TOPIC GUIDE: Supermarkets

"Supermarkets are bad for local communities"

PUBLISHED: 31 Aug 2011

AUTHOR: Jason Smith

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Residents of Dundee - known to locals as Trolley City – are about to get their 26th supermarket. [Ref: Channel 4 News]. As many retailers struggle in the current recession, particularly small businesses, supermarkets appear to be weathering the storm and in recent years have announced record profits [Ref: Guardian].  In a recent trend to defend local high street services [Ref: Federation of Small Businesses] many blame supermarkets for undercutting other, smaller retailers with loss-leader promotions and 24-hour convenience, resulting in the death of local communities as local high streets struggle to compete [Ref: Telegraph]. Critics of supermarkets also argue that their pricing and ubiquity has seen a rise in binge-drinking teenagers and damage to the environment [Ref: What Price?]. But supermarkets also create jobs in these same areas [Ref: BBC News] and provide a wide range of easily accessible services. Supermarket are also often responsible for developing large areas within towns and cities, creating new leisure facilities for communities that would otherwise remain under-utilised or derelict [Ref: BBC News], and to blame supermarkets for broader social problems, or indeed to argue they have a broader societal responsibility other than the business they provide, is simply wrong [Ref: Daily Mail].

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

In the 1950s, supermarkets as we know them today had only 20% of the grocery market, while small shops accounted for 80%. By 1990, this situation had more or less reversed and today 76% of our food shopping is done in the big four supermarkets: Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s [Ref: Guardian]. It’s argued that these four retail giants have such tremendous power that they are responsible for the destruction of the high street, and turning communities into ‘clone towns’ [Ref: New Economic Foundation]’. Others counter argue that they have changed the face of shopping in the UK by responding to market demand and the way people live today, more so than their smaller, high-street rivals [Ref: Guardian].

Too powerful?
The consequences of supermarket domination of food retailing go beyond the effects on local traders, with critics widening their range of attacks. One of the most controversial elements of supermarket dominance of the grocery sector, for example, is its impact on food producers. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has warned that UK farming incomes have seen a massive slump since 1995 and are now at their lowest for 60 years [Ref: IIED]. The buying power of large supermarkets has allowed them to disregard the normal practices of the free-market, and the needs of farmers, rural communities and other businesses, in their bid for greater profits [Ref: Guardian]. Others also highlight that the products supermarkets provide are often sourced from abroad, adding millions of ‘food miles’ and associated carbon emissions to the average shopping basket. As a result of all these criticisms of the big supermarket retailers, a ‘supermarket tax’ has been proposed to offset their negative impact on society [Ref: Guardian].

What the customer wants?
But while supermarkets do have real purchasing power over their suppliers, and are in a position to determine prices, is that not the reason 76% of groceries sales takes in the big chains? Critics of this approach to British farming argue that it’s up to the farmers and suppliers to negotiate with the purchasers, rather than the consumer’s role to subsidise British farming. And aside from price, as the way we live has changed so, too, have our demands on when we can shop and what we buy when we do [Ref: Observer]. It has been suggested, for example, that along with contraception and home freezing, supermarkets made a huge contribution to changing the relationship women had to the rest of society, particular the ability to work full-time outside of the home in the period after the Second World War [Ref: Guardian].

Rose-tinted high streets?
When small shops dominated the high street the choice on offer to consumers was limited.Exotic and foreign foods stuff and things we take for granted today like olive oil, Mediterranean vegetables and tropical fruits simply weren’t to be found locally. Shops closed in the afternoons on Wednesdays, butchers closed on a Monday, all shops closed by 5pm, and none opened on a Sunday. That retail market also served an older society where a housewife was at home in a majority of homes to shop and cook and provide for her family whilst her husband went to work. Even those who wouldn’t want to return to that restricted past argue that supermarkets turn us all into automaton shoppers and in turn help destroy our once vibrant high streets [Ref: Guardian]. But if smaller stores are unable to offer people what they want and are uncompetitive, should we really bemoan their demise?



It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Supermarkets are evil…

Sam Leith Telegraph 1 November 2008

Supermarkets are not the root of all evil

David Hall Telegraph 31 October 2007


Tescophobia: a new middle class malady

Brendan O’Neill spiked 27 April 2011

Supermarket Shopping

Simon Majumdar Observer 11 August 2009

Be honest - supermarkets have made our lives better

Jay Rayner Observer 17 February 2008

Why I love Tesco

Julie Burchill Guardian 19 December 2007


Supermarkets: good or bad?

Dr Dobbin Nutrition 25 May 2011

A nation of shopkeepers

Bagehot’s Notebook Economist 19 May 2011


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Supermarkets: changing market share

Guardian 16 August 2011

Supermarket sweep

John Harris Guardian 5 August 2011

Are the supermarkets killing British food?

Rob Lyons spiked 7 October 2009

No going back to post-war shopping

Richard Hyam Telegraph 1 November 2007

Clone Town Britain

New Economic Foundation

Bad Food Britain

Joanna Blythman Observer

Keep Trade Local

Federation of Small Businesses


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.



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