The hatred that only popularity can bring


Two shoppers are pushing trolleys around a busy Tesco.

Shopper One: The competition authorities are taking a long hard look at Tesco and the other supermarkets.
Shopper Two: About time! Pass me that value pack of OJ, will you?
One: They’ve had it coming, building big stores all over the country like they do.
Two: And the crowds! I thought I’d be crushed in the rush for two-for-one loo rolls last week.
One: Yeah. And you know what response you’ll get when you ask the staff to open another till.
Two: That’s right. They smile and open another till.
One: Creeps! They’re like their boss Terry Leahy. Can’t stand him.
Two: Me neither.
One: It’s “customer service this, customer service that” all the time with him.
Two: He should put a new record on!
One: Have you noticed the way he’s always so damn humble? Even though he’s the most admired business leader in the UK?
Two: Business leaders were better in the old days when they were arrogant patricians.
One: He’ll be smiling modestly on the other side of his face in future.
Two: You bet. He’ll take a kicking from the Office of Fair Trading for killing off cornershops like Mr Patel’s.
One: Been in there recently?
Two: Couple of months ago. It was deserted. Mr Patel was close to tears as he sold me a tin of beans for £1.99.
One: It’s a shame. We should go over and cheer him up when we’ve finished shopping here.
Two: Hmm. His stuff’s pricey and there’s not much choice.
One: And my trolley’s pretty full. I’ve got everything I need for the moment.
Two: See you in here next week, then.
One: Sure. Where else?

OFT: soft too oft

The shadiest monopolists in the stand-off between the supermarkets and a broad alliance of Mr Patels, tree huggers and lady knitters are the UK competition authorities. Laziness and lousy customer service are the hallmarks of organisations protected from competition by the state. The Office of Fair Trading languidly waved through Tesco’s acquisition of the convenience store chain T&S in 2002 and doggedly resisted calls for probes into the power of supermarkets after that. Its volte-face surely reflects competitive pressure from MPs who recently produced a damning report on supermarkets. The Independent Retailers Confederation had cannily paid the administrative costs and got the result it wanted. Private enterprise: it works every time.

Minimum effort

New figures from National Statistics underline the reality that the beastly, Bolshie minimum wage is not as bad as first thought. The bean counters say pay is moving up comfortably ahead of the price floor, often in increments of 50p. If there was real pain, wages for badly paid jobs could be expected to cluster at the lowest legal level, implying that the unseen hand of the market was destroying employment worth less. Companies would oblige the CBI by cutting hourly pay by “jagged” amounts, say 37p a time. Crying wolf is a thankless task if your members will not even lend realism to the performance with a few statistical growling noises.

Tapped line manager

The ruthlessness of Arun Sarin may be overstated. The Vodafone boss has been purging directors associated with Chris Gent, but to the surprise of some has stayed the axe poised over one country manager embroiled in a wiretapping scandal.

George Koronias, Vodafone boss in Greece, was thought likely to lose his job after the Greek government revealed that the mobile phones of worthies including Costas Karamanlis, the prime minister, had been tapped for eight months in 2004 and 2005.

Instead, Vodafone has promoted Mr Koronias by expanding his turf to include business development in eastern Europe and the Balkans.

In testimony on Thursday Mr Koronias said technicians from an equipment supplier in Greece had installed the surveillance software and had not made codes available to Vodafone. When the scandal broke last month government officials praised Mr Koronias. On Thursday they said he had failed to provide “basic details” about the wiretapping.

Doubtless tapping of calls on the Vodafone network was a one-off. But to be on the safe side, customers need to take action. It is discomfiting to imagine spooks despairing over the mundanity of one’s calls. So the next time you phone Maureen back in the office to tell her you are stuck on the M25, chuck in a few veiled references to the CIA and the Medellin cartel. That should keep any eavesdroppers on the edges of their seats.

jonathan.guthrie@ft.com

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