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Supermarkets bullies – no it can’t be true

It is a well known fact that there is an urgent need for a watchdog to stop the supermarkets using bullying tactics with their suppliers. Only recently we suggested that the National Farmers Union was expecting the large chains to act reasonably over the ecoli cucumber scare by not forcing prices down on British growers. The NFU had said that so far it would seem that the supermarket chains were behaving with some dignity but were I a British grower of cucumbers, I would be biting my nails.

Let’s cut to the chase – the only people the supermarkets are interested in is themselves; they pretend to suck up to the customer when all they want is the customer through their door rather than somebody else’s; they are incredibly successful at it but, at the same time, they are no better than the school bully. One can see the attraction, to a grower, in selling to a supermarket chain – certainty of orders with certainty of price might be assumed , but I do not believe this is true. What I believe is likely to happen is that the supermarkets will shave the grower’s margins to the bare minimum, take weeks if not months to pay and generally act as if they are doing the grower a favour. Rather than the relationship being a mutually beneficial partnership, it will be one where it is nothing better than a Dominatrix and Masochist but where the difference is that the Masochist cannot put his clothes back on and as the stick is wielded his cries for mercy go unheard. These reprehensible practices are designed to benefit only one outfit – the supermarkets!

Should any of the majors read this, you know who you are; please do not try to assuage us by suggesting that customers benefit and the economy benefits through jobs and taxation. Taxpayers and job creators you may be, but it is likely that British growers would also like to pay tax and create jobs were they put in a position where they could do so. Such is the tactics of these household names, that margins to growers can be so tight as to make it impossible to absorb any unforeseen costs. In fact, I would wager that the British growers are paid substantially less than it would cost the supermarkets to grow and produce the crops themselves – there can only be one winner. Clearly, there would have to be some cost advantage to a supermarket sourcing its products rather than growing for themselves, but my guess is that they take the Mick in determing what this advantage should be.

The chair of the Grocery Market Action Group is Gorgeous George MP who has said that the Government should waste no further time in establishing the watchdog, since every day of delay will risk further British growers going out of business.

In 2008, the Competition Commission starkly warned that ’the transfer of excessive risk and unexpected costs by grocery retailers to their suppliers…if unchecked will have an adverse effect on investment and innovation in the supply chain, and ultimately on customers.’

New rules governing fairer business practices, between supermarkets and suppliers, were introduced in early 2010 but there is no forum in which to enforce them and since then the GMAG has highlighted the need for an adjudicator to monitor and enforce the statutory code. The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills has  drafted the Grocery Adjudicator Bill and it was published two weeks ago. It contains details of  the structure, remit, and operational practices of an Adjudicator.

Gorgeous has been running a campaign for this since 2000 and reckons the watchdog is already well overdue. He believes that those that have not already gone out of business are struggling as a result of the distorted power meted out by the supermarkets. He says that the proposal for an Adjudicator has cross party support and that there are no excuses for further delay. No doubt some of the larger supermarkets will complain, but Mr George says that they have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide. He goes on to state the obvious, that food producers here and in the developing World simply want to produce good food and not have to perpetually wrangle with their customers simply to survive.

The Grocery Market Action Group has some key members such as the British Independent Fruit Growers Association, the National Farmers Union,  the National Farmers Union of Scotland, Friends of the Earth and others.

For me at any rate, this goes further than simply food since the supermarkets have their grubby little fingers in many a pie.  But to a certain extent it is our own fault because it is convenient to park in the supermarket car park and buy everything under one roof and as a result our high street and its myriad of little shops and independents are also key sufferers. The supermarkets (and especially one of them) are for me giant malignancies that spread their spores around the country springing up in places where they replace the smaller high street retailers. Afore long the high street will consist only of major supermarkets, charity shops and coffee shops.

Are we the better for it – I think not.

My message to the supermarkets is this; you are not capitalists but despots – the difference might be a fine one, in some cases, but there is a difference.

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