The owners of a Lerwick food shop fear they will be the first local business forced out by Tesco’s supermarket expansion. Najma and Asghar Ali have seen trade at their World Tastes specialist grocery shop plummet since last week when the retail giant began selling a range of exactly the same Asian products at a fraction of the price.
Mrs Ali said she was “left reeling” and felt physically sick on Friday after seeing that the mass of shelving in the supermarket contained many of the same obscure food brands that make up World Tastes’ core business.
“I just feel gutted about Tesco doing that to us, really gutted,” she told The Shetland Times this week. “This is the beginning of the end really. We haven’t got a hope in hell.”
She believes – rightly or wrongly – that her tiny grocery business has been targeted by Britain’s biggest retailer. She said the big supermarkets “wipe out the little man” and she warned there would be worse to come for local businesses if Tesco expands with fuel sales and another shop extension.
The mother of three, who has lived in Lerwick all her life, took the risk of starting the niche business in Commercial Road nearly four years ago, providing fresh Asian fruit and vegetables and a range of exotic foodstuffs not previously seen in Shetland to cater for the growing popularity of world foods and for the islands’ small Asian community. It provides a job for her husband, Ashgar, who has become increasingly disabled with rheumatoid arthritis during his 29 years in Shetland.
“This is my baby,” she said. “I’ve worked hard on this project and it was such a risk. When I took on that business I was really worried, thinking it was such a huge gamble for Shetland – something completely new that folk are probably going to be wary of trying.”
The shop has already seen trade lost last year when Tesco started stocking exotic fruit and vegetables, like dudhi, mooli and the banana-shaped plantain, which had not been available in Shetland before the advent of World Tastes. They subsequently had to stop stocking them.
In the new display at Tesco the prices on some goods are so low she said they greatly undercut even the wholesale price that the Alis pay to source their stock. To add insult to injury, when she complained to Tesco manager Paul Clelland she said he offered her the chance to buy her stock through Tesco instead.
When the two met some time ago to discuss Tesco’s extension plan she said she had told him: “I don’t want to be unfriendly with you but you’re going to put us out of business.”
A visit to Tesco on this week showed that stock in its new world foods section has evidently been flying off the shelves, leaving many previously full sections labelled “Sorry – temporarily out of stock”. For World Tastes it means some of those same items will not be shifting in their shop.
Mrs Ali said they could not absorb any of the costs of price discounting that Tesco can afford. “They are starting to finish us off. We’ve had a really quiet weekend,” she said.
The couple do have another business, having reopened the Staney Hill grocery shop last year, and Mrs Ali works in a bank and teaches a popular nightclass in Indian cooking to help promote better and healthier cooking.
They had been hoping to move World Tastes to bigger premises on Commercial Street to provide a full mini-market of quality foods but they were unable to get suitable premises. Now they face possibly going out of business.
Their small shop may be able to offer the personal touch and expert advice about unfamiliar foodstuffs but it has distinct disadvantages in competing with the likes of Tesco or the Co-op, not least the lack of easy parking, meaning customers have to make a special effort to visit, and in struggling to offer extended opening hours.
Mrs Ali said World Tastes used to open on Sunday, particularly to cater for some of the hard-working Thai women who have little time off to shop, but they had to stop it in order to have some family time themselves.
In Tesco she showed how the exact same products that her shop sells are being massively undercut. The supermarket is not just going for normal-sized jars or packets of food but, like World Tastes, offering large catering-size packs and sacks of staples such as rice, flours and oils. Elephant Atta chapatti flour is selling for £4 for a 10kg sack which, Mrs Ali said, costs her around £7.99 from her wholesaler. “We can’t compete with that – absolutely no way.”
Tesco’s Elephant King Thai Fragrant rice in 5kg sacks, priced at £7.99, was sold out on Monday. “We don’t even get it at that price! It’s major, major undercutting,” she said.
Another big seller, Pride fried onions in 400g packets, is selling for £1.19 whereas World Tastes charges over £2.
Tesco also has the Mae Ploy range, which is one of World Tastes’ big-selling brands. Others also now being stocked “dirt cheap” include Shan, TRS and Mama.
Rubicon fizzy drink cans in flavours like guava, passion fruit or mango were first introduced to Shetland by World Tastes, which sells them for 70p. Tesco has them too, for as low as 40p.
“Why should folk come to us?” she asked. “Why would you want to pay double the price going to a small local retailer when you can pop into a huge, wide, airy brand-spanking new building and get all your bits and pieces and be out of there in two minutes?”
Responding to World Tastes’ concerns, Mr Clelland said Tesco was simply responding to what its customers asked it to put in the shop. “They’ve asked for upmarket foodstuffs and Chinese and Asian groceries are part of that. We’re just concentrating on delivering the store that our customers have asked us to deliver.”
He denied that he had deliberately targeted the same brands as World Tastes, explaining that Tesco has “a corporate range” of Asian and Chinese foods for its stores to stock. “I can’t deliberately cherry-pick ranges in my shop,” he said, although he pledged that the space given over to world foods would not be expanded upon.
He said he had never been in Mrs Ali’s shop before he met her nor had any of his staff scouted the premises. “That’s a ridiculous statement,” he said, before warning of potential legal implications for anyone making “libellous” allegations.
He disputed any suggestion that special discounts had been put on goods that are also stocked by World Tastes, saying that prices are set centrally.
He also revealed that he had offered Mrs Ali the chance to advertise her shop’s range through his store.