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Supermarkets 'r' us?

Remember the Safi supermarket scandal? The one where it transpired that development permission was granted despite the fact that such a decision flew in the face of every planning policy ever drawn up? It was this particular scandal which brought about the resignation of the board which had inexplicably given the go-ahead and which had us picking up our jaws off the ground (Whoever heard of anybody in Malta resigning for the piffling matter of a 'gross irregularity'? What are things coming to indeed?).

Ever since those board members trooped off into the sunset, leaving a host of what we will kindly term 'unanswered questions' in their wake, the Safi supermarket scandal has fallen off the public radar somewhat. It's been bumped off from its number one chart-topping scandal position by the Mistra affair and those cringe-inducing theatrics of Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando which are far more suited to the set of a soap opera. The general election and the appointment of new Cabinet ministers have also served to distract public attention from the Safi case. And then, of course, there's the MLP leadership contest, where we are expected to keep up to date with every twist and turn of the less-than-fascinating party race.

All of which served to push the Safi case away from the spotlight. It has now cropped up again - albeit in another guise (there's a limit to how much Mepa muddles can continue to intrigue us. We're probably suffering from ODZ permit fatigue).

The Safi supermarket scandal has now been transformed into the more muted Lidl controversy. Lidl is a European discount supermarket chain founded in Germany which operates some 7,000 stores in over 17 countries. The goods in Lidl stores are offered at unbelievably low prices. Three Lidl supermarkets are set to open in different locations - one of which is Safi - across Malta in the coming month. Lidl's slashed prices and variety of products have made it popular with consumers, but the chain has its detractors. It has been criticised for its working conditions, breach of European directives on working time and other abuses. There have also been allegations of price-dumping or selling products at a much lower rate than that in the domestic market.

Some of this has filtered through to Malta and when Lidl announced that it would be opening its doors for local customers, the news elicited two types of reaction. For some people Lidl means hypermarket-market heaven. They don't need Kerry Katona-types enthusing about the Iceland chain to be convinced that supermarkets offer the convenience of a wide array of goods under one roof. They will tell you that this is especially useful for people who want one-stop shopping in their lunch break. Throw in the added amenities such as parking, toilets and play areas for children, and grocery shopping is no longer an intolerable chore. And if the products are on sale at throw-away prices, what's not to like?

I can already hear the supermarket fans scoffing at those who are apprehensive about the dawn of the hypermarket age. These are the people who fear that supermarkets will bring about the demise of the smaller local shops. This would happen because once the balance of retail activity tips in favour of the supermarkets, it is no longer viable for the smaller shops to remain in business.

They close up and the people who made use of their services - usually those who are less mobile, or who do not relish the thought of popping into their car every time they need a carton of milk - lose out on the convenience of having a corner store close by. Of course there's nothing you can do to stop such a thing happening. It's a free world and a free market and there's no way the authorities can issue a 'No supermarkets' diktat.

Still, we have to be prepared for what happens with the change of the retail scene. With supermarkets replacing the smaller shops, a sense of bland uniformity takes over. A sense of sameness pervades and carbon-copy shopping establishments become the order of the day.

It has already happened in Europe where the high streets are no longer an interesting mix of different shops but boringly repetitive line-ups of big franchises. This might not worry shoppers unduly. They might be more concerned, however, about the possible threat to consumer welfare should all competition to supermarkets be irreparably undermined. It should be kept in mind that supermarkets have an interest in cutting prices in the short term even though the practice is unsustainable. If they manage to corner the market and see off all independent competition, they will have the field to themselves in later years with the result that they will be the sole players dictating market conditions.

I can't see any of these reasons keeping the shoppers away from supermarkets. It's just too easy and convenient to bag all your groceries, meat, fruit and veg at one go instead of traipsing from store to stall at different times and dates.

And yet I don't feel that pessimistic about the future of the smaller shops and vendors. Outside my door at the moment, there's a large gaggle of women waiting for what seems to be the most popular man in our street. He's the fruit vendor and is greeted enthusiastically when he rolls up. That's because he sells excellent local (and foreign) produce at good prices and is pleasant and polite. Customers respond with unswerving loyalty. Small shops that serve up the goods will get the same response - customers shopping with their feet for a service and product which they don't want to lose.

cl.bon@nextgen.net.mt

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