Sunday, October 5, 2008

Tesco: a different view always helps

the Wilco shop which Tesco has permission to move into, with thanks to the 'Cambridge News'Yesterday's Cambridge News reported that a Cambridge City Council has finished hearing four days' of evidence regarding an appeal by Tesco's against decisions to refuse permission to the chain to install an extension and plant into a shop void which the Council has already given it permission to move into.

This story has been running all year in the face of a concerted anti-Tesco campaign which has included submissions to the Council from Germany and Australia. It has included a 600-strong protest march, a petition containing over 4,000 signatures, and a dedicated facebook group.

However, a related Facebook group called Let's turn Mill Road into chains free zone unintentionally puts my own argument into a nutshell:

Mill Road is an extraordinary street on which it is possible to drink Arabic coffee or fine wines; where you can worship in a Mosque, a Hindu shrine or a Baptist church; where you can eat foie gras or fish and chips, tom yum or chicken tikka lababda; where you can stock up on herbs and spices from aam to zedoary.
My argument, and that of many others who are too busy to march down Mill Road, is: which of the above is a Tesco Metro going to threaten? (Although I'm a bit doubtful about the claim for foie gras; the last mention of it in Cambridge I recall was when a restaurant selling the delicacy was vandalised by animal-rights protestors. The story made me feel tempted to develop a foie gras habit.)

As well as being able to access all of the above, there are more goods you can buy on Mill Road - cannabis seeds and the means to grow them, second-hand firearms and hard-core pornography. In this context, I was surprised to learn that Cambridge's MP David Howarth is supporting the campaign against Tesco's opening in Mill Road: there are more important issues affecting the thoroughfare.

Like, for example, Lib Dem Councillor Kilian Bourke's plan to make Mill Road a shared space. I'm not saying that removing signage and road markings would not make motorists think more carefully about what they were doing, but the No Mill Road Tesco campaign's own video shows how busy the road can get; I don't see the wisdom of removing demarcation between those parts of the road used by drivers and those by pedestrians. The Wikipedia article linked to above states: "Shared space zones are very frightening for the blind and partially sighted who cannot visually negotiate their way with other road users, as the lack of separation implicit in these schemes has also has removed their safe space".

I'm rather unhappy with the video as it gives no indication of the time of day it was taken - during term time, much of Cambridge is practically gridlocked, not just Mill Road, for the school runs. When I was in town the other day, I saw how vulnerable the road was to stoppages when a huge Co-op van blocked the whole road while maneuvring into the street running down the side of the supermarket.

Which brings me to the reason why the Mill Road situation has been in my mind recently. Last week I went to an event at Cambridge University facilitated by the Co-op; it had been planned for a previous date, but a delay held it back until the week before the Tesco hearing. One of the speakers, I see from my notes, brought up the subject of the chain's own farms, which might "mitigate the impact of [pause] larger retailers". She later said that schoolchildren she spoke to thought that milk originates from Tesco's, and to much hilarity an audience member shouted, "you're really in trouble if your milk comes from Tesco's!"

I'm not saying that this event had a hidden agenda to herd Cambridge's shopping intelligentsia against Tesco's, but it reminded me that if you didn't know the smaller ethnic stores in Mill Road very well, then if you wanted anti-Mill-Road Tesco's material you went to Mill Road Co-op; and that a Tesco's in Mill Road would threaten the Co-op much more than it would, say, the tearooms, the pagan bookshop, the nail-bar, etc...

In February, the anti-campaign published a shopping-basket comparison, according to which another Tesco Express's goods were slightly dearer than goods bought in various local shops. Ok, but shortly after this the Cambridge News printed a letter from an older person who said she'd be happy to pay the difference if it would save her from walking up and down going to various shops. There's always swings and roundabouts. (I'm a little puzzled as to why the campaign differentiates between the Co-op as a "local" shop and Tesco's as a chain, though.)

The anti's have got an advantage here, in that it's much easier to proclaim oneself anti-Tesco than pro-Tesco. Myself, I'm "pro" a relatively pleasant shopping experience with a short waiting time and reasonable prices. I might get that in Asda's, Sainsbury's etc, but I happen to go to Tesco's when it's handy.

Indeclick to read about Tesco's charity of the yeared, I've always said that I prefer Tesco's; and added that if I stopped preferring it, or it was busy, I'd go somewhere else, because I do not ascribe to an ideology which classifies human beings as economic automata. I believe Tesco's would sit well in Mill Road because, with shops as with people, it takes all sorts.

Related posts:

Do the shopping, stuff the skunk
Normal service will not shortly be resumed


  1. There is a "movement" in the larger cities you may or may not be aware of - essentially, "go local" is the slogan. Below is a link for one site that touts it. I do shop the chains predominantly, but also see the value of these trends (a la G. K. Chesterton, and Wendell Berry). One idea is to save the cost of large trucks carrying items cross-country (in the U.S., quite a distance); another is health benefits; I think there is also some notion of supporting smaller, closer farms in the possible event of some kind of national crisis. (You can take that idea or leave it, as you like.) Possibly you are already aware of this, but if not you may find it interesting.

    I have lots of similar links - it's a hobby of mine. My grandparents had a small farm, and I wish there were more of them.

  2. Hi Pam,

    thanks again for your comment, which I enjoyed reading. I liked looking at your link.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the distance thing - as an American friend once told me, in some places in the US you can travel the equivalent distance as that between, say, London and Edinburgh and still be in the same state.

    We have a couple of farmers' shops in Cambridge, as well as a farmers' market:

    None of these, however, are on Mill Road, many of whose ethnic shops have foods brought in from abroad - so the shops are local, but in many cases the food in them isn't!

    Like yourselves, we're being encouraged to use gardens to grow veg, as happened during WWII to augment rationed foods. There are a few small farms round hereabouts. Is your grandparents' farm still in the family?

    All the best

    Frugal Dougal

  3. Well, the farm is in the family, but greatly diminished. (From 30 acres to three - ugh.) And the county has ruined what was a lovely creek. So it's mostly a memory, but a good one. Someday I hope to grow our own vegetables, too, but on a 5000 square foot lot full of trees, I've not succeeded much. I do remember the Victory Gardens, and think we may need to return to them. No one in government or media is suggesting that we do so, though. (Yet.)

    Well, even if the shops don't sell local goods, perhaps there's some use in the fact that they're owned privately and not on the Exchange. (Not sure on the details of advantages/

    Finally, yes, I think the whole of the U.K. could fit very loosely within the state of Texas!

    I enjoy your blog very much. Wide variety of topics, covered in more depth than I'm accustomed to seeing in blogs, and with humor, too! What more could one want?

    God be with you.

  4. Thank you for your kind comments. I hope to get back in the driving (or blogging) seat as soon as possible, but right now I'm making my way through an online job application that makes London's traffic system look minimalist. God bless you - FD.

  5. Although it's true that tesco wouldn't be selling those more 'ethnic' goods, the problem is that the smaller retailers surely depend on sales of staples in order to make their overall operation profitable. That is where tesco would have the real effect.

    I've seen it claimed that staples are how tesco make their money too: under-price the basics to get people into the store, then people will also get other stuff at the same time.

    There are 13 other Tesco-owned stores already in the Cambridge area, and one more about to come to the Cattle Market, if you believe the Cambridge Evening News, so I don't really understand the problem of choice. Surely at that level of market penetration tesco is likely to start having dominating market power. I wonder how many pence in the pound that represents being spent in cambridge on provisions.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Thomas.

    I'm afraid I don't agree with your argument, though, because the prices of staples in some of the "speciality" shops is rather inflated in the first place, so much so that it would be difficult to charge a higher price.

    Other shops do indeed sell at cheaper prices than Tesco, and this seems to me to be the point of the shopping basket comparisons, which are made up largely of staples. (Price-wars can go the other way too: I know a butcher's shop not too far from one of the huge Tesco's which has lowered its prices, and has increased its profit margin because many more customers now shop there.)

    It appears to me that nomillroadtesco objects to Tesco, Asda etc not because they are Tesco, Asda etc but because they are perceived to be part of a conspiracy of multinational companies - all I want is, as I say, a small shop among small shops where I can buy what I want in the one place, and a lot of people I know who, like me, have neither a brilliant wage nor a long lunchtime, agree.

    I also think my comments on choice stand - Tesco's thrives because people choose to shop there, for no other reason.

    All the best - FD


Please feel free to leave a comment - Frugal Dougal.