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I’m sure I’m not the only one who is thoroughly fed up of the incessant doom-laden Brexit forecasts. As a journalist myself, it astonishes me that so much media space is given to so much conjecture. But I’m also left dumbfounded at the types of people who want to wade into the already crowded space with portents of doom that don’t necessarily serve them or their businesses well.
To place what I’m about to write into its rightful context, I don’t mind admitting that I voted to stay in Europe. That decision was based largely on my background, a (perhaps misguided) belief that unity generally beats discord, and my life experiences to date, which have been enriched by being part of the EU. It wasn’t a straightforward decision – much of what I believe Europe is supposed to stand for has been dramatically diluted by the accession of so many countries with such wide-ranging political, social and economic frameworks. In Great Britain, we’ve watched as several of our fellow EU members have pretty much gone down the pan, then contributed vast amounts of money to the process of dragging them back out again.
My conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances in other EU member states prior to the referendum told me that this country is still wanted as a member. But only for the money; there is little love for what Great Britain represents as a nation and no-one ever mentioned our people. So when the country voted out, I was surprised and at first a little sad, but I’m fine with that. What I’ve not been fine with ever since is the constant sniping at the apparently ignorant to-a-man Brexiteers and the self-serving hand-wringing big business.
Things like this:
I could, of course, have picked thousands more examples, but both of these are recent and relevant. The behemoth retailers in this country have had it all their own way during the EU’s membership of the EU. The disappearance of trade barriers and tariffs and the breaking down of borders played a large part in enabling them to build the critical mass of supply they needed to stack it high and sell it cheap across their legions of stores. In doing that, they succeeded in changing the course of the fresh produce industry and removing the wholesale markets and their independent retail clients from the position as chief and preferred suppliers of fresh fruit and veg to the British consumer.
Along the way, the supermarket chains have made some suppliers very rich, helped the industry to enhance its quality standards and in doing this, they managed to maintain this country’s position as the go-to market for overseas suppliers for some time. However, the tables turned once the balance of the supply and demand equation had switched completely into their hands and they began to work in ways that could be seen as wholly unfair to their supply chain – taking advantage of their size to grind supplier returns into the dirt in order to maintain high gross margins and line the pockets of their own shareholders. The discounters spotted their opportunity and pounced, but all this has led to so far is another tightening of the noose around the necks of suppliers to the biggest non-discount chains, who have no idea how to compete with the Aldis and Lidls of this world.
As soon as a situation arises that threatens the supermarkets, the bleating begins from trade bodies and the supermarket chiefs who have had it so good for so long. Brexit could have detrimental effects on the supply of food into this country. (like the BRC and Sainsbury’s I’ll use the word ‘could’). It might create a more unstable trading environment. It quite possibly will. But what it could also create is a fairer trading environment in which the demand and supply balance is reflected in prices and the consumer is able to reward those who provide them value and quality by excelling at trading in the true sense of the word, rather than coercing and bullying their way to volume market share.
When/if Brexit’s winds of change blow through, who will be in the best position to prosper? Will it be those who have made hay while the sun shone over the last 40-odd years and built their businesses on the arrogant belief that they would become so all-powerful that nothing could upset their forward momentum? Or will it be the resilient wholesalers who have proved themselves capable of surviving those same 40 years through some of the most brutal and trading conditions ever experienced?
It may be that nothing changes, or it may be that neither prospers. The discounters could continue to flourish and there may well be new ways to get produce from field to fork just around the corner. Produce could even be left to rot at the ports. But we could be about to embark on a golden age of trading that changes fresh produce consumption and therefore public health for the better.
My point is that nobody knows yet – so why all the negativity?
Whatever happens, (salary notwithstanding!) right now I’d rather be at the helm of a small to medium sized fruit and veg wholesale business than a major supermarket chain. The flexibility to adapt to evolving trading realities has been built into the wholesale trade over decades and centuries – that simply cannot be matched by the multiple retailers.