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The Association of Convenience Stores is claiming the Competition Commission's extension of the timetable for its grocery market inquiry as "a small victory".
The small stores group has intensified its call for a thorough investigation in the last couple of months and said this had evidently had an impact. "We had warned the Commission that the original timetable caused unnecessary pressure on the process," said ACS chief executive James Lowman. "We called for the Commission to prioritise thoroughness over speed and we are pleased that they have heeded our call."
Commission chiefs will now publish the report into competition problems three months later than planned, in February 2008, while the deadline for its provisional findings, scheduled for June 2007, is now expected in September 2007.
The ACS has also kept up a constant stream of evidence and questions to the Commission. "We want them to decide on their definition of a local market and study the relationship between retailers and suppliers, both of which they have said they will concentrate on in their recent letter, and we are reassured by that," said public affairs manager Shane Brennan. "They initially said they didn't see buying differentials between large retailers and wholesalers, but we don't believe that's true and we are getting more evidence together on this."
The Commission said there was no single factor behind its decision to delay publication of the report, but that it wanted to "ensure a fair and thorough process and allow parties enough time to respond to all the evidence and analysis that we are continuing to gather". It added that it had become evident that this would not be possible in the original timetable and that some parties - both small and large retail groups -had been urging it to spend more time on the inquiry.
Pressure group the New Economics Foundation said the Competition Commission risks failing in its duty if it does not curb the power of the Big Four.
It warned the inquiry that it is in danger of ignoring crucial evidence of anti-competitive practices, and called on the Commission to use its statutory powers to force suppliers to give evidence.
Policy director Andrew Simms said: "If the Commission can't do its job and put in place checks and balances that could ensure genuinely open markets, people will be justified in questioning exactly what the Commission is for."
He urged the regulators to take into account "the extra value that genuine local shops provide and the social glue that holds communities together."
He added: "We believe that the absence of significant new entrants into the grocery sector and the large scale departure of independents is prima facie evidence of an uncompetitive market. All that was feared as a potential danger in the Commission's 2000 report has actually come to pass."
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I AM CONCERNED AT THE WAY THE LARGE SUPERSTORES USE A BRIBE TO LOCAL COUNCILS TO GAIN PLANNING CONSENT I.E. TO PAY FOR A NEW SPORTS FACILITY FOR THE COMMUNITY - Bill Hogg, Lovats Stores