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Trolley Wars: the battle of the supermarkets

Judi Bevan <em>Profile, 258pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 186

Judi Bevan begins her portrait of British supermarkets with the sentence: "I like supermarkets." That pretty much sums up the whole book. In the opening pages, Bevan dutifully sketches the opposition to supermarkets, consisting of foodies, the health police, greens and anti-capitalists. Having singled out Vanessa Redgrave for leading a campaign to prevent a new Tesco opening in London, Bevan points out that the actress was described by the London Evening Standard as "probably the most famous Trotskyite". Opposition dismissed, she moves on to the real meat of her book - a sycophantic account of the power struggles in supermarket boardrooms.

Bevan is a seasoned financial journalist. Each week throughout the 1990s, she wrote a profile of a leading business figure for the Sunday Telegraph. In common with most journalists who specialise in economics, she is thrilled by the success of British supermarkets, and views them through a narrow business lens that ignores concerns about their wider impact on society - their homogenising effects on towns, their low rates of pay, their lord-and-vassal relationships with farmers and growers. She sees supermarkets as an unstoppable force for good, one that frees women from the daily drudge of shopping and brings wide social benefits. "The weekly shop has become a family outing and Saturday mornings are the time when working parents have a chance to reacquaint themselves with their children by way of a trip to the supermarket," she observes, without a trace of irony.

Much of Bevan's support for supermarkets rests on the repetition of well-worn cliches. Without supermarkets, she says, there would be no lamb in winter or asparagus in May - an odd assertion, given that British lamb is plentiful in winter, and May is actually the peak month for English asparagus. She uncritically lists many supermarket-led modern "miracles", such as the year-round availability of tasteless, pesticide-loaded strawberries or the omnipresence of watery, flavour-free lettuce. Supermarkets are applauded for catering for a nation too indolent to cope with a full-size orange with pips.

Ideological bias apart, Bevan tries valiantly to make boardroom wheelings and dealings intriguing and dramatic, a strategy that may not win over readers who are less in love with the subject than she is. Bevan's thumbnail portraits of the protagonists - Jack Cohen of Tesco was "an archetypal self-made man", Ken Morrison is "a gruff Yorkshireman", Sir Terry Leahy is "a working-class boy made good, a typical product of the merito-cratic Tesco culture" - are stereotyped and overly affectionate.

The author's tone is that of a doting, indulgent parent, drooling over snap-shots of beloved offspring. The family pet is clearly Tesco, which Bevan praises throughout for its money-spinning common touch, while Sainsbury's gets it in the neck for being arrogant and posh. Tesco directors, she reports, entertain valued suppliers at golf clubs in Spain. In a spirit of democracy, Asda's top brass play five-a-side football with suppliers. Sainsbury's idea of cor-porate entertainment is an evening at the Royal Opera House.

Such family gossip and through-the-keyhole insights can be diverting. We learn that Sainsbury's buyers had "a massive inferiority complex" about Marks & Spencer. Ken Morrison used to place in each shop window a meat pie with a trail of steam coming from it, provided by a kettle in the basement attached to a metal tube. At board meetings, David (Lord) Sainsbury would appear more interested in the wonders of genetically modifying tomatoes than in his family's business. Would-be suppliers who slog over to Tesco's HQ to see a buyer are kept waiting in a horrible reception area only to be told by the buyer that the meeting is not in their diary. Grudgingly, they are then given five minutes, which puts them at a psychological disadvantage and makes them likely to agree any price.

These nuggets offer tantalising insights into the less palatable side of the great supermarket revolution. Unless you share Bevan's fascination with supermarket royalty, however, the rest of the book is unlikely to grip you.

Joanna Blythman is the author of Shopped: the shocking power of British supermarkets (Harper Perennial)

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