The trouble with Tesco: reviewing Tescopoly

The problem with Andrew Simms’ book is this: he never once justifies the title. Tescopoly devotes its tiny wrath to kneecapping the largest of Britain’s superstores, yet leaves the rest of this supermarket goliath still standing. Sure, the name must have tripped off the tongue at that initial editorial meeting, but it undermines the book’s far more interesting stance on monopolies, and what we can do to stop them.

Nonetheless, it’s a good, well-researched book, and interesting reading. Simms appeals partly to the rational, mostly to the emotional in his story of the UK’s largest supermarket chain, and how it is harming the world.

The emotive part of Simms’ argument rests on what he terms ‘Ghost Town Britain’ and the death of local community. In 2006 (the year this book was published) Tesco took over 50 pence per pound spent on groceries. As we know, it now dominates other non-food retailers. You can insure your car, loan money, go on holiday, use a phone, decorate your house and buy your divorce paperwork from Tesco. The ugly brick buildings are so common a sight on most roads and in every town that we can be forgiven for forgetting there are alternatives. The result, of course, is the death of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, not to mention the local music store and the newsagent.

Aside from sucking money and business from communities, supermarket monopolies often deprive us of real choice: the store where you can find poppy seeds, for example, or Trainspotting Weekly, or that niche foreign language film. Tesco may be killing off competition, but it’s doing this through rock-bottom prices and Miley Cyrus compilations, not by providing consumers with the full range of items we want and need.

The second, more obvious problem is a global one, touching upon Tesco’s abuse of food miles and the impoverishment of local communities from where it sources its products. It’s a story with a known link to environmental warming and poverty. Simms talks about below-cost selling, flaunting planning regulations, and a lack of regard for supplier conditions. It’s an old tale of abuse and below-cost selling.

This is all well-argued and hard-hitting stuff, and but why paint other supermarkets out of this equation? The problems outlined, and Simms’ solutions – which include licensing, a mandatory and enforceable code of conduct, and a ban on below-cost selling for Tesco – could be applied to numerous chains across Britain and the US. Why not call the book ‘Monopolies’? It’s a problem of large corporations and their power in the UK and the world, not just Tesco.

How much braver, and better, to have written a book that judges us. It’s one thing to lambast the growth of a corporate culture that disregards planning laws, supplier welfare and consumer choice, but quite another to change our lifestyle choices accordingly. We would need to re-evaluate our attitudes to everything: the foods we eat, our shopping habits, the ‘cheap is best’ mentality. It’s a life full of label-checking, vegetable box-buying, farmers’ market-trawling and occasional abstemiousness (“None of the pomegranate seed and feta salad for me, thanks” – Guardian reader; “Can you tell me the origin of this rump steak, butler?” – Telegraph). It’s a chore, but a rewarding and exciting one, and one that Simms fails to drive home. Every little helps, after all.

In the last quarter of this year we’ve heard about tax evasion on a mass scale in the UK. Not just personalities – which makes a welcome change from Jimmy Carr’s gruesome mug on our front pages – but Amazon, Starbucks, and a host of other chains have been found swindling the UK tax system. Perhaps this will help shake us out of our blasé attitude to corporations in a way which Tescopoly fails to do.

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