Blog: Katy AskewUK supermarkets attracting heat - again

Katy Askew | 7 March 2011

UK supermarkets drew fresh criticism today (7 March) after it was claimed that they use inflated job creation pledges to win planning permission.

A report in The Times said Tesco and Sainsbury's have made "extravagant claims" about the number of jobs they create, when their annual reports reveal that they employ fewer people today than two years ago.

According to figures seen by The Times, in its 2008-9 report, Tesco pledged to create 11,000 jobs in the following year. However, the company's total UK store workforce shows a net rise of only 1,305. Likewise, Sainsbury's claimed to have created 13,000 jobs over the last two years - but staff numbers fell by around 1,600.

Commenting on the findings, James Lowman of the Association of Convenience Stores said that supermarkets hoped to get "an easier time on planning rules" by inflating their job-creation figures. "Suggestions that supermarket expansion automatically creates new jobs do not stack up," he warned.

Cue an outpouring of anti-supermarket sentiment on the forums, with readers bemoaning the death of the British middle class: after all how can we remain a nation of shop keepers in the face of such heinous corporate juggernauts?

As a nation, why does the UK seem to be so ambivalent in its collective attitude to supermarkets? Because, lets face it, how many of the readers expressing so vociferously their distaste at the power of supermarkets still shop at them? If the shadowy figure of the evil corporation is so terrible, why do sales keep growing? If supermarkets are so very unwelcome, then why do consumers use them?

The answers are simple: price perception, convenience and range.

I live in a little town that time forgot. We have a thriving High Street with grocers, butchers, bakers and confectioners abound. And - in contrast to what we have been told - the independent shops in our area are cheaper than the supermarkets for the most part. But - as a young family with two working parents - we simply don't always have time to frequent them as often as we'd like. They are only open while we are working. You have to make a dozen stops instead of one. And they don't carry everything that you need. (Much to my chagrin, it is impossible to get chives anywhere in the entire town.) Instead, for us, local shopping is more event-based. We plan, discuss and savour the experience. I suspect that the real reason why our local High Street is prospering is a demographic one: we live in an area with a high proportion of retired people who have the time to shop during the day.

So what is the answer for independent shops? How can they compete with supermarkets? For the most part, I think that they can't - not toe-to-toe at any rate. Small stores have to fill a niche, they have to be located in the right places, they have to appeal to specific consumer groups who have the time and money to shop locally.

But in all this - even as some local retailers may fall by the wayside - I would argue that supermarkets aren't the villain of the piece. They fill a need that local shops can't. And, in spite of any allegations of skulduggery in their job creation stats, they do remain among the country's largest employers.


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