Books: A scramble for supremacy

The UK retail food sector is the most competitive in the world, and this book is a vivid account of the battles that have shaped our high street, reports Stuart Rose.

by Stuart Rose, CEO of Marks & Spencer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Judi Bevan

Profile £17.99

MT price £15.99

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Little did Clarence Saunders know how he would change the world when he opened his 'Piggly Wiggly' store in 1916 at 79 Jefferson Street, Memphis. Reviews were mixed. 'Shopping baskets, open shelves, no clerks to shop for the customer - unheard of!' gasped one report.

The customers, however, liked it very much - allowing Saunders to issue franchises to hundreds of grocery retailers. He was so successful, he floated the company in 1920, becoming the Jeff Bezos of his generation and making his company the Amazon of Wall Street. The revolution had begun.

Judi Bevan's Trolley Wars has all the right ingredients - money, power struggles, politics, entrepreneurs and innovators: only sex appears to be missing, but no doubt played its part - and there is a roll-call of retailers past and present. In parts, it reads more like a novel than a serious study of the origin and genesis of the supermarket chains that dominate today, as it charts the rise, fall and rise again of the major protagonists that now control this £100 billion-plus business.

The 'wars' in question are not just price wars, they are space and strategy wars. UK retail is probably the most competitive sector in one of the most competitive countries in the world. People who watched The Apprentice on television recently caught a glimpse of what a battleground British business can be. Retail is particularly personal because it is fought out in public. Company fortunes can be won or lost depending on how many people decide to shop in your store and how much they are willing to spend. Supermarkets desperate for supremacy fight over prices, squeeze suppliers and grab land in order to win.

The book is also a fascinating study of the social history of the UK over the past 100 years. I have been in retail all my working life, but found much I didn't know.

Trolley Wars takes us back to the origins of today's big players, showing how timing, luck, opportunity and human frailty have all played their part in shaping the supermarket world today. The retailing revolution did not hit the UK until after the second world war, and even then on a very limited scale until the mid-1950s.

John James Sainsbury opened the first Sainsbury in Drury Lane in 1869, becoming the purveyor of quality foods to the middle class. Jack Cohen started trading off his market stall in Hackney in 1919, teaming up with a tea importer by the name of TE Stockwell, who supplied him with tea. Cohen needed a name on the packaging and they came up with Tesco from Stockwell's initials and the first two letters of Cohen. Tesco tea became its first own-brand product.

Asda was born in the early 1960s, the brainchild of businessman Noel Stockdale and Peter Asquith, an entrepreneurial builder. It languished until rescued and revived by Archie Norman and Allan Leighton, before it was sold to Wal-Mart in 1999.

Safeway - formed from the Argyll Group, which bought Safeway UK from its US owner Safeway Inc in 1988 - fell prey to Morrisons in 2004. Ken Morrison, like Cohen, started on a market stall and offered a no-frills service that became the byword for value in the north. The need for consolidation in today's cut-throat market resulted in the Safeway acquisition on which the jury is still out. Add Waitrose and Marks & Spencer Foods, and we have all the key participants for the big food scramble.

What drove the growth of the supermarket? Three factors: convenience; the compact nature of the UK, which allowed for efficient distribution; and the abolition of resale price maintenance by the Conservative government in 1974 - a landmark decision that liberalised prices.

Most consumers welcomed supermarkets when they first arrived. They provided freedom from queuing at the butcher's, baker's and greengrocer's for a society that was increasingly cash-rich and time-poor, with many women in full-time employment.

Each of the players has brought the industry forward at a crucial time. Whether it was Sainsbury for quality, M&S for innovation or Tesco for value, one message is clear: the winners - and today this is Tesco by a long mile - never forget that the customer is king and that only by constantly listening, anticipating and reacting can they survive in today's market. Customers are in search of quality, price and value, and are among the savviest in the world. The lesson is clear - complacency kills.

This was an easy book to review. Too often you find yourself asking why on earth you agreed to do it - in my case it was because I needed to read it. I needn't have put myself under such pressure. It's a cracking read for both lay reader and professional alike, and no doubt will be a set text for business schools.

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