Wednesday 1 February 2006

We are all guilty, as usual

The post-Christmas profit warning from Northern Foods has become a great British tradition, like over-indulgence in plum pudding and mince pies. Both of which, unless you made them yourself, probably came to you from a Northern factory.

This year the blame was laid on a biscuit price war and higher energy costs. Last year it was disappointing Christmas trading. The year before that … well, you get the idea.

Over my last decade as the company’s PR adviser, I became so adept at breaking bad news that I am now much in demand as a bereavement counsellor.

Yet it was not always thus. Founded as a dairy business in 1937, Northern prospered mightily through the 1970s and 1980s, as it sensibly diversified out of milk by buying high quality food companies like Park Cakes, Fox’s Biscuits and Pork Farms.

To this day, no other British food business can match Northern for its range of temptingly delicious products, which include most of those lovely ready meals that line the shelves of your local M&S.

So why, in the 1990s, did the track record of success come off the rails, and the corporate motto become ‘What could possibly go wrong?’

To be fair, it says much for the intrinsic qualities of Northern that it still survives as a quoted food company. Nearly all of its once substantial stock market peer group vanished long ago.

Having declared an interest as a former adviser, I think I can still claim objectivity in saying that quality of management has not been the issue.

What has happened to Northern since the early 1990s has much more to do with the changing balance of power in British retailing, and specifically with those giant supermarket chains which are relentlessly squeezing the life out of a high street near you.

We are all guilty of complicity in this. We like the convenience of big store, car-friendly shopping. Tesco hasn’t come to take one in every eight pounds spent by British shoppers because of some ghastly conspiracy, but because it is exceptionally good at its job.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the collateral damage caused to independent shops, doorstep milkmen, British food processors and farmers. All of which are rapidly becoming endangered species.

If you don’t like this, the answer is in your hands. Take your custom elsewhere while you still can.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who prefers locally produced food and small shops.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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