James Lowman says retailers must be able to give evidence to the new grocery ombudsman

New Labour’s view of the grocery market wasn’t always helpful to the convenience sector.  Too often, Ministers bought the line that Tesco was the beating heart of UK Plc and that the other not-so-mini-me members of the Big Four provided competition that benefited the consumer through lower prices.  Even the full Competition Commission market investigation we secured couldn’t break down the perception in Whitehall that big was beautiful in the grocery market.

 At a conference this week the main experts and grocery market campaigners had a chance to reflect on whether a change of Government brings new hope for a more level playing field for local shops. I’m optimistic and here’s why.

 Firstly, there are still some outstanding issues from the Competition Commission inquiry that offer some hope.  Most importantly, the Commission’s proposal for an Ombudsman will be implemented.  To be fair, the last Government had also made this commitment, albeit as something of a death-bed conversion after delaying the introduction of an Ombudsman for well over a year.  The change of Government offers us the chance to lobby to make the Ombudsman more effective.

 Specifically, we want the Ombudsman to be able to take complaints from other retailers.  We know that suppliers are often too fearful of the consequences to come forward with their own complaints, so as well as a confidential process for them to do this, we want to see the superstores’ competitors empowered to bring complaints.  Clearly this can’t be about peddling rumour and supposition – complainants have to have a sound basis for coming forward to the Ombudsman - but if the Government is serious about making an Ombudsman effective, this is an important step to take.

 Secondly, there is a broader point about the way that the current Government might view competition in all sorts of markets.  I don’t think many members of the new Government (whether Conservatives or Liberal Democrats) would naturally take the view that having four massive competitors in a market equals good competition.  There’s a genuine sense among the academics, Think Tanks and advisors close to the new Government that smaller businesses need to be supported and given a better basis for competing.
That may all sound a bit abstract and far removed from your everyday business, but the simple fact is this: the battle for a level playing field for small local shops has moved forward and we’re fighting it on your behalf.