Politicians are opportunist creatures. So when the rising cost of food started emerging as an issue for voters, it was the natural thing for Alistair Darling to haul supermarket chiefs into the Treasury for a grilling over food prices last week.

Of course, he knows as well as they do that, for all their might, there’s nothing that Tesco or Asda can do to halt the rise in the price of wheat or rice. But at least he’s seen to be doing something and neatly passing the blame for consumers feeling worse-off onto someone else.

Maybe Darling hasn’t noticed it’s barely a month since the Competition Commission inquiry concluded that supermarkets compete intensely to offer good value. Maybe he hasn’t noticed how retailers are absorbing the costs of commodity increases to keep price rises to a minimum, or the flurry of ads where they seek to outdo each other on prices.

If Darling really wanted to do his bit to keep prices down, he would be better off consigning the Competition Commission’s idea for an ombudsman to the dustbin. Not only would it create unnecessary costs for the retailers that would fund it, but it would protect the interests of suppliers that are generally giant companies in no need of protection.

From protesting truckers to 10p tax rebels, Darling has enough on his plate right now. He could use his time in many better ways than picking a fight with retailers.

The special in specialists

Anyone who says specialists have no future should turn to page 7 and look at Mothercare’s results. By consolidating its dominant position in its market with the takeover of Early Learning Centre and adding to that intelligent international and multichannel expansion, chief executive Ben Gordon has created the model of a successful niche business.

It is also pragmatic. In a week when yet another giant shopping centre is opening, Mothercare made a point of explaining how it is consolidating into fewer, smaller stores. At a time when the cost of occupying stores is soaring, there are few non-food retailers that wouldn’t benefit from taking the axe to their space and making what’s left work harder. Few, however, are brave enough to do it.


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