people into local stores.

"When a Tesco store opens, shops around it do better rather than worse," he told reporters at a press conference in London.

He argued people would come into a town where a Tesco has opened and will then stay and visit the local shops.

Sir Terry also went so far as to claim there was evidence to suggest the diet of people in the local community "dramatically improves" when a Tesco Express opens.

"We have a very positive story to tell on our impact on communities," he said. "It is up to the customers who decide whether we grow or whether we shrink."

That is all well and good in principle, but with so many consumers unable to resist the prices and services that Tesco is only able to offer thanks to its profit-driven power, it is currently the subject of an investigation by the Competition Commission, along with other supermarkets.

The inquiry was launched after the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) flagged fears that consumers were losing out because the planning system and tactics of some chains made it harder for rivals to open stores.

Findings are not expected until next year, but in the meantime retailers are attempting to fight back.

They rail against Sir Terry's argument that they do better when a Tesco opens nearby with not only a huge number saying it has a negative impact, but many being forced to shut.

Stalham is probably typical of many small towns which have seen their high streets change dramatically as shops close in the face of the impossible battle a supermarket brings with slashed prices and convenient services.

Nigel Dowdney, owner of the Stalham Shopper, was instrumental in the campaign to stop Tesco building there and is now attempting to halt its plans for doubling in size. He is also giving evidence at the Competition Commission inquiry.

He asked how he was expected to compete when the supermarket sells items cheaper than he can buy them at the wholesalers.

"It is not fair competition at all. Tesco wields its money and power to make it not fair. There are all sorts of ways they get cheap prices from suppliers and that is something I haven't got the power to do."

Where once the town boasted a baker, fishmonger and greengrocer alongside the still-existing hardware store, butcher and general shop, those have now been replaced by estate agents and takeaways.

A small Somerfield and Co-op have been turned into a factory shop and funeral parlour respectively and traders argue there is little left to lure shoppers back into the high street, with one joking they should open at 6pm when townsfolk start coming in to get takeaways.

The pattern is repeated across East Anglia and nationally.

Only yesterday campaigners against the opening of a supermarket in Sheringham handed their petition into Downing Street.

And rumours are rife that Tesco is preparing to put in its fourth application for an Express store on Unthank Road in Norwich as protesters accuse it of trying to grind the city council into submission.

The Tesco-isation of the high street is just one prong in the supermarket's attack, with farmers accusing it of strong-arming them into contracts or forcing them out of business.

William Chase, who manufactures Tyrrells Potato Chips, said he was made to switch to making the upmarket crisps when supermarkets put him out of business as a potato farmer due to their demands for ever lower prices.

Earlier this year he also fought Tesco on a point of principle when the chain was stocking Tyrrells against his express wish that it did not, but Tesco bullishly sourced packets through an independent supplier. Mr Chase won.

Friends of the Earth's supermarket campaigner Vicki Hird said: "Tesco's booming profits are rooted in rock-bottom prices to farmers and a wholesale takeover of the high street.

"Ministers and competition authorities must put the brakes on the Tesco juggernaut and take action to protect our small shops, farmers and the environment."

It is easy to take a simplistic view of the issues surrounding the increasing dominance of the company, but how many protesters against the Unthank Road proposal in particular truly shop independently and locally, rather than taking the car to another supermarket, particularly when most of the alternatives along the road are more expensive chains?

If the Competition Commission fails to put any framework in place to limit the supermarket takeover then the fate of our shops will be solely in the hands of consumers themselves, consumers who are understandably tempted by convenience and cheapness.

And while Mr Dowdney said there was a movement growing among shoppers who were realising the detrimental effect abandoning local shops was having, he added the inquiry was the last chance for independent traders.

"In ten years' time if supermarkets are allowed to have completely taken over, the population of this country will start to regret that it was allowed to happen, and it will be much too late by then."