Review: Tescopoly, Andrew Simms

It’s one of those books you see on the shelf that makes you roll your eyes. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. Dotted with statistics and a truly engaging writing style, Simms offers a provocative account of the British retail industry and how it is eating away at our independence. Tescopoly makes a number of arguments: firstly, how high streets are becoming ‘clone towns’; secondly, how supermarkets are unnecessarily invading your privacy; thirdly, the colonial-style global operations; fourthly, the detrimental impact on the environment; and fifthly, how to restore some order. I am only going to cover three of these here: communities, privacy and globalisation.

Communities

Libertarians and liberals rightly fear a state monopoly over services, and especially a cradle-to-grave-type government. This Orwellian picture has shifted, however, towards a new founder for dominance – namely, the supermarket. Tesco won’t just sort all your grocery needs out, but it will also provide: an in-store pharmacy, opticians, alcohol, junk food, healthy food, drugs, house decorations, lighting, music, DVDs, electrical appliances, clothes, plates, cutlery, crockery, washing machines, microwaves, garden furniture, loans, mortgages, credit card and other financial services, mobiles, holidays, insurance, photography centre, broadband, paperwork for a divorce or to make a will. Should we have a problem with this? Yes, if you believe in diversity of produce and freedom of choice. And especially if Tesco takes up to 50 pence out of every pound spent in local economies. The problem with providing all the services above is that it puts local, independent shops and retailers out of business. Local businesses are often governed by an 80/20 rule, in which 80 per cent of profit comes from 20 per cent of goods (p.26). This allows independent shops to stock niche and specialist goods, catering for a wide range of customers in a given community. If, however, a general retailer like Tesco takes away 80 per cent of profits by providing the 20 per cent of high-turnover goods, then independent businesses go bust. Allowing one super store to cater for all your needs might be convenient at first, but if you want variety then that convenience will be out of favour, especially due to supermarket power in terms of below-cost selling and price-flexing (pp.305-6). British towns are turning into ‘clone towns’ with identical high streets across the country.

Privacy

Another point raised in this book is something that could easily be mistaken for identity theft. Tesco boasts that it could produce the following consumer profile:

Mrs Smith is a young adult. She is a Premium shopper. She uses Watford Hypermarket for major monthly shops and Covent Garden Metro for daily requirements. She often shops late in the evening and buys upmarket products. She is particularly loyal to her cat food brand and fine fabric washing powder. She buys Hello magazine and sometimes country life. (p.98)

Tesco will also know her address, phone number and probably her email address. Imagine if Mrs Smith also held a Tesco bank account and her mobile was on a Tesco contract? Tesco holds a record of every single movement and conversation you ever make. All this from a little Clubcard! Neo-liberals will say it’s all for marketing purposes – yet I wonder whether or not Tesco knows a little bit too much about Mrs Smith. And a further note: there are 25 million registered Clubcards, which means that Tesco holds more files on its customers than the notorious East German Stasi ever held on its 16 million citizens (p.96).

Global Operations

A third point from Simms is the global reach of retail. Even the bastion of right-of-centre thinking, the Sunday Telegraph, has said that Tesco’s global operations is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’. To see why, take a look at the reception that Tesco inspectors got from a farm in remote Africa, witnessed by an investigative journalist:

The visit was the visit of a king. They [the community] slaughtered animals. They roasted a lamb. The schoolkids rehearsed welcome songs for three days and gave Tesco presents. Tesco gave nothing back. The adage ‘To those that have shall be given’ came to me. Why would poor Zimbabwean children give present to Tesco when they didn’t even have a school on the farm? (p.206)

The farmers assumed Tesco was a country and its staff were royalty. The low prices in our supermarkets have high costs elsewhere. Simms notes that we are indirectly financing a new form of slavery: a plantation worker in the Dominican Republic gets paid £2.48 for the day (the day being a start at 5am and bed the next morning at 2am); a girl in Bangladesh gets £9 per month to make those £3 jeans in a Tesco store. In a final example: for every £1 worth of fruit (a banana in this case), the producing country gets 12 pence (p.218). Free marketeers will tell me that this is competition in action. Really? Tesco will:

  • Request a financial contribution to place its products on promotional offers, to cover product wastage, to refurbish a store or to open a new store, to the costs of bar-code changes, or to help a specific promotion that Tesco could not afford.
  • Seek improvement in terms (of Tesco) as a condition to display their products, increase the product range or threaten to de-list the supplier.

That’s all well and good, and suppliers should just tell Tesco to stick their business. But seeming as 78 per cent of our goods come from supermarkets, suppliers do not have that choice but must sell to Tesco and others. This is not a ‘free’ market.

There are a few shortcomings to this book: i) no internal investigations of how Tesco works and hires its staff, ii) Simms seems fine to just use someone else’s work to offer solutions on how to tackle the problems, and iii) there is also too much focus on one supermarket. Nonetheless, this book is an essential guide for anyone wanting a broad picture regarding British retail. Read this book!

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Review: Affluenza, Oliver James

This book review is part of Lippy’s re-launch in September. For more details, click here and here.

I opened the first few pages of this book with a sense of promise that this would be an interesting read, particularly given the title’s mix of ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’. I read the prologue and was satisfied that James would make a good author with intelligent points. For example, he characteristically dropped ‘mental illness’ and replaced it with ‘emotional distress’ – rejecting the idea that our personalities are physical diseases that could be treated with a pill or two (p.xx).

From the outset, the author argues that we have become obsessed by consumption, and that our mental well-being is in the process of severe damage due to our superficial interests in money, success, and status. Individuals do not judge people based on integrity or personal values (if people should judge at all), but rather focus on their monetary gains and material goods. How often do people ask: ‘So what do you do?’ and you reply with your job title and industry that you work in? Have we sacrificed our senses to industrial pursuits, medicated through buying ‘things’ and supplemented by a long-term sense of anxiety, hyperactivity and/or depression (p.15)? This message is a powerful one. Unfortunately for Oliver James, he failed to articulate this at all. Whilst he does indeed set out to demonstrate that this is what is wrong with Western civilisation, which he calls ‘Selfish Capitalism’, his message is poorly phrased and long-winded. 510 pages could easily have been condensed into a 300 page work that would have probably made the point more succinctly. For starters, James runs out of steam by page 209, in which he spends the sixth chapter re-hashing and re-formulating the previous five chapters. Moreover, there are large tracts of autobiography that simply needn’t be there: for example, he uses six pages to recall a dream and go into family history to make a mediocre point about how property is seen as an extension of one’s identity (pp.214-20). His writing style isn’t the best in the world with random capitalisations for words he deems are really important. His gimmicky ‘vaccines’ to solve all our problems also seem a little out-dated.

All of this is a shame, because his central idea is well thought-through, and one can easily identify with his points about the so-called Affluenza Virus and how this pervades the English-speaking world. People work themselves to death in order to consume insatiable desires that lie far beyond one’s means – mortgages spring to mind immediately. At times, however, even this message was lost through James’ own moralising mission. It is fine to make the generalisation that people who hate their job and work only for material goods and to pay off a mortgage are probably suffering (for a start, they aren’t enjoying their job). However, James judges far more than the stressed workaholic. He attacks ambition and argues that success is a hollow, temporary boost to our self-esteem (p.38). Perhaps, but does this mean that we can’t strive to make our dreams come true? He goes on to attack people who care about their appearance, who work really hard for its own sake and scorns those that are ‘oblivious’ to ‘basic needs’ of emotional intimacy (p.88-95). I find this hugely frustrating. Who is to say that someone who passes by emotional intimacy due to the interest in their work that they are emotionally illiterate and fail at the ‘basic’ things in life? Are people not allowed to work hard if this is what they enjoy? Luckily James redeems himself somewhat later in the book when he argues that intrinsic motivation for a challenge is a good value. This in itself suggests a poorly structured book, something which happens all over the place (for instance, he later re-hashes his criticism of appearance so that we must seek to be ‘beautiful’ and not ‘attractive’).

Later chapters focused on education and parenting. I gleaned from them that children must have their emotional needs met early on in life which would otherwise leave the grown-up adult wanting and frustrated all their life, always feeling guilt or shame for whatever reason their needs were not met as a child. This is partly where I find Oliver James most interesting. He seems far more passionate and can come across a great deal more wholesome on the issues of parenting than any other subject. It is also the parts that which I thought make interesting reading (interesting in the sense that it actually seemed worthwhile). There is also a lot of sense from his ideas on education, in which the system ought to focus a great deal more on the well-being of pupils and students alike and far less on passing exams and creating a workforce.

Having said all of that, James’ book so far presents a mixed message: a clear premise to uncover the horrors of neo-liberal capitalism that have their roots in Thatcherism and Reaganomics. That was the good part. The bad part was how poorly he wrote it and how unstructured his book became. His solutions hardly deserve comment, all of which seem out of the world. He wants to ban attractive models from advertising and have a single ‘government estate agency’ to set all prices for property. I don’t think so.

No doubt on reading this you will be no better off in thinking ‘should I read this book, then, or not bother?’. Well, if you like the idea and can see past the writing style, then go for it. In the end, James does make some valid points. And it adds to a growing weight of criticism on neo-liberal consumer society. It is hugely disappointing that they are veiled in a questionable methodology and poor execution by the author.