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 79.

    Sack the councils who impede progress of small shop keepers

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Tesco's creates jobs, mostly part-time, stacking shelves and on the till. It also destroys jobs in small, local specialist shops. Is that progress?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    When Tesco came to our town they predicted they'd bring about 400 jobs. Actually, it's been about 100, many of them part-time. Since then, our high street has died with consequent loss of jobs. So, no extra jobs, a dreary town centre and local cash going to Tesco shareholders. From Tesco's point of view, that's progress - the opposition has been slaughtered. Who cares about the heart of the town?

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Yes and if tesco don't start pulling there finger out they may well be the next to go. The prices for ALL goods are ridiculously high for one with such buying power. Anyone who shops there for anything electrical, price check it and the difference is disgusting. Ask tesco for a price promise and they look at you as if you have 2 heads. Ask for info on a product and you get a vacant expression.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I wonder where Sir Terry shops for his clothes and furnishings and the likes.

    My bet is that he and his family are strangers to Primark, DFS and Dixons in favour of up-market independents. Would he think of it as progress if these big chains caused the closure of his favourite shops?

    Possibly not, eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    The most dangerous lies are told by those who believe them to be true

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Tesco doesn't force anyone to shop there. The problem is that we have vehicles capable of international travel parked outside our front doors. It's not worth getting in one unless you "go for a good run". If you drive one into a town centre, you make it a noisier/dirtier/more dangerous place just by being there.

    The solution is to lower the unladen vehicle weight limit inside towns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    We hear their mantra every day: "It's what our customers want", "improve customer choice". No, it isn't! We can only buy what the supermarket bosses choose to stock. How many of us have asked the likes of Tesco for a certain item which is not on their shelves, only to be told "we can't get it any more". Utter rubbish! Support your local small businesses while you can. That's real customer choice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    What shoppers say, and what they actually do are not the same when it comes down to the crunch ; What it actually costs them.
    I think this is a big myth. My local farm shop, ethnic shop, village shop things are surprisingly much cheaper than at the nearby supermarkets. Quality general better too.

    People have been taken in by supermakret hype.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    He must have been eating Horseburgers! This is simply not correct, the Heart of any community is its shopping Centre, market with its diversity, out of town superstores are NOT progress, they are just places where people can shop! The so called Medieval High Streets are the Fabric of the Community, these are places where people can meet and talk and SHOP, Diversity is not Medieval it is Society!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    If this isn't evidence that 'progress' isn't always something to be aimed for, nothing is. Everyone who conceitedly, condescendingly bleats on about 'progress' needs to start backing up their words with more substance than that, because this is the greatest example of how such a vague ideal can be twisted into something so repugnant and crass if given the chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Is it just me or has Progress come to mean Well there's nothing we can do about it now maybe you'll grow to like it

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    For anyone to call the eradication of small businesses progress is extremely tactless & insulting.

    It's fine for the cities where no-one has any community spirit, but for small towns the loss of the high street would be devastating.

    Also, not everyone owns a car or wants to drive many miles to buy basic provisions!

    I shop at Tesco only because it's the nearest supermarket in walking distance!

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    The reason people shop at supermarkets is Councils.. we can't park in the highstreet due to council wardens, and the small shop is expensive due to rates (16k p/a for small shop near Epsom, which was all our profit). Are Tesco's paying that kind of rate per sq/foot? Tesco's and Councils want us all subjugated to the big machine, no job satisfaction, no self determination. "Stack faster, faster!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Tesco tried to open a Super store in my small isolated town (pop 5,000) where 80% of High Street shops are independent. During the public meetings it was pointed out to Tesco that they planned to sell 60% of what was already offered locally...would they limit the duplication. They told us we should sell "something else" after often 70 years of trading! Their attempt to kill our High Steet failed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    As a 9-5 worker, I get my fruit, veggies, eggs and milk delivered by local suppliers. I walked to my farmers market yesterday morning and got the bus home, as my bags were full. The produce I buy each week, has travelled less than 30 miles, so is really fresh and it helps to support the economy of my local area. I do get some things in Tesco, but there should be a balance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    I think its progress if short-term economic progress for the few is how we now define 'progress'. The UK is just becoming like America and we will regret this in time. The town centre's of Europe are so much more lively and cultural and interesting than the UK's now, but here 'economic progress' seems to justify anything.. and people need to hear what Tesco do to suppliers and local economies..

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    The title is true, but it depends what definition of progress he's meaning.

    It certainly isn't progress if he intends the "steady improvement or advance" meaning.

    I see his point holding true for the "increase in severity of a disease" meaning.

    Supermarkets have their uses in the modern world, but the big chains have overreached that by some margin. In my view it's bad progress.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    People are not just attracted to out of town supermerkets for their food. If they are looking for the personal service and a particular quality, the growth of the out of town Farm Shop is amazing. Car parks are full and these businesses are thriving too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    It's this sort of comment that sums up the arrogance of Tesco who will ride roughshod over anything that stands in their way. It's time they were stopped from being so powerful and hopefully remarks like Leahy's plus the 'burger' fiasco will help towards that.


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