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The march of the supermarkets

May 20, 2011

Britain’s supermarkets are embarking on the biggest expansion drive in retail history, according to a Channel 4 News report last night…

According to the report, the next three years will see 20% more supermarket space across the UK, and that only includes the so-called ‘Big Four’, Asda, Tescos, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

It says the big chains are benefiting from the recession by snapping up cheap land and empty units and from recent changes to the planning system to bolster economic growth.

It’s a pretty depressing report if, like me, you think we probably have enough supermarkets and should maybe put our energy into building something more useful like new homes or something. But you have to assume this expansion is due to public demand and who can stand in the way of that?

You can watch the report here.

Radio 4 was also on the case last night with its The Report show investigating the spread of supermarkets. You can listen here.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Anthony Hogan permalink
    May 20, 2011 4:50 pm

    Hello Michael,

    I came across your blog on wordpress.

    I agree with you.

    I am keeping a blog about the hugely negative effects of the big supermarkets on my cheese business and on the country’s towns and cities as a whole.

    If you get a minute please read my blog.

    Many thanks,


  2. Deptford Dame permalink
    May 21, 2011 9:45 am

    Is it consumer demand, or is it competition between supermarkets for a bigger market share?

  3. Roger permalink
    May 22, 2011 12:49 pm

    I share your dismay at the apparently irresitible pressure these supermarkets seem able to apply in order to get their own way. Two points, how does a supermaket, with it’s totally internal, as in customer base, non-exporting market, actually contribute to growth – other than their own?
    Several dozen low skill, low wage jobs will no doubt be promoted as evidence of benefit to the local community, but this will ignore the several dozen people who have losts their jobs in the local independent retailers that have been put out of business by the arrival of a supermarket, selling much more that just food these days

    Secondly, what evidence is there to really support any belief that this is by public demand? Of course a new Tesco store will attract people to it, as will just about any new big name outlet, but is this because there was a pent up public demand that the supermarket was covertly aware of and that the rest of us were blissfully ignorant of? I don’t think so.

    This is nothing more than a classic demonstration of the need to be seen to be doing it by these companies, rather than any attempt to address a gap in the market. They are not interested in addressing the public’s needs, other in a way that increased their profits. Evidence for this view would come from the fact that the likes of Tesco would not open a store any closer to an existing store if it reduceds its profitablity even slightly, even if it brought benefit to their customers by reducing their travel time.

  4. Necropolis permalink
    May 23, 2011 11:14 am

    This is something I really think we should have a good, honest debate around.

    When the subject comes up, out come a very rehearsed series of arguments which, and I say this as a practising Local Authority Planner, seem to have less and less weight on BOTH sides the more they’re rolled out.

    For example, like you say in the blog, what about the impact on local shops? Thing is, I live 5 mins from 4 supermarkets and 5 mins from my parade of local shops. I do my “big” shopping at the supermarket, but all the little stuff at my local shops. It wasnt an active choice, it just happened that way. Seems it did for all my neighbours as well, because the Bargain Booze that opened next door closed 3 months later as people carried on shopping.

    But then again, however much the Big 4 preach on about local competition and thriving markets, I know that theres an active campaign by all 4 to get Options on all available sites when they hit the market if only to stop others getting their first.

    The core principle to it, I suppose, is how much role the English Planning system, should have in dictating where and how we spend our money.

    If the population actually doesnt want corner shops, and likes days out at retail parks, why are we stopping that?

    Then again, if the community wants to keep its local services but cant because its too expensive, what role can Planning play in that?

    Then theres the debate about markets. After all, if you and I didnt shop at Tesco, they wouldnt develop new stores. Thats a free market economy after all, and its kept them out of America well enough.

    Maybe its time for a proper controversial debate about it. Not the same old arguments, but an honest debate. Feature article in Planning maybe?

    • Roger permalink
      May 23, 2011 10:22 pm

      Just because they’re the ‘same old arguments’ doesn’t make them any less relevant or valid does it? What new arguments would you like to explore? The changing attitude of the British public to the corner shop and it’s impact on the social structures that kept communities together in years gone by? Whatever all that drivel means!

      Sorry to sound dismissive of what you are trying to say, but looking for new ways to look at a long term problem can lead you to finding trendy answers that are complete tosh!

      Just about every aspect of public service has ultimately been damaged by new thinkers and their trendy cutting edge approach to things that didn’t actually need fixing. The education system – ruined. The police force – ruined. The standard of hospital care – ruined. Centralise, streamline, professionalise – oh no hang on, maybe not, tell you what, lets try localise, small government and the volutary sector.

      So back to the subject of supermarkets. The public demand that is trotted out as the main reason for this growth, is nothing more than a clever piece of marketing by the supermarkets, supported by those in government who have a vested interested in seeing these companies make bigger and bigger profits – just like the other thread that is currently running on betting shops – the industry told us we want it, so it must be true.

      Let’s not forget that these same supermarkets are the ones that told us people wanted to shop for 24hrs and on Sundays and are now telling us that we want to shop for 24hrs on Sundays, so the Sunday trading rules should be scrapped. Funny how the Dutch and the Germans manage perfectly well without such supposedly consumer led convenience?

      There is no fresh and innovative perspective to bring to this – corporate greed and public manipulation, aided and abetted by greedy politicans wishing to increase their tax take whilst also increasing the value of their share holdings.

      • Necropolis permalink
        May 26, 2011 6:17 am

        Then again, no element of any organisation, public or private sector has ever been helped by not exploring new ways of doing things, new ideas and alternatives to “the usual way”. Otherwise they become stagnant and decayed. It’s happened in all those organisations you mention, and is the reason Planning has such a bad reputation, because of all the people who say “thats not the way we do things around here”, and “I don’t like it so I’m not doing it”.

        But, like you say, back to supermarkets…

        I never said that the arguments are particularly less valid, but what I am saying is that they’ve been so rehearsed and entrenched by both sides that they have become the first and last point of call for any debate on the subject and resolve absolutely nothing. They don’t get us anywhere, they don’t move the debate on, and they end up with Local Authorities and Supermarkets in opposition and the Inspectorate or Eric Pickles making the decision.

        What I’m saying is that surely we, as a profession, are better than that?

        We’re in a position where there seeems to be an automatic assumption of refusal for any supermarket application, anyone who queries it is assumed to be supporting the supermarkets (see your response), and that it can all be resolved by the supermarkets throwing lots of money at regeneration schemes which makes it all right.

        I’m saying, from my own personal experience, from working on town centres ruined by supermarkets, to regeneration schemes underpinned by them, from being a local shopper myself and from actually talking to communities and local shop owners about what they want, I’m saying the regular arguments trotted out aren’t true. Maybe they once were. They’re not now. And not questioning them, not revisiting them and debating them makes all the arguments weaker, rather than supporting any particular view.

        Supermarkets are here, and play as much a role in our society as any local shop, school or health centre. We, as Planners, need to understand that and discuss it, or we just carry on as usual, effectively ignoring the subject and throwing our hands up in woe every time a new application comes in.

  5. Tom permalink
    May 23, 2011 2:22 pm

    I think the biggest thing missing from these debates, is the acknowledgement that we cant have everything we want.
    We appear to have a choice between cheap convenience, and local high streets of smaller shops.
    In reality its not that black and white. But its also the reality that people shop more and more in supermarkets due to price and convenience, and yet say they want high streets.

    I personally take price and convenience over local shops. I generally shop later in the evening, as thats more convenient for me, does anyone know a high street which would let me do my weekly shop at 21:00?

    • Roger permalink
      May 24, 2011 11:48 am

      Tom, you are of course spot on with your points ref price and convenience and it would be futile to try to dispute these. However, what most us seem to be most concerned with the ruthless pursuit of profit over all else by these companies. I can’t recall the name of the seaside town that did just what you allude to – say no thank you we are happy as we are, we don’t want you type of offer, but still suffered the full force of the supermarket determination to get their own way.

  6. Pandora permalink
    May 23, 2011 5:47 pm

    I am confused. We have had an enormous “Big 4” supermarket built in our very small town. Reason: because people are shopping “outside the area”. But they are shopping outside the area (5 miles away) at exactly the same supermarket chain we now have here, so all that is happening is that the same customers are being redistributed – we have only this one supermarket chain with 15 branches within 20 miles of us, all the others are 20-25 miles away.

    In theory, it cuts down car journeys from our town to the former nearest store, but it also cuts down the number of shoppers at each branch, making those branches less profitable and the carbon footprint of developing, building and servicing the new store is enormous with store construction, new traffic layout, etc and delivery lorries now have to travel an extra 5 miles each way to distribute goods to the new store.

    Is this really progress?

  7. Pandora permalink
    May 24, 2011 8:42 am

    Surely the clue is in the title – “Planning”. Either we let (the noisy) people have exactly what they want, so there would be no need for planners only building regulators, or we try to balance the needs of most or all of the community, many of whom have no voice.

    Do you guys who say that we should give people what the “want” understand that your jobs would be redundant!

    • Tom permalink
      May 24, 2011 12:21 pm

      nope not redundant.
      There is a difference between managing land use and dictating who uses land.
      We can control retail floor space, but I dont think we should really be involved in who trades from it.
      Of course we can control the scale of units, but planning is in the public interest. If the public clearly demontrate they use supermarkets more, should we not provide for that?

  8. Biggles permalink
    May 24, 2011 12:08 pm

    As much as I agree that it is, to some extent, the planner’s role to intervene, and I have a general dislike for supermarkets, there is a surely a need for people to start voting with their feet. And if they’re not and they’re still shopping in the supermarkets then perhaps we need to think about why? Opening hours is a key one with many local high streets closing before most people get home from work. But I assume there are other factors that affect people’s choice such as accessibility. Interestingly, on my local high street the thing that has stopped a Tesco going in is not that it’s a Tesco but that it will reduce the level of parking. This on a thriving High Street in inner London and one of the few that does open late. I don’t know if it’s just that people don’t realise how it will affect other shops. Or if they don’t care.
    There is surely also something in educating people towards the disbenefits of supermarkets, which seems an uphill battle at present. Clearly Tesco and the like have an army of PR guys ready to tell us how amazing they are. Unfortunately the small shops don’t have this and seemingly organisations such as the Federation for Small Businesses don’t have the resource for this either (I was disappointed when they recently failed to comment on our Core Strategy in a Borough that is clearly in favour of BIG supermarkets…). I was hoping they would have something to say about that.

  9. Marley permalink
    May 25, 2011 12:30 pm

    I am a planner, I shop at tesco. I also shop at the local (walking distance) co-op for day-to-day needs and the local butcher does incredible sausages (worth the extra). But my shopping needs would not be met by the local shops, not by a long way.

    The range of goods sold has increased so dramatically since the hypermarket was invented, the local shops could not provide the range, we now see 9,000 square metre trading area, all with different products and price brackets. Local parades could not match the prices, my weekly bill would probably be 20% greater and my shopping would take three times longer. There is often little or no parking at local parades and i am too weak to carry a week’s shopping home.

    Furthermore by changing the way I shop would not make me more community spirited, I would still ignore most people I see at the local parade and I would go home back to my 21st century life and not stand chatting to my neighbours, whilst sweeping the pavement outside my house. There is no going back now, the 1970’s is long gone

    Perhaps what is required of the big 4 through developer contributions should be reconsidered and manifested in law. That way they can give back a lot more than they are required to now.

    • Necropolis permalink
      May 26, 2011 6:27 am

      I agree. I don’t know about others, but the problem I’ve always seen is that the big 4 put in an application, there’s lots of arguments thrown around about the impact on local shops (some right, some wrong) which means Councillors refuse the application, it goes to appeal, they roll out their highly paid lawyers and consultants, get the approval anyway and such a minimal S106 contribution that it just makes the situation worse, especially given the profit coming from that level of floor space.

      Now that financial contributions are a material factor… who knows?

  10. Iain Paton permalink
    May 26, 2011 11:46 am

    Supermarkets are fine, in their place, which is within town centres or local neighbourhood centres, and at an appropriate scale. The hypermarkets, with a growing range of comparison goods, are not sustainable, particularly when out-of-centre. Planning policy needs to change so that the rather weak sequential test and impact test are applied to smaller foodstores, with larger foodstores subject to far more stringent planning authority control.

  11. Roger permalink
    May 27, 2011 4:46 pm

    Here’s a thought. Instead of being like King Canute and trying to prevent the tide of the supermarkets roll in, perhaps we should take a leaf out of Morrison’s book with their market place concept and introduce and requirement for small shop units to be provided as part of any new development. These would be at a sensible rental and would be available to those wishing to provide local comparison goods.
    Not ideal I know and still a threat to the high street we all keep on about, but it wouls at least level the playing field slightly for the little guy – mountains coming to Mohamed and all that.

  12. Martin Goodall permalink
    May 27, 2011 5:13 pm

    This comment is a week late (I’ve been very busy), but perhaps I could refer you to my own blog post on this topic :

    I am as much against the domination of the High Street by the multiples (not just the supermarkets) as everyone else, but I do not see the planning system as the appropriate mechanism for tackling the problem.

    The key to this issue is competition law, and the minister whose ear needs to be bent on the subject is the Business Secretary, Vince Cable.

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