Richard Huzzey reminds me of the discussion at Stephen Tall's blog on the subject of supermarkets.
Stephen and Richard are both right, although they seem to disagree with each other. We shop at supermarkets. We find them convenient. Their prices are sometimes lower than small shops and sometimes higher, which is unremarkable.
But we are wary of the power that they have, we fear encroaching monopolies. I worry that they have worked out, using my loyalty card, exactly what sort of 2 for 1 deals I am a sucker for, and how best to distract me from paying attention to the price of something.
By all accounts suppliers get a rawer deal than we customers. This is called "driving down prices for the benefit of customers", which is true up to a point. But sellers as well as buyers have to be able to go somewhere else for competition to work properly.
Green councillor Matt Sellwood calls supermarkets an ethical and environmental disaster zone.
A rare admission perhaps from a green that competition is ethical, since excessive power in the marketplace is a problem. And of course, environmentally, their impact is enormous, as is their throughput of goods.
What I'm not so clear about is if the same amount of goods were sold through smaller shops, whether that would be any better for the environment. Smaller shops would, presumably, need more deliveries. And to visit the number of shops needed to carry the range of a supermarket would presumably require more transport of the customer. Or perhaps some of our small shops could expand, becoming, er, supershops?
What I'm hoping to illustrate here is that it is a mistake to think along the lines "X is doing something we don't like - we should fight against X" as Matt is doing. This is treating supermarkets as a symbol of all that is wrong with the world. And yet that I can fill the fridge without even having to leave the house is something that is right with the world. If X, supermarkets, were stopped from doing this thing we don't like, others may still do it, and we may find that they have also been prevented from doing things we do like - letting us get groceries after a late council meeting for example.
Rather than attacking the symbol, we should focus on the behaviour. A supermarket using a million carrier bags is no different from a thousand small shops using a million carrier bags. (Although my last Tesco online came in 25 bags for fewer than 75 items. They offered to take them back after I complained but who knows if they will get used again.) Overpackaged junk food is the same wherever it is sold. Driving to the shops is the same whatever kind of shop it is. Corner shops are not exactly trade union fiefdoms either.
Monopolistic and monopsonistic power is tackled through competition authorities. Such authorities need to weigh up carefully the costs and benefits of intervention. This is economic rocket science. I see no way for a little blog to give a convincing argument either way on whether more intervention is necessary. I hope the authorities are getting it right, and I am powerless to help them.
Although supermarkets are often more expensive than small shops, particularly when we ignore special offers and Known Value Items, this does not mean that they are not exerting a general downward pressure on prices. If there were no supermarkets, other shops would charge more. And let me be clear: low prices for food and goods in general is a good thing. If you think JSA of £57.45 a week is hard to live on now, think what a price hike would do. If you want to put benefits up because prices have gone up, you will be worsening the poverty trap. And also for the rest of us, having lower prices is like being richer. (Richer is better - if you don't agree, send me a cheque.)