The Grocery Market Inquiry took two years to complete yet no one is entirely happy with the outcome, says David Rees

The conclusion is simple, but staggering. "In many important respects," the report begins, "competition in the UK groceries industry is effective and delivers good outcomes for consumers."
The Competition Commission's (CC) summary goes on to highlight immediately the two areas where it is concerned - domination by a specific retailer in a number of local markets, and the transfer or risks and costs in the supply chain onto suppliers - but overall, it says, things are working okay. Buying power differentials and below-cost selling are nothing to worry about, and store closures - while regrettable - are not due to any distortions in competition.
Needless to say, this is not the outcome that campaigners for the independent retail trade, notably the ACS which started the Inquiry rolling, had in mind when the process began two years ago. But while the proposed remedies could never be satisfactory for all parties, serious doubts are being raised over the Commission's methods.
For one thing, the CC maintains that the number of convenience stores is rising over time, not the fall that is identified by every other specialised research body in the industry. Indeed, the latest report by industry research group IGD shows that the total number of c-stores has fallen by 2.4% in the past year, part of a long-term trend that has seen forecourts and unaffiliated independents decline in number while multiples, symbols and co-ops increase in strength.
But the Commission declined to use this data, or that offered by retail experts Verdict, instead considering a smaller Office of National Statistics database and an obscure data set from Experian Goad to be more representative. These show the number of c-stores is growing, the Commission argues.
ACS chief executive James Lowman described the decision as "astonishing". He said: "The Commission was presented with ample evidence from suppliers and wholesalers showing independent convenience store numbers are in decline. It is astonishing that after such a long investigation its understanding remains so limited."
Similarly, the Commission's dismissal of a 15% buying gap between Tesco and the wholesale industry as nothing to be concerned about has angered the trade. Federation of Wholesale Distributors' (FWD) director general John Murphy said that evidence from the last supermarket investigation in 2000 should have triggered a thorough analysis of buying price differences.
"We urged the CC to get to the heart of the pricing issue from the outset," said Murphy. "As it turned out, the CC collected SKU-level data from 29 anonymous suppliers that covered 141 unidentified branded grocery products. The sample represented a mere 2% of total grocery retail sales in 2006.
"In our opinion, they have done a less than adequate job in this crucially important area - and this has been exacerbated by a lack of transparency."
And it's not just the evidence-gathering that has proved unsatisfactory to some: the remedies have also been questioned.
Changes to the planning process, by introducing a competition test to new supermarket applications, have been criticised for stifling development by one side, and for not going far enough by the other.
Lowman said: "The proposal is not strong enough to make a real difference to the so-called 'Tesco Town' effect. The proposed test applies only to big stores, over 1,000sq m. Therefore, in a town dominated by one large supermarket nothing prevents Sainsbury or Tesco, for example, from opening as many Local, Metro, One Stop or Express stores as they want."
Just as a new planning test might be brushed off as a minor irritation in supermarket head offices, so the creation of an ombudsman to police disputes between suppliers and the multiples is unlikely to damage them unduly, although supermarket representatives were quick to object.
So no one is entirely happy with the final Inquiry report, which the Commission may take as evidence that it has got it right. But there are many in the trade still concerned enough about both the process and the outcome to consider challenging its findings.

More reactions...


ACS chief executive
James Lowman:
"After a two-year investigation, and despite the weight of evidence showing the extent of competition problems in the market, this Inquiry has failed to support choice and diversity in the grocery market.
"The overriding failing of this Inquiry is that the Commission views competition in the grocery market as competition between the big four retailers. This approach ignores the critical need for a variety of retailers and supply chains. It is out of kilter with consumer trends towards more local shopping, and neglects the needs of many groups of consumers whose requirements are not properly met by the big four superstores."

Rural Shops Alliance chief executive Ken Parsons:
"This report was a major opportunity to curb the power of the large supermarket chains and to allow smaller shops to compete on a level playing field. Instead, the Commission is allowing the likes of Tesco to use their raw market power to continue their unfair buying terms.
"The consequence in the long term will be a lot of local communities facing the closure of their much-valued independent local shop. There will be an ombudsman to try to protect suppliers, but who is there to look after the independent retailer?"

FWD director general
John Murphy:
"For UK grocery wholesalers, this document that has taken two years to compile represents nothing so much as a chronicle of wasted time and missed opportunity.
"It discounts entirely the damaging impact of unfair pricing differentials (up to 15%) revealed in the report that wholesalers continue to suffer as a result of supermarket abuse of buyer power. These higher prices in turn affect the competitiveness and viability of smaller shops in an ultra tough grocery market.
"In our opinion, they have done a less than adequate job in this crucially important area and this has been exacerbated by a complete lack of transparency."

Reaction to the Commission's report


Nisa-Today's chief executive officer Neil Turton:
"The report is a missed opportunity. Many of the key issues affecting the diversity of the retail sector have not been addressed and the report is weak in the way in which it tackles the dominance of the big four supermarkets that control 80% of the market.
"Despite the disappointing nature of this report, at Nisa-Today's we believe that, through this investigation, consumer awareness of the value of independent retailing and concern over national supermarket dominance is now greater than ever."

British Retail Consortium director general Stephen Robertson:
"The Commission has again concluded that the UK's highly competitive grocery market is benefiting customers.
"The creation of an ombudsman is unjustifiable pandering to supplier pressure groups. The Commission has not produced any evidence to show systematic failure in supermarkets' relationships with suppliers."

Federation of Small Businesses trade & industry chairman Clive Davenport:
"People up and down the country can see that we are losing our small shops, but this report does little to solve the problem.
"We are in danger of sleepwalking into the death of our high streets. It is now up to our elected representatives to step in and prevent disaster."

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