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 819.

    It maybe economic progress but I'd say less clear cut concerning social progress. The high street brings two individuals, shopper and shop keeper together creating a society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 818.

    I totally agree with his comments. People forget that certainly Tesco and Morrisons at least started out as small market stalls and shops. The truth is that most retailers in small towns simply don't effectively compete and that is why people do not shop there. And it certainly is not their fault - not to mention that collectively the supermarkets employ hundred's of thousand's of people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 817.

    The consumer controls everything, even if they don't realise it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 816.

    We all moan about supermarkets, but we all use them because they are cheaper and have more variety in them.

  • Comment number 815.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 814.

    I wonder how long it would take to a supermarket chain to crash if the banks withdrew the cashflow enabling credit support? The same cashflow enabling support that the banks are refusing most small businesses. How would a boycott of supermarkets by customers affect their credit ratings ? How would that affect their expansion plans? Are they really to big to fail ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 813.

    @ Graham

    Sir Terry is only stating the obvious, we are all consumers and we all benefit from economies of scale

    Economies... such as the 1 million UK jobs destroyed by supermarkets?...or the horsemeat sold as beef?...or the sups unhealthy over-promotion of saturated fats and BOGOFs that are really just obesity, cholesterol and heart attacks in a pack?

  • rate this

    Comment number 812.

    Isn't it ironic that if Tesco had been around a few decades back, Margaret Roberts (as she was then) would have watched her family's business being driven to bankruptcy by Tesco.

    Makes you wonder why she and subsequent Tory leaders have courted businesses that would, in the real world, have ground them into the dust!

    Suppose the electorate will have to do the job when the time comes, in 2015!

  • rate this

    Comment number 811.


    There is 'Change' and there is 'Progress'.

    The supermarkets have had a massive effect on high streets. That is a Change. But Progress? Perhaps you need to make a tighter distinction between the two?

  • rate this

    Comment number 810.

    So, if you were to bribe the government of a Middle Eastern country to take your arms contract, it would be corruption.

    But if you provide facilities for a local council to give you planning permission, it's progress?

  • rate this

    Comment number 809.

    #787 'More efficient' - beg to differ;very often there is no consistency in the location of products within stores, and sometimes products which one would expect to be in the same category area within the store are found a couple of aisles away.Hardly efficient for the customer.And as for automated checkouts that still need a supervisor, don't get me started. Scrap them and hire more people!

  • rate this

    Comment number 808.


    One thing that surely cannot be called "progress" about supermarkets is the fact that they can't cope with the amount of customers they attract.
    So you end up queuing at the till. The cashier needs to wait until the person before finished bagging (instead of having a divider in the baggin area).

    In small shops one usually doesn't need to queue (unless it's a Postoffice).


  • rate this

    Comment number 807.

    I do a lot of my shopping in Lidl, yes another supermarket but it does not having blaring music, food is fresh & less expensive. In shops Im always told it is a HO directive but have at last managed to get Tescos to turn it off when I ask. I try to shop in other local shops but carrying a lot home from the bus is back breaking. Small shops cannot compete with supermarket bulk buying & free parking

  • rate this

    Comment number 806.

    Sir Terry is only stating the obvious, we are all consumers and we all benefit from economies of scale. But to suggest that 95% of people 'like' supermarkets is as wayward as his maths - 5% of the UK population is not 5 million people.Supermarkets are convenience stores but are no different to any other business, their number one criteria has to be a profit for their shareholders.

  • Comment number 805.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 804.

    I use the supermarkets selectively as they can be convenient, I can guarantee if you have a market near you selling vegetables will be near to half the supermarket price.

    They must make a killing on the veg if the local market can make a living being so much cheaper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 803.

    Just now
    David H
    You actually believe those figures? You actually believe your pension broker is doing all he can... Naive at best.
    I don't need to take is word, I have my holdings and values in a money program which updates from the stock market. I would rather be naive
    with a pension, than smart and without.

    Had a bad experience have we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 802.

    It seems supermarkets, banks, corporations, energy companies and governments are progressing us back to the dark ages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 801.

    People shop in supermarkets because it is more convenient - except that they then become a captive audience and see something that they don't really want but are at an attractive price - so they buy it anyway. This is helping to impoverish the shopper. How often do you go into a supermarket for one item, get to the till and find you've spent £20+?

  • rate this

    Comment number 800.

    5% of the UK population is NOT 5 million people. This guy is contemptible for using language is padded out with inaccurate statistics. Clearly this article portrays the man as a typical working class lad who made it big, and now thinks it's good to sneer at those who are below him? Supermarkets are great but do they generate loyalty in the customers? No they don't because they don't care!


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