When in doubt, blame supermarkets. As we struggle to understand why our nation is so fat, our high streets so bland, our farmers so poor, our out-of-season tomatoes so tasteless, the finger of blame is pointed straight at the giants of food retailing that so dominate our lives. The power of the once-humble shopkeeper was illustrated by the recent revelation that Tesco, the country's biggest supermarket chain, had become the first UK retailer to break the pounds 2bn profit barrier. Getting there, it had helped itself to pounds 1 in every pounds 8 we spend on the high street.
Yet the growing backlash against the likes of Tesco, the US- owned Asda and even poor old struggling J Sainsbury fails to take account of the flip-side: that supermarkets have also been a force for good. This is Judi Bevan's starting point in Trolley Wars, her attempt to tell the story of a corporate phenomenon.
Her timely book charts the rise of the big four supermarkets that control three-quarters of the grocery market (the fifth, Safeway, was acquired by Wm Morrison for pounds 3bn last year). Bevan's focus is on how the upstart Tesco managed to elbow its aristocratic rival, Sainsbury's, out of the lucrative top slot. The battle lines were drawn decades ago, when the onset of consumerism in the 1960s marked the end of postwar austerity. The book is part biography, and throughout the early chapters you find yourself willing 'costermonger" Jack Cohen, who founded Tesco from an East End market stall with his demob cheque, to trounce the 'smug' Sainsbury's. …