The Grocers; The Rise and Rise of the Supermarket Chains

James Bell (University of Surrey, Guildford)

International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management

ISSN: 0959-6119

Article publication date: 1 July 2000



Bell, J. (2000), "The Grocers; The Rise and Rise of the Supermarket Chains", International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, Vol. 12 No. 4, pp. 275-276.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The power of the big UK food retailers is a matter of significant public interest. Popular media enjoy plenty of mileage from “rip‐off” Britain stories, many targeting the supermarket multiples and, not for the first time, these companies are subject to official scrutiny from the competition authorities. Are they abusing their power in the market‐place ? Against this background Andrew Seth and Geoffrey Randall have written a most engaging account of how the food retailers got where they are today, a balanced commentary on the current scene and a brief treatment of future prospects. In the dynamic world of the retail industry this book will date quickly, a point not wasted on the authors. The book was going to press in the summer of 1999 as the year’s biggest retail news story broke. The arrival of the mighty Walmart on the UK scene called for some hasty revision, and the text includes premonitions of subsequent events. Somerfield and Kwik‐Save, for example, are described as “huddling together for warmth.”

The Grocers includes a concise history of each of the four major UK supermarket chains. Each account is brought to life by personal reflections from the individual “movers and shakers” involved, themselves afforded a warm respect for their contribution. The result is a fascinating insight into the development of decision‐making in food retailing from a world of intuitive dealing and trading, towards the tightly measured and controlled execution of professional management today. Students of retailing will enjoy this softer dimension of an otherwise well‐documented story, delivered with a disarming humour. The co‐operative movement is described as “pathologically uncommercial” and Waitrose “is still a place where Madam is seen to shop”.

The authors have an explicit regard for the achievements of the leading food retailers in the UK, in raising standards, improving operating efficiency and offering consumers convenience and ever‐widening choice. However, this does not stop them applying the “oligopoly” word to describe current market concentration issues in a way that the industry would never dream of. The authors recognise that national figures for market share belie a more serious reality in local areas; a conclusion that the competition authorities appear to be reaching. Demonstrating a grasp of reality, the rise of the supermarket chains has not been without cost and some of that cost is borne by wider society. So it is quite right to challenge the position and power of large‐scale retailers as they start to move towards global strategies. The reader is left to ponder on the need for, or best means of, regulating an industry so skilled in exercising political influence, whilst the authors conclude by acting as consultants to the retailers.

Explicit in this book is a recognition of the power of UK supermarket chains, whilst at the same time identifying their vulnerability in entering a new millennium. The interests of respective stakeholders are clearly recognised in turn and this makes for a most stimulating read.

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