Small shop closures are progress, says ex-Tesco boss

Sir Terry Leahy Sir Terry Leahy was instrumental in the rise of Tesco to become Britain's biggest retailer

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The former boss of Tesco has described the rise of supermarkets and closure of small shops as "part of progress".

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, Sir Terry Leahy also called some High Streets "medieval", saying the way people lived their lives had changed.

Sir Terry said seeing boarded up local shops was sad, but this happened because consumers were choosing to shop at the bigger supermarkets.

The benefits of out-of-town stores outweighed the downsides, he added.

When asked if he thought it was just "tough" that a family butcher had to close because it couldn't compete with the "three-quid chicken" sold at the supermarket, he said: "Small benefits for thousands of families can be a big loss for the family of the butcher but you can never be casual about it.

"You have to ensure the better organisations come through."

Start Quote

I felt very strongly inside that Tesco was doing the right thing... but I realised I wasn't winning the argument for some people.”

End Quote Sir Terry Leahy Former Tesco boss

Sir Terry got his first job at a Tesco in Wandsworth, London, when he was 17-years-old so he could support himself during sixth form college.

The third of four sons, he grew up in a prefab on an estate in Liverpool. His father was a greyhound trainer and his mother was a nurse.

He said he couldn't please everybody when it came to views on supermarkets over small High Street stores.

"If you talk to people, 95% of the population quite like supermarkets but 5% don't, but in Britain this (5%) is three million people so they have a right to say what they think.

"I felt very strongly inside that Tesco was doing the right thing, in terms of how it was conducting its business, how it was serving ordinary people and how it was employing ordinary people but I realised I wasn't winning the argument for some people."

Large chains

The British Independent Retailers Association said 98% of the the UK's £150bn grocery industry was controlled by just nine stores.

But deputy chief executive Michael Weedon claimed there could be a silver lining for smaller businesses.

He said as large chains such as HMV and Blockbuster closed, more retail premises would become available at cheaper rents.

Among the tracks Sir Terry chose to take with him to a desert island were The Beatles' I Want To Hold Your Hand, Simon & Garfunkel's Homeward Bound, Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough and Pachelbel's Canon in D.

He said he would also take The Complete Works of Charles Dickens and his luxury item would be tea.

As chief executive, he made his name transforming the supermarket from a lacklustre brand into Britain's biggest retailer.

Desert Island Discs with Sir Terry Leahy was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11:15 GMT on Sunday 3 February


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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Progress for who? Progress for filling fat cat pockets like yours Sir Terry. If councils had looked after the towns & cities, used finance appropriately, and have had planning powers to deter the likes of Tesco we would have modern, convenient local shopping centres. At least small shops sell what they are supposed to and do it well.

    PS I don't call selling horse meat progress, do you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    There are plenty of empty shops in the city near me, but they are standing empty because of the huge rents and rates. But does the council reduce these costs, based on the fact that some income is better than no income ?

    No, they do not. They would rather have them stand empty and let them rot than reduce the rent and rates.

    Councilland thinking needs to change - but I doubt it will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Hate to agree with any of this but it's all very true. Very few people with normal jobs have time to go to different shops for different things and supermarket 'offers' tempt many too. Shopping now is all about price and convenience and nothing to do with loyalty to long term traders.
    CUSTOMERS are to blame and NOT large retailers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Do people really shop at's so expensive and the quality is poor

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    'He would wouldn't he?'

    The homogenisation of the high street is not progress and nor is the stranglehold on farming exercised by supermarkets. The over-supply of cheap alchohol and calories to the British public is anything but progress.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Progress? So it's progress when to buy anything you have to do it by driving/taking a taxi to the nearest out-of-town shopping mall or do it by electronic means whereby you can't actually touch or see what you want? Isn't it really back to medieval times when you shopped at the market and had to get there by horse and cart?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Would it be progress if all consumers boycotted TESCO and shut it down? Stay away from the burgers though, my friend asked what I had on my burger and I said a tenner each way!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    1. Little_Old_Me
    "Progress for sure - but is that progress a good thing?"

    Another flip-flop, I see. Same as claiming to be liberal while staunchly opposing the democratic method on things where you think you might not like the result, you act be progressive in virtually every debate yet now you accept that it's not always something to be striving for.


  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I shop at Tesco, but I get it delivered to my door as it is cheaper and quicker than actually going to the shop. Also we don't drive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The thing is that people always say they love small, independent shops, and that they hate the big supermarkets.

    But, what do they do ? They shun the small shops and spend their money in the supermarkets.

    What shoppers say, and what they actually do are not the same when it comes down to the crunch ; What it actually costs them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Yes Terry, I guess small shop closures ARE progress. Progress towards you becoming even richer.

    How do you sleep at night ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    This statement sums up to me a lot what is wrong in this world

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I live in a town with a population of roughly 36,000 and Tesco's have three supermarkets here, one being open 24/7. The high street is made up of mostly pound shops and charity shops....

    Thanks Tesco....Every little helps destroy small business's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Hopefully it will end up a good thing, our high streets may fill up with bespoke and independent reatailers, far more character than a load of not very good large businesses

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Yellow lines everywhere, closed when I go to work, closed when I get home - local high streets are doomed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Terry Leahy is right. But it makes uncomfortable reading. People complain about the declining high streets but they don't shop there because they no longer have the time to spend all day going around different shops like they did in the 1960s. And we have busy lives where often both partners work full time and so things like long opening hours and convenient car parking are important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It is not Tescos fault if the consumer prefers to use them instead of the High Street but large supermarkets are soulless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The only reason I shop at Tesco rather than the butchers, bakers, green grocers etc. is Tesco have a car park. All of the smaller shops I find are cheaper, although they don't tend to have offers on junk food which I rarely buy and 1 or 2 items are difficult to find. However I can't afford to go to the smaller shops as there is nowhere to park and the bus is far more expensive than running a car.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Progress for sure - but is that progress a good thing?

    Either way the reality is that the big companies are not to blame - that lies with us, the consumer, as a whole...

    ...we cannot criticise big supermarkets/large retail chains/branded fast food outlets/internet retailers for destroying the high street whilst we keep spurning small, local businesses and instead buy from those big firms....


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