The entire grocery sector will be busy next week tucking into the Competition Commission’s remedies report, following a two-year inquiry.
Most industry experts believe Competition Commission chairman Peter Freeman will not land any hard punches on the big four grocers.
In fact, following the Commission’s provisional findings report in October – which opened the door to the potential relaxation of planning regulations for large out-of-town supermarkets – groups such as the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) and suppliers will probably be keeping their fingers crossed that their worst fears are not realised.
The heady days of the ACS dreaming of the Commission reining in the power of the big supermarkets, such as by forcing them to divest their land banks, at the start of the inquiry now seem a distant rose-tinted memory.
Next week, the industry is likely to hear lots of barking on issues such as planning and the over-concentration of supermarkets, particularly Tesco, in certain areas. But the Commission’s recommendations are likely to have little bite. Cynics may view any tough-talking as a way for the Commission to justify the inquiry to itself.
After the Commission concluded in October that the sector is broadly “delivering a good deal for consumers”, it is highly unlikely that it will recommend wholesale changes to the planning system – that may require primary legislation being passed in parliament – or the Office of Fair Trading adjudicating more frequently on store acquisitions.
Of all the possible remedies, the most likely scenario is that Freeman will recommend tightening up the Supermarkets Code of Practice – to which only the big four grocers are bound.
More specifically, he could change the terms of the code to make it easier for suppliers to resolve their grievances. If Freeman sides with suppliers, the quid pro quo for the big four is that they will want the code extended to other large grocers, such as Waitrose, Somerfield, Iceland, Aldi and the Co-operative Group.
Such an extension would be highly controversial and be met with fierce resistance from the new grocers it ensnared.
Another change to the code being considered is the appointment of an ombudsman. But, in October, Freeman admitted he was not sure how an ombudsman would be funded or even appointed.
Overall, the smart money is on him tweaking the code as opposed to turning it on its head.
Of course, Freeman could pull a few rabbits out of his hat next week and send a shiver down the spine of the big grocers, in particular Tesco, ahead of the final report before May 8. But the odds are on him proposing mild remedies that will not cause Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy to lose too much sleep.