Baroness Thornton is arming herself with statistics. The holidays
may only just be over, but the newly appointed official spokeswoman for
the big four supermarkets is already facing her first confrontation with
the farming lobby, on Sky TV’s weekend news.
Flak-busting is Thornton’s job. She went freelance in 1992, after 12
years as public and policy affairs adviser at the Co-operative Wholesale
Society, and now works partly as an associate director of lobbying
agency Political Context. Her clients include NCH Action for Children
and the National Asthma Campaign.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) hired her in November on a
four-month contract to give the supermarkets their first collective
’They were getting a bashing, which was a bit of a surprise to them as
they are a well regarded industry,’ Thornton says. ’It wasn’t possible
for one of them to speak for all, so they approached me to hold the ring
The next few weeks will be bruising for them all. Tuesday sees the
National Farmers Union launching a campaign to get the supermarkets to
buy British at a House of Commons reception hosted by food minister Lord
Pig producers, angry at the discrepancy between supermarket profits and
their own dwindling margins, will march on a protest rally at
Westminster the following week.
More importantly, some time in the next month, the Office of Fair
Trading (OFT) will deliver its long-awaited verdict on allegations that
the top four - Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Safeway - have not been
passing on discounts from suppliers to consumers. The story has come
full circle: the OFT sparked the current wave of anti-supermarket
feeling when it announced its inquiry last July.
Lined up against them is an uncoordinated, but noisy, group of small
suppliers, farmers, high street traders, environmentalists and consumer
protection bodies. The main accusations are that supermarkets make
excessive profits, don’t support British producers, fail to pass on
savings and are a blight on small local retailers. ’The paradox is that
we are supposed to be so powerful, but getting the media to stop
repeating rubbish parrot fashion is a struggle,’ says Kevin Hawkins,
Safeway’s director of communications.
He adds: ’Initially, the four principal supermarkets found it difficult
to come to a common view, not so much about the nonsense but how to
respond to it.’
The answer was to recruit a high-profile spokesperson to handle general
media relations. Thornton’s main task has been compiling data from City
analysts (who remain largely unfazed), retail specialists such as market
research company Verdict and wider economic reports to counter the
prevailing media view.
Under her aegis, the BRC published a MORI opinion poll in December. It
showed 61 per cent of consumers think they get value for money from
supermarkets and only 17 per cent are unhappy about prices. There is to
be a follow-up. At the end of the year, the BRC also launched a Shop
Price Index to track price changes.
’I’m not looking to do any whitewashing,’ says Thornton. ’We want to
look at the criticisms and say: ’Is this justified? If it is, what’s the
answer? If not, what’s the answer?’’
She has three core messages: that UK supermarkets are world class
businesses and vital to the economy; that they provide high quality
shopping for millions of people, and that they are highly responsible
and a force for good in local communities. She either stands up herself
or orchestrates the supermarkets’ response.
Jane Boardman, managing director of Ketchum Life and a former Asda
account handler, says: ’As an industry, they need to get the
opinion-forming media in context and not disregard the ordinary customer
base - concentrate on the tabloids and the local press. However, the
group is a good idea. It takes risk away from individual companies
putting their necks out.’
The intense competition between the supermarkets creates a habit of
Thornton’s appointment represents a big cultural change.
’Over the past few years, we have been extremely active in getting our
message across,’ says Andrew Coker, Tesco corporate affairs manager.
’But you only put information into the public domain if there is a need
Safeway alone has taken the decision to put up a spokesperson wherever
possible. All the big four took part in the initial groundwork for the
Panorama documentary Superpowers in November (audience figures shot up
from the usual four million to over six million). Apart from Thornton,
however, only Safeway’s Hawkins actually appeared.
Sainsbury’s offered to allow a buyer to be filmed negotiating with a
supplier. And the programme-makers did interview chief executive Dino
Adriano. Head of press Pip Wood says: ’Unfortunately, the information
didn’t suit their agenda.’
Next month, the OFT will either exonerate the supermarkets, widen its
investigation or refer the issue to the Monopolies and Mergers
Exoneration would clearly undermine the protesters, but they are
unlikely to go away. The supermarkets may need a deeper rethink, not
only on the openness of individual companies but on whether they should
appoint a permanent spokesman.
With millions shopping in supermarkets every week, stories affecting
customers will always find a prominent place in the media.