THE BLOG

Why Don't We Like Multiple Grocers Anymore? Ask Teddington

13/08/2014 13:38 BST | Updated 13/10/2014 10:59 BST

I can remember a time, not so long ago, when Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and the rest of the middle ground of British grocers were fairly popular. They provided choice, quality (sort of) and reasonable prices. Lots of people were happy to do a weekly shop - almost as a family outing.

But as the saying goes, if you stay in the middle of the road for long enough, chances are you'll get run over.

Today, the 'Big Four' are matched (or beaten) on quality and price by competitors and new arrivals. It's increasingly apparent that nobody really loves them, nor can they think of a reason to keep shopping with them anymore.

Of course this realisation didn't happen overnight and the multiples aren't daft.

They've more data on their customers' shopping habits than just about any other retailers in the world.

They know that the sheer number of outlets they have between them, plus people's well established shopping habits, will prop up the figures for a while, but their stores - particularly the "big boxes" - are increasingly unpopular and out of step with new shopping habits such as "en route" shopping and top-up convenience buying.

So they're racing back to the High Street - to where people increasingly favour shopping - and opening more and more smaller format outlets.

This is what really worries me.

Historically, our big grocers have shown little regard for other businesses around them. (And their behaviour towards suppliers - whether the stories are true or not - is the stuff of consumer legend.)

So when people hear that 'one of the big four' is coming to town there's an outburst of fear rather than rejoicing.

Will they 'behave' and be good neighbours? Or will they displace local businesses, increase traffic and be a blemish on our High Streets? Should they pay a "Tesco Tax" to support the local community?

Teddington - a case in point.

Up and down the country I hear about multiples taking over old petrol stations, pubs and High Street property at a frightening rate, opening 'C' versions of their larger format offerings, irrespective of whether communities want them there or not.

They claim in planning applications that they will create greater footfall, serve local needs, provide parking and so on and so on.

So why is it that virtually every time there's news of a multiple opening, the locals rise against them? (I say virtually because I do know of a few towns that'd jump at the chance of a chain grocer on their High Street.)

The Teddington Society is leading the opposition to a new J Sainsbury store because of traffic and parking issues but mainly because of the effect it is bound to have on other local retailers in overlap of the goods they sell.

Don't get me wrong - I love competition. It's what makes business healthy. But fair competition only please. When you have a cost base like Sainsbury - way below that of a local independent - you have a natural advantage in price and service.

And don't get me wrong - item two. I can see this move back to High Streets they once abandoned is inevitable because it's where we all prefer to shop.

What I'm arguing for is that they should behave as responsible and good neighbours.

The people of Teddington don't dislike Sainsbury's any more than most of their competitors. But they do love the variety of the 'indy's' who have managed to keep their doors open and make their High Street special.

My appeal is this - and it's to all grocery multiples.

Please be good neighbours. Stock local produce including from other local retailers - the bakers bread, the butchers meat if they are prepared to collaborate with you. Help local producers find a place in your stores and don't bully them on price. Generally, be reasonable about price competition and don't hammer the other businesses into the ground. Use your resources to help other shopkeepers with training and education programmes for them and their staff. Get involved in local issues and do good things - help with litter, keep up the pressure on the Town Hall on issues like parking and so on.

Be positive and good citizens and who knows, people might start to trust you again.

I don't know how Teddington will turn out. My friends down there tell me the opposition to Sainsbury's is total and they will keep on fighting as long as they can.

Will The Teddington Society give Sainsbury's new management a pause for thought and a moment's reflection? Why is it that the 80's and 90's cuddly Sainsbury's with its popular advertising and broad appeal now getting the good people of an influential London suburb on the barricades?

Is it possible you've got it a bit wrong? Well, Teddington is as good a place as any to start getting it right.

xM