'Tesco town' risk to communities

Supermarket giant Tesco was last night accused of playing down its stranglehold on East Anglian communities as it denied monopolising food shopping in the UK.

Supermarket giant Tesco was last night accused of playing down its stranglehold on East Anglian communities as it denied monopolising food shopping in the UK.

The global grocery group denied it was creating a country of “Tesco towns” as it lodged a robust defence of its operation with the Competition Commission.

In a report published yesterday, Tesco rubbished claims its stores varied their products and prices to squeeze small local stores out of business.

But campaigners in Norfolk said the supermarket had “decimated” small market towns and driven out independent businesses.

The EDP's own Shop Here campaign has encouraged consumers and business to think about where they buy their products and produce in a bid to support local traders.

Nigel Dowdney has led the Localise It campaign after seeing takings at his business, Stalham Shopper, drop by half in the week Tesco opened in the town five years ago.

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“What Tesco is really saying is that local competition is a waste of time and the commission should be looking at the national picture of the big four - Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Asda,” he told the EDP last night .

“But where does that leave the local market? From personal experience I know they have decimated local competition.

“We've been here for 25 years, and Tesco's have been here since 2002 and previous to that we had Co-Op, Somerfield, a butcher, baker, fruit and veg shop and fishmongers and so on, and the only two food shops left are myself and the butcher next door.

“It didn't even take five years for it to happen. We are still here, and struggling on, but the Co-Op lasted only a few months and Somerfield lasted two years.”

In its report, Tesco argued that far from dominating the supermarket sector in British towns and cities, 98.6pc of shoppers now have access to stores of the largest chains within a 30-minute radius - three times the 10 to 15 minutes drive time used by the commission.

The grocery market is now “national” and not local, Tesco claimed, as shoppers increasingly buy online and are prepared to travel further to visit a store.

But Mr Dowdney accused Tesco of shifting the goal-posts by trying to alter the focus from the supermarkets' impact on local stores to the national playing field.

Roys of Wroxham, Tesco in Sprowston, Yarmouth and North Walsham were within the half-hour catchment area, yet Stalham did not suffer until Tesco took root on its doorstep, he said.

“Having built the store in Stalham five years ago, they know want to demolish it and double its size as a Tesco Extra like in Sprowston - they should just rename us Stalham by Tesco,” Mr Dowdney said.

But according to Tesco's report it did not vary its approach “line with levels of local competition”.

“The way in which customers do their grocery shopping has changed,” Tesco said.

“Customers are now doing different types of shopping trip in different types of stores - from farmers' markets to the internet - with the result that smaller stores now impose an even greater competitive constraint on larger stores.”

Tesco's defence comes in response to the commission's initial “emerging thinking” document, released in January.

The Office of Fair Trading referred the grocery sector to the commission in May last year after evidence suggested some supermarket chains were abusing their size to stifle competition by pricing products below costs and by using banks of unused land to stop rivals opening stores.

The inquiry has focussed on Tesco due to its clear lead in the market - the firm has a 31.3pc market share - with the commission set to publish preliminary findings in June and a final report due in November.

Tescopoly, a national alliance that links local campaigners, is calling for stronger planning policies to protect local High Streets and a legally-binding supermarket code of practice to ensure farmers are treated fairly.

A spokesman told the EDP that it was encouraged by Tesco's “rattled” fighting talk.

“People are telling us that they want a choice locally about where they shop and are prepared to take action to retain that choice and this has been the focus of successful campaigns against new supermarkets,” she said.

The Sheringham campaign against major retail over-development (Scamrod) has rallied against plans for a Tesco in the town, claiming it would have a negative impact on the “vibrant and healthy” High Street which is crucial to its special character and tourist economy.

Speculation is rife that the supermarket will soon submit a fresh bid for a Tesco Express on a former garage site on the corner of Unthank Road and Trinity Street in Norwich after a long-running battle which has attracted a groundswell of opposition and seen all three applications refused by the city council.