Althing voters are heavily against Tesco

The hall at Tingwall School was not as full as on previous occasions for the latest debate from the Althing Social Group on Saturday night. Was everybody out late night shopping at Tesco?

The latest motion to be discussed by the group was “Tesco is bad for Shetland”. The votes at the start of the debate were 14 for the motion and three against with 10 undecided.

The first speaker for the motion was Karen Fraser, who quickly pointed out that Tesco had gained an immediate foothold in Shetland, with a revamped store which quickly became a bigger revamped store and people were either excited, angry or bored by the whole debacle.

Whatever people’s reactions, they still seemed to throng the aisles, wide-eyed with wonder at it all. But Tesco is only a shop for goodness sake, and yet we are still drawn in by the bright shiny things.

Tesco is convenient, especially for those who reside in Sound, but in the rarefied atmosphere of Staneyhill you can’t just walk down to the shop. Does that make Tesco bad for a community?

Miss Fraser conceded that Tesco seems to be well run and the staff are efficient and friendly. But Tesco is more than a big shop.

Tesco is huge and it can create problems for an economy. It encourages over-consumption, exploitation and damage to the environment. It is not only a player, it is the biggest player and Tesco preys on small communities.

Supermarkets began to develop and grow in the 1950s. “Pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” was in a fact a motto coined by the founders of Tesco.

Selling in bulk cuts overheads, but the financial clout of supermarkets now means that suppliers’ prices have to be cut to the bone.

The huge demand for products means that suppliers are forced to keep chickens that are too weak to stand and breed cows that are purely milking machines.

Small producers get squeezed out as customers begin to expect cheap food as a right.

And do people ever stop to think that morally we might be paying too high a price for cheap food?

Supermarkets need to attract people in droves, so they provide huge car parks, thus encouraging a car culture. They want people to buy a car load not a bag full, and even if people do only buy a pint of milk and a loaf of bread you can bet that nowadays a lot of them will be prepared to drive only a few hundred yards if need be, to do so.

Supermarkets promote convenience because we are all so busy these days. This immense “busyness” means that we need to get things done quickly and conveniently but it seems that we are never too busy to spend hours in front of our TVs and computers.

Supermarkets have no regard for the increase in sloth-like diseases as we pile our trolleys high and pay scant regards to the dangers of obesity.

Miss Fraser quoted a comment from a comedian who said that if we were all so worried about obesity then supermarkets should make the biscuit and chocolate aisles only a foot wide so that obese people could not get along them. But you can bet that these aisles will be among the widest and most frequently used.

You need to have a very strong will to be able to go into a supermarket and not buy more than you need. Tesco is the most ruthless player in all of this, and the most guilty having as it does 30 per cent of the retail market, and it is expanding compulsively.

In one district of Liverpool there are eight Tesco stores within a mile of each other and the company has just gained planning permission to build yet another store in the same area.

In Shetland Tesco is a big shark in a small pool and this is more worrying when one discovers that in 2009, 12,000 small independent shops closed in the UK. Shetland has a lot of small independent shops.

Some local commentators might snipe at small shops and they seem to resent the fact that these shops have to close some of the time to give their few staff some well deserved time off.

Miss Fraser concluded by quoting Mick Jagger who famously sang: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, if you really try, you might just get what you need.”

Martin Tregonning was first to speak against the motion, though he readily admitted that he did not shop at Tesco but was happy to use the cash machine.

Mr Tregonning’s first point was that it was not a question of whether we liked Tesco or not, it was whether Tesco was bad for Shetland. That meant not that Tesco was bad per se but whether it was bad for Shetland. We were debating a purely local issue.

Tesco is only one of several supermarket giants so why pick on Tesco? Just because it is Tesco that has come to Shetland? The people who shop there are the guilty ones; they perpetuate the ongoing demands.

In days gone by everything was lovely on the croft, the dog was sleeping by the fireside and people went to the local shop for milk and bread. What local people might be saying is that Tesco is bad for Commercial Street? But Shetland is more than a street that runs from Solotti’s to the Fort Takeaway.

Tesco is only the latest of a number of supermarkets on the same site and there didn’t seem to be the same furore over the arrival of any of the other supermarkets.

Tesco has been blamed for the death of the rural shop but can this blame really be laid at the feet of Tesco? One factor that has led to the decline of local shops is road improvements. And this started in the 1970s. As soon as roads began to be improved, then people started going to Lerwick to shop.

The Bigton shop is a case in point where the council stepped in to buy the premises and since then various tenants have run the shop in order to keep this community resource going. But the shop could not be sold when previous owners put it on the market many years ago when they began to notice the decline in trade.

If an entire community tried to shop at a local shop it just would not work. Small shops are just that. They do not have the capacity to provide for entire communities, their physical and financial resources are limited, they are only able to offer limited ranges and nowadays people, having seen what is on offer further afield want more and more choice. People want to choose more than one brand of cornflakes.

The case for people wanting more choice is all too evident in Shetland where per head of population the islands have the highest percentage of online shoppers in the UK. Shetland has a long tradition of catalogue shopping. Nowadays 60 per cent of Shetland’s population shop online.

Which shops have actually closed as a result of Tesco coming to Shetland? People worried that Tesco would force small shops out of business but this has not been the case. In fact several businesses have risen to the challenge.

Harry’s has recently completed a new extension, and George Robertson’s now has a new audio visual department. Other stores have been persuaded to expand their ranges to offer customers more choice.

Tesco also stocks 70 lines of Shetland products. Morrisons stopped selling Shetland goods but were happy to sell Yorkshire black puddings.

Products such as the Wild Waters smoked salmon range were trialled at Tesco in Shetland and are now being sold in 60 Tesco stores on the mainland which should in a small way be beneficial for Shetland’s economy.

The third speaker was Malachy Tallack, defending the motion. He said that Tesco promoted itself as being good for the economy and good for our pockets. It also employs lots of people.

Mr Tallack addressed the issue of our local economy first. Shetland has a relatively healthy local economy and a lot of the money created here, circulates within the islands. If the money is made locally it creates local employment and it remains in Shetland.

But imagine if you will, a huge hole in the ground at Sound in which people throw their money. In that hole is a big pipe that goes all the way to the mainland and further afield and all the money that goes in to the hole is sucked along the pipe and away from Shetland. Tesco profit is purely for their shareholders. The money goes south and our loss is their gain.

Has Tesco magically created jobs? Not really, it has just borrowed jobs from other places.

Small shops might not yet have closed in Shetland, but it is probable that the arrival of Tesco will hasten the trend of small shops closing and it will remove jobs that currently exist. Not only does Tesco attack small shops that are already in existence but it stops new businesses too.

What budding entrepreneur would want to open a small shop in Shetland in the shadow of Tesco? And even if they did, it would not be long before the same ranges that were being sold in the small shop would be appearing on the shelves in Tesco.

People might say that Tesco offers choice, but choice is a funny thing because Tesco’s ultimate goal is the removal of choice so that there is only Tesco remaining and people have no choice other than to shop there.

Tesco is cheap, yes, and if you are on a tight budget then this is obviously important but it seems that in Shetland there are not that many who are on a tight budget. A lot of people go into Tesco for bread and milk and come away with five bags and £50 worth of shopping, so it’s not that cheap.

Tesco will waffle on about helping the community but this is just nonsense. Tesco is purely about profit and greed.

The final speaker of the evening was Janice Thomason. Ms Thomason wanted to point out a lot of the things that Tesco is doing to help the local community.

Tesco operates on a global level and probably carries as much negative baggage as companies like BP for example, but for the point of this debate that global impact does not matter, it is the local impact that is important.

Tesco offers a big flat car park, it is light and airy and it offers goods in every price range, there are club card points and you can even double the points in some cases so that you can save in future. Tesco saves you in two very valuable commodities: time and money.

But the community is a more valuable commodity than money and there have been some very vociferous complaints from the street. But it is not Tesco that has really presented the street with problems. It is much more likely to be things like club books and in recent years Argos and Ikea have been added to this.

Nowadays you can get anything “cheaply” from eBay or Amazon. But as long as there is a Tesco in Shetland people will go there; you can’t stop that.

The new Tesco is big and convenient. Many people will remember the old Co-op in what is now Frank Williamson’s store. It was a total nightmare, mainly due to the totally inadequate parking.

Many people are worried about the impact of Tesco on Lerwick’s other supermarket, the Co-op. The Co-op is in a restricted site and if it had more room then maybe it could have expanded too.

Tesco has raised people’s expectations and as previously said some people have risen to the challenge.

Tesco employs 160 people, this is up by 82 from the previous store. Tesco pays out £40,000 a week in wages locally and this money goes back into the local economy.

Tesco has given team management positions to local graduates, it sponsored the first Shetland food festival in 2008, and it has assisted a local food producer to provide packaging equipment.

Tesco promotes healthy eating campaigns in schools and works a points system for schools campaign to enable schools to buy educational equipment. It actively encourages the use of re-usuable bags.

Tesco constructed an access path from the local care home to allow people easier access to the store.

Locally, Tesco has advised the council on employee issues, so a lot of people have benefitted. Perhaps a lot of the issues are perceived rather than real.

To say that all of Tesco profits goes to the shareholder might make you want to think again as you might be one. Tesco is in the FTSE top 100 and many pensions have investments in these companies so if this is you, then you would hope that these companies do well in order to get the best return on your investment.

After the break the main concern raised by the audience seemed to surround the impact that Tesco was having on the Co-op. Would the Co-op be squeezed out by Tesco?

Was Tesco being allowed to ride rough shod over small local businesses? Some people thought so.

Others wanted to know just how Tesco had been allowed to expand so quickly and get away with selling goods which it initially said it would not sell.

Will Tesco get more and more business while small shops get less and less? But one canny audience member did point out that what will make or break a business will be the customer so if you want small shops to survive then make sure that you shop there!

In summing up Mr Tregonning said that he would not make any apologies for Tesco. Tesco is not perfect and he would not say whether one should or shouldn’t shop there, but we should not assume that Tesco dominates the market.

Some places have definitely improved their goods and services since Tesco arrived and this can only be a good thing. If this is as a result of Tesco being here then it can’t be bad for Shetland.

Miss Fraser asked the audience to remember that while we could not ignore national and international issues the debate was local. She asked us to consider how firms like Tesco can squeeze out other suppliers.

The Co-op is more ethical and is responsible to its members and the Co-op is here for the long haul. It has been here for a long time and it has remained. Tesco has come crashing its way into the local economy.

At the final vote the audience voted 18 for the motion, three against the motion, with 10 undecided and so the motion stood.

The next meeting of the Althing Social Group is on 22nd January, when the motion is “Shetland invests too much in old people”. The meeting takes place at 7.30pm in the Tingwall School.

Laura Friedlander


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