David Rees: Editor's comment

The year ahead

Posted by: David Rees Tue, 8 Jan 2019

Happy New Year to you all, and I hope that we have every reason to be cheerful in 2019. At first glance, it seems like as an industry we will have more challenges than opportunities to deal with in the coming year but, then again, that has probably always been the case.

Some of those challenges have always been present in the convenience industry, but have escalated in the past year, notably crime. Wanton criminal acts are taking place daily in retail stores, but the response from police is at an all-time low, and the lack of action is merely encouraging criminals to carry on. As well as the threat to staff safety and wellbeing that this represents, theft also diminishes retail margin, which is already under pressure as costs are rising faster than sales in the sector.

However, there are plenty of opportunities, too. Local produce is growing in importance and small stores can often present this much better than international supermarket chains. And food to go remains full of potential as long as operators can continue to innovate and adapt to the latest consumer tastes and requirements.

But the biggest issue for 2019 is arguably something that convenience stores can do nothing about. The Brexit shambles is still shambling on without any clarity, and as long as this continues all businesses face both operational disruption and the shadow of falling consumer confidence. A No Deal Brexit could potentially disrupt the entire freight transport network and just-in-time delivery systems for food, with huge knock-on effects for product availability. Hopefully, we can step back from the brink and avoid a complete meltdown, but if we are going to make any progress as an industry we could really do with a year without own-goals.

A safe place?

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 14 Nov 2018

The shocking, but not entirely surprising, findings of our mini survey of c-store operators is that practically every single one has been a recent victim of crime. And in nearly half of cases, the offence has included the threat of violence, if not actual physical force.

Crime in a c-store is not a new phenomenon, but in recent months retailers have noticed a distinct reduction in the level of police response. Whereas once they were quick to attend, now they are often tardy. And where they were tardy before, now the response is often missing altogether.

The background to this is well-known and not entirely of the police’s own making. Funding has been cut, which means a reduction in personnel. And those staff that remain are increasingly being tasked to get to grips with new forms of criminality such as cyber crime and child protection. I believe everyone sympathises with the dilemma the police face, but the net result is that crime in the convenience sector is becoming more common.

MPs have now recognised that police response has been weakened as a result of budget cuts, so hopefully this will be the first step in addressing the problem in future. Local shops are not simply there as money-making exercises that can sustain losses as an occupational hazard, they are community amenities that feed, sustain and employ local people, and it is in everybody’s interests that they are kept safe.

Adapting the gantry

Posted by: David Rees Thu, 31 May 2018

At a time when we are being inundated with GDPR-related opt-ins and opt-outs, it is a clear reminder of the amount of new legislation that retailers have had to comply with in recent years.

New regulation abounds in almost every aspect of a store’s operation, but none more so than in tobacco. Following the requirement for closed gantries came the introduction of plain packaging and a ban on small packs. But our research indicates that retailers, and consumers, have simply got used to these inconveniences and carried on.

I don’t want in any way to underestimate the impact of this legislation. Some retailers have lost valuable revenue, and pretty much every wholesaler is reporting a dip in tobacco sales. And, of course, the number of people smoking is in long-term decline, so sales are being lost somewhere. But the point is that the sector has read the situation, and adapted to it.

Many retailers have used the requirements of the new legislation to make changes to the way they stock and sell tobacco, by reducing the number of skus and/or employing below-the-counter or electronic merchandising solutions. And let’s not forget the challenges faced by manufacturers either, but at least some of the incentive schemes offered for maintaining a good stock position on key lines has proved to be a welcome boost to profitability.

Soon there will be more compliance issues to deal with. Tobacco ‘track and trace’ technology will require retailers to apply for a unique indicator code before they can purchase tobacco, and require wholesalers to scan the products as they go through the supply chain. It’s another complicating factor for the trade, but I’m banking on it to once again find a solution.

Welcome to the new world

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 16 May 2018

The completion of the Co-op’s takeover of Nisa signals the start of a whole new way of doing business, not just for Nisa retailers but for Costcutter stores, too.

Retailers in both groups can now look forward to better prices, new branded SKUs and the option to sell Co-op own labels. While only time will tell how this will turn out, most of the retailers affected will regard this as a growth opportunity: after all, more than 75% of Nisa members voted in favour of the takeover, and for Costcutter it could hardly be worse than it was before.

The new regime goes beyond the sale of product, however. Where Nisa retailers were once shareholders as well as customers, now they are customers alone. There have already been questions asked about whether Nisa retailers are getting as good a deal as Costcutter, but they no longer own the business so their voice is less powerful.

Being a customer is still an important status, and I am sure the Co-op Group will aim to be as even-handed and transparent as possible, but for Nisa retailers the terms of engagement are very different now.

A merge too far?

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 2 May 2018

I’m guessing that the three most common phrases uttered in c-store boardrooms and back offices in recent months have been: “Wages have gone up again?”, “I wish the sun would come out” and “I think the CMA needs to have a look at that”.

After a year of mergers, closures and takeovers, the latest grocery event that the CMA needs to examine is the proposed merger of Asda and Sainsbury’s. In previous years, we would call this a bombshell. But in the context of what has been happening we should probably view – the proposal at least – as inevitable.

Most retailers I know are welcoming consolidation and increased scale in the convenience sector, but I have also had conversations with others who think that the Tesco-Booker merger should not have been allowed to go through. That obviously set a precedent for Nisa and the Co-op, but Asda and Sainsbury’s is a different thing altogether. It’s all retail, and despite the widely-quoted north-south split of the two, there are areas where they have superstores in the same catchment, not to mention the much larger footprints covered by online shopping and home deliveries.

Competition in the grocery market remains intense, with a fast-changing landscape and the rise of new and growing players. But this merger is basically proposing that Asda and Sainsbury’s will no longer compete with each other, with the benefits gained to be funded by suppliers faced with the threat of a business-terminal delisting, and I think that the CMA needs to consider very carefully whether that is in the best interests of shoppers and the market as a whole.

A more natural solution

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 4 Apr 2018

Against a background of market turmoil, it would be nice to have something reliable to fall back on. In recent years, the soft drinks category has been a strong and consistent provider of footfall and profit: indeed, it is almost the perfect convenience product as it is easily sourced, universally stocked, doesn’t require a licence and is ideal for consumers on the go.

This week the Soft Drinks Levy comes into force, which has already changed the pack sizes and prices on several leading brands, and changed others even more fundamentally as new formulations are introduced to keep the manufacturers in business. And the category is set for further disruption now that the government has decided to implement a deposit scheme to tackle plastic waste.
Officially the matter is subject to consultation, but environment secretary Michael Gove has already promised it to the Daily Mail, so we had all better get used to it. But how it will affect retailers remains yet to be revealed, and is a matter of some concern.

The government statement pointed to higher recycling rates in other European countries, where deposits are charged on bottles and the money is often returned to the consumer via reverse vending machines, which issue discount vouchers once empty bottles are pushed inside. Such a network would be costly, demanding on space, and would naturally favour the larger stores, assuming people could be bothered to use them, of course.

I think we need to look beyond this mechanism. Wales has higher rates of recycling than England, and it is no coincidence that there is a single, consistent policy on kerbside collection in the Principality, compared with a patchwork of different regimes in England. And product development can tackle some of the worst excesses of plastic packaging – more than half of the bottle waste in the UK, for instance, is through water packaging, so surely there is more that can be done to sell water to shoppers in recycled or refillable containers. Some retailers are starting to do this already, and it’s not difficult for anyone to achieve.

The trick is to make it easy for consumers to recycle, not to develop an elaborate mechanism for recirculating 8p charges through the retail industry. When we see images of plastic bottles floating in the Indian Ocean, I think we all agree that we should collectively be doing more to prevent it happening. But there are lots of alternatives to the costly and inconvenient reverse supply chain proposed by the deposit return scheme, and I hope it is not too late to give them a try.

A choice-driven future

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 21 Mar 2018

Congratulations go to Paul Gardner and the team at Budgens of Islington, London, on being named Convenience Retailer of the Year at the 2018 Convenience Retail Awards last week.

It was a difficult decision, as it always is, but I’m not saying that to soften the blow for all the other entrants; I’m saying that because there are a lot of fantastic convenience stores out there, and choosing between them is genuinely difficult. All of those who entered, and particularly those who were represented as finalists on Thursday night, can be regarded as successful stores, and all are fully deserving of recognition from their peers.

If there is a common thread that runs through all of our main winners, it is that they have forged their own individual identities in the markets in which they operate. The advice and support of their wholesalers and symbol groups is an important factor in their success, but just as important is the ability to adapt that to local circumstances and surroundings. All of our winners are innovative, unconventional even, with a focus on their own unique customer base and the way that their customers want to shop.

In my view this creates the most reliable template for the future. Customers have a choice in where and even how they shop, and are more inclined to exercise their own personal choices than ever before, so success is going to be all about being responsive to shopper needs while still maintaining high standards. Last week’s winners truly embody that spirit, and point the way ahead for the industry.

A launch into space

Posted by: David Rees Tue, 6 Mar 2018

It’s been a full year of commentators such as myself referring to the proposed merger of Booker and Tesco, but with the deal now done I can at last start referring to it as a single company.

Last week’s shareholder vote and subsequent completion of the deal immediately launches Tesco into the independent space – as well as being the independent retailer’s biggest single competitor, it is now its biggest single supplier as well. To many, myself included, that still sounds a little surreal, but for those retailers who have already committed themselves to working with Booker for the medium to long term, it sounds exciting.

The financial merger and competition body clearance was correctly and painstakingly handled, as you might expect for a transformational £3.9bn deal. But now the action moves from the dry worlds of the City and the office of the regulators and into the thousands of small businesses, both retail and catering, who have been waiting patiently for the potential to become reality with better products, better prices and more support when it is needed.

Until now, it has been “business as usual” in the Booker estate. But now the real work needs to begin, plans put into action and the potential to be delivered to customers. The biggest, and still most surprising, deal in the history of the independent retail industry has just happened, but rather than it being just a payday for the City, it needs to be a launchpad for a more profitable and competitive future for the thousands of small businesses that depend on Booker to be a strong, stable and effective partner.

Final hurdle

Posted by: David Rees Tue, 6 Feb 2018

Having passed the scrutiny of the UK competition authorities, the final necessary stage of the Tesco-Booker merger is the approval of both sets of shareholders, and the vote is expected to take place at the end of the month.

Tesco has a large number of shareholders, but a relatively small number of investors control most of the issued capital, and it is within this group that the outcome will be decided. So the vote will hinge on whether the deal is seen as a good one for Tesco, not on whether it has a beneficial effect on the convenience sector as a whole, but it is this latter topic that concerns all of us.

For retailers supplied by one of the Booker brands, the merger cannot come soon enough, and they will be hoping to see the benefits work through in terms of cost prices, product quality and availability within weeks of the deal being completed. And they will no doubt be hugely reassured by the news that Booker ceo Charles Wilson will be staying with the group in an enhanced role on the Tesco board after the merger.

Ultimately, the main requirement that a retailer has for their wholesale supplier is for it to be strong and stable, and to have the confidence of big brand suppliers. If it is not, then bad things happen in terms of availability and cash flow, as we have seen in dramatic terms recently. If the merger goes ahead then that would be one positive for retail customers, but hopefully there will be many more to follow quickly afterwards.

Don't waste the chance

Posted by: David Rees Mon, 22 Jan 2018

An unusual combination of Theresa May and David Attenborough has put plastic waste firmly on the public agenda as a problem that needs to be tackled. I do not wish to disagree, and am just as appalled as anyone by images of plastic bottles floating in the ocean, but as usual the detail of how we tackle the problem is going to be all-important.

The first wave of proposals from central government has, predictably, revolved around taxation. Obesity crisis? Tax the sugar in soft drinks. Disposable coffee cups in landfill? Add a 25p tax. Bottles in the ocean? Tax the plastic bottles via a deposit scheme (and, what is more, make retailers first collect and then return the tax to customers). Not all of these suggestions may yet become law, but you can see the thinking – hit manufacturers and retailers in the pocket, in order to change public behaviour.

Most product, and therefore most plastic waste, in the food and drink industry comes via the major supermarkets, and it is there that the “solution” will doubtless be focused. But there is a danger that any remedies will hit the c-sector disproportionately hard, as so much of the industry’s trade is based around soft drinks and, increasingly, coffee to go.

Self-fill product dispensers and re-usable containers are growing in popularity, but most shoppers have enough trouble remembering their loyalty cards, let alone carry their own coffee cup around.
To me, the solution has to focus on using recyclable materials, and then making it as easy as possible for consumers to recycle them. But there will be a cost, and it needs a more imaginative and courageous commitment from politicians than the standard suggestion of another new tax.

A very new, new year

Posted by: David Rees Mon, 8 Jan 2018

Happy new year to everyone, and with such unprecedented change about to sweep through the independent convenience sector, 2018 will certainly be all about the “new”.

Whether it will be “happy” as well remains to be seen. Most retailers I have spoken to over the past couple of months are still cautiously optimistic, but with competition increasing, costs rising and a lack of stimulus to boost consumer spending, the caution is outweighing the optimism.

And the new year is bringing with it more than the customary amount of change, with Booker-Tesco and Nisa-Co-op-Costcutter all due to complete within months. Against this uncertainty, it isn’t surprising that many are looking at the marketplace warily.

But now is not the time to be passive. Surely a better strategy is to focus on being good at the things that you can do. Last week I was in Northern Ireland visiting stores as part of our Convenience Retail Awards programme and, as ever whenever I visit, I was very impressed by what I saw.

Despite multiple competition and a growing presence from the discounters, store owners had invested heavily in the areas where they had a point of difference and a growing customer base, such as in fresh meat and artisan bread from local butchers and bakers, food to go and ‘fakeaway’ meals prepared in on-site kitchens, and a focus on quality alcohol lines.

Convenience is not a one-size-fits-all industry, and business opportunities are always going to remain local rather than national, but in uncertain times there is still a lot to be said for investing in the future.

A future of co-operation

Posted by: David Rees Mon, 13 Nov 2017

So the votes have been counted, and Nisa members have supported the idea of being taken over by the Co-operative Group.

With more than 80% of shareholders and 75.8% of the share capital in favour of the transaction, the result looks fairly overwhelming, but with a 75% threshold required it was, in fact, a close-run thing.

The Co-op takeover was a ‘Brexit’ vote for Nisa – polarising and divisive. The atmosphere within the group had become increasingly toxic as the vote neared – between members and the Co-op, members and the Board and, on a few very unfortunate occasions, between member and member. And it was not easy for head office staff either, trying to keep the show on the road against this disruptive backdrop. But the disruptive elements are now revealed to be in the minority and, with the vote now decided, the key thing is for everyone in the group to put all this behind them and move on to a positive new future with the Co-op.

Even 17 months after the national Brexit vote, very little appears to have been done about identifying the strengths and weaknesses of our economy, and the new opportunities that leaving Europe might present – or if it has been done, it hasn’t been widely shared with employers, small businesses and other operators who are in a position to make the most of these opportunities.

Nisa must not make the same mistake with its own Brexit vote. Granted, the acquisition requires CMA approval and no integration work can begin until that is given, but there is still a clear framework and direction that should follow from the acquisition vote.

Nisa retailers will still need assurances about the many unanswered questions that arose during the bid process, but there is no time to be wasted on could-haves and should-haves – it should be straight back to work and looking ahead, rather than dwelling on the past. The future, while not certain, is at least looking more secure with a strong partner to supply fresh food, own label and major branded lines.

Convenience is under pressure, and maybe nobody is making the money from it that they once were, but it is still one of the strongest areas of grocery retail. And there are reasons to believe that it will continue to be so as people’s lives grow ever-busier, and quick solutions and instant gratification become more important to them.

The Co-op understands this very well and has both scale and the offer to be among the winners, and Nisa members now have the opportunity to share in the organisation’s success.

Time marches on

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 1 Nov 2017

Just as the clocks go back to remind us that we are nearing the end of the calendar year, the major changes in the industry that have been anticipated throughout 2017 are finally reaching their end-game. As I write this, the CMA is putting the finishing touches to its provisional findings on the Tesco-Booker merger, Nisa members are considering the takeover proposal by the Co-op, and Costcutter and Bestway are talking to each other and who knows what else as well.

Consolidation in the industry and the involvement of the grocery multiples has been a talking point all year, but up to this point nothing has actually happened. However, in the next two to three weeks all should become clear, or clearer at least.

The findings of the CMA are central to all of this. The wave of change and consolidation, although arguably overdue, was kicked-off by the proposed Booker-Tesco merger, and the CMA needs to reveal its approval or new conditions for this before Booker and, crucially, Tesco shareholders vote on it.

To some extent, Co-op and Nisa are doing it the other way round, by seeking shareholder approval first and then taking it to the CMA, but, by then, the competition authorities should have a good handle on what they think a merger across the supermarket and wholesale channels could mean for shoppers.
So we must continue to wait a little longer. But the industry’s operating model for the next few years is likely to be revealed within the next few weeks.

Open for entries

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 4 Oct 2017

With costs rising and competition intensifying, it’s something of a surprise that any small store owner can find the wherewithal to invest in their business. But we all know that retail never stands still, and that a continual cycle of re-evaluation and investment is necessary to maintain position in the marketplace, let alone to take any strides forward.

Finding the funds to invest is one thing, finding the ambition is something else again. But thankfully here the industry is blessed with smart, resourceful and ambitious operators who not only provide a great range and superb shopping environment, but are also constantly looking for ways to improve.

The Convenience Retail Awards, now open for entries, was created to celebrate exactly these sort of retailers. There are awards for different types and different sizes of stores, as well as special awards for particular product categories and areas of strength. But what unites all our past winners is the sense that you always need to do the best you possibly can for your customers, and have an eye on not just present success, but the future, too.

2017 has been a momentous year for the sector (at least, in terms of announcements; most of the real change will be implemented in 2018), but all of the really good operators in the industry have continued to invest and to drive their businesses forward. We live in challenging times, but we also work in a fantastic industry with much to be proud of, and it is our pleasure to continue to celebrate it.

The cost of living

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 6 Sep 2017

Further evidence this week that the National Living Wage is having a huge impact on the retail industry.

The latest ACS Local Shop Report indicates that employment in the convenience sector has fallen significantly in the past year, following on from another drop the previous year. With the numbers of stores fairly stable and opening hours expanding rather than contracting, the only conclusion to draw is that operators are cutting back on employee numbers, either pro-actively or through natural wastage, in the face of cost increases.

It’s a major issue for the trade, as customer service and product availability are arguably the two most important aspects of convenience trading, and both require staff numbers to execute them properly.

Even the multiples are feeling the pinch. Indeed, I believe that wage costs are a big part of the reason that the multiple grocers are now looking to be wholesale suppliers to the independent trade, as it allows them to grow sales without having to employ any more staff. So while the potential merger of independent and multiple supply chains is a big story, the National Living Wage sits above it as an even bigger challenge.

The big question

Posted by: David Rees Tue, 27 Jun 2017

Politics is in a fluid situation at the moment, as is the future structure of the independent sector.
If Tesco-Booker was surprising, then Sainsbury-Nisa is an obvious response. As I write this, it is still a long way from actually happening (as I said, it’s a fluid situation) but in the meantime Nisa members will have questions, for this or any other proposed merger or takeover in future. What difference will increased scale make in real terms? What other benefits are likely? What is the value attached to owning part of a mutual business, or being a smaller part of something bigger?

Supermarkets are seeking new ways to get sales growth without having to invest in building more stores. In essence, the multiples are proposing to source and supply product to independent retailers in return for them carrying the costs of operating premises and paying staff, and losing any element of control over their supply partner. And so to the final question: Is this a match made in heaven, or is it selling your soul to the devil?

Exchange rates

Posted by: David Rees Tue, 21 Feb 2017

The pernicious impact of business rates, for a long time a cause of irritation among retailers, has been taken up by the national media as a cause worth fighting for.

It’s welcome (and it’s about time) as it will add further pressure on the government to look at the whole system, but the fact that the consumer press are getting involved at all should be taken as a strong indication that the current system is unjust and broken. To base a business tax on the rental income of the property is bizarre to start with, and to revalue it after seven years means that you inevitably get huge disparities between winners and losers.

Those to lose out are small businesses in the South East, where property prices have climbed, and those to fare better are generally in less-affluent areas, including, of course, some very large warehouses for very large online retailers. And what is worse, to lessen the exposure of appeals on cash-strapped local authorities, the appeals system has changed so it’ll be harder to get any money back.

We’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here: there’s only so much that tinkering with business rates can achieve. We need a new system of business taxation altogether.

The old labels don't apply

Posted by: David Rees Fri, 10 Feb 2017

While the announcement of the ‘Besco’ merger took pretty much everyone by surprise, on reflection perhaps we should have seen it, or something like it, a mile off.

The blurring of channels has become a feature of the UK food and drink market in recent years so it was just a matter of time before big retail and foodservice combined in a structured and strategic way. And, as a well-run, cash-rich and profitable firm, Booker would always be a takeover target for any large organisation able to make the right deal.

Booker’s earlier acquisition of Musgrave was highlighted as a fast-track to better fresh food and more efficient distribution to independently-owned stores. A strategic partnership with Tesco brings the same set of benefits, multiplied by about 100.

For many store owners, there is excitement at the prospect of linking their main supplier to the UK’s largest food retailer. With the cost base rising for all businesses, the bigger the scale of your supply partner, the better, or so the argument goes. But there are doubts about the linkage. For some, the prospect of being supplied by your toughest competitor sits a little uneasily.

There is also the question of store data. If you are a Budgens retailer, for example, you might have been competing hard against Tesco for a decade. How can you be sure that they won’t be able to view your sales figures? Admittedly, this might be fixed by the CMA as part of a regulatory assessment of the merger. Booker doesn’t have a direct data link to most of its customers anyway, and at Tesco-owned One Stop the franchisee data is formally separated from the company-owned stores as a legal requirement of the franchise operation. But I suppose if you were so minded you could form a reasonable picture of how stores in a particular area were performing from orders, delivery loads and schedules, and this would be theoretically possible under Besco as well.

For this merger to work for independent retailers, the key is trust. According to the notes accompanying the merger document, most of the value that the deal creates will be through synergies in buying and distribution, and if that turns out to be the case retail customers have every right to expect a share of these benefits. But down the line, say 10 years, is Charles Wilson still going to be there, or Tesco’s Dave Lewis? And what if the Tesco board at the time decides that supplying independent retailers is a low priority? Hence the uncertainty in the independent retail trade: this deal provides a lot to be excited about, but there is a lot to be taken on trust as well.

Prepare for 2017

Posted by: David Rees Wed, 11 Jan 2017

I don’t think it’s too late to wish you a happy new year, but I wonder what sort of year 2017 will be? There are many indications it will be tough, with increased wage and business costs, an uncertain household economic environment and more grocery stores opening despite the growth of online. But, at the same time, there are still opportunities to be had, and in a steady market such as food and drink there will always be as many operators on the winning side as those under pressure.

But 2017 is unusual in the sheer scale of the issues on the horizon, so perhaps the best way forward is to break the cycle of previous years and to forge ahead on a new model. Food to go is an obvious area to develop, as it fits perfectly within the instant consumption focus of a c-store. For some this means a rearrangement to put all the ‘eat now’ lines together, but for others it will involve a more ambitious refit with an in-store kitchen and more specialised staff.

It is more expensive and risky, of course, but the advantage of a kitchen is that it allows you to create your own brand of food and mealtime offerings as well as food to go. On a recent trip to Northern Ireland most of the stores I visited had their own selection of pies, puddings and meals prepared within in-store kitchens, and sold at a good price to busy shoppers.

All this is easier said than done, but plenty of stores are doing it, and independent c-store operators prove themselves year after year to be adaptable and resilient – and can usually respond to broad market changes and specific local opportunities quicker than big chains. If there is a theme for 2017 it could be ‘do it yourself’ – ask your customers what they really want, and then make it happen for them and for you.

The big decision

Posted by: David Rees Thu, 2 Jun 2016

There is no doubt about which issue will dominate political debate this month – our future with the EU. If you haven’t yet decided which way to vote in the referendum, we have our own take on what retailers think about the issues.

The image of the EU is that we pay in more than we get out directly (which is true, although the indirect benefits of membership are difficult to calculate), while it also creates a bureaucratic framework for business regulations. As far as local shops go, the business they do is generally with people who live within walking distance, yet they have to pay the same taxes and comply with the same regulations as those enterprises who trade internationally.

So I get why many might want to leave. But my view is that we should remain. Here’s why: if you need to source product and negotiate deals, scale helps. I can’t see how our national economy would benefit by withdrawing from the world’s biggest trading blocs.

Also, the regulation affecting us does not always come from Brussels. Take tobacco – the recent product directive is based on World Health Organisation guidelines, not the EU’s, and national governments all have their own rules when it comes to tobacco display.

Finally, if the Brexiters win, it would create an electoral mandate to ‘control’ immigration more strictly, and that sits uncomfortably with me just as I’m sure it would for many of you. Migration is caused by conflict and inequality, and the way we fix this is by increasing international co-operation, not by withdrawing from the room altogether.

Some of you will agree with this and some won’t, and I hope you are not offended by me volunteering a view. And if you are undecided, I hope that our feature helps brings some issues into focus.

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