'Will a French supermarket really bring Jersey cheaper groceries?'

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By Ted Vibert

One of the biggest topics of public conversation last week was a discussion about the likelihood of a French supermarket chain opening up in Jersey and how welcome this would be as ‘this would surely bring down the cost of groceries’.

So far, no one appears to have asked the question – would this really be the result?

If Jersey is such an attractive market for other supermarket companies, why don’t we have an Aldi, a Tesco, or even a Sainsbury’s? I know that over the years, these organisations have sent their bean counters and highly paid marketing gurus over to Jersey to quietly assess the market here and none of them has thought it financially worth the effort.

I recently discussed this with a friend who came over to Jersey some years ago on such a mission who liked the Island so much that he eventually moved over with his family and still advises local supermarkets on high-level marketing and management strategies.

He told me that he felt Jersey people who complain about the fact that none of these top supermarket companies have come to the Island have never appreciated that supermarkets are not publicly owned bodies set up for the public good. They are large businesses, funded and owned by shareholders, who have invested their own money to enable them to make a profit from that investment by getting a decent return on their money and a capital gain when they sell their shares.

With a population of only 103,000, Jersey already has a well-established and sophisticated food-supply system that has developed since the 1800s. The major driver for this business model in Jersey was Samuel Le Riche. In a history book entitled The Le Riches Story, the author, Kenneth Renault, opens his narrative with the words: ‘The history of any successful business in whatever field, be it Harrods, Liberty, Pilkington or Le Riche makes compelling reading as the story unfolds through the years. Invariably, it seems such a story has modest beginnings in the initiative and enterprise of one man who believed that he could make something better or offer a service more efficiently than his competitors.’

In Jersey in the mid-1800s those words applied to a young man from Trinity, Samuel Le Riche, who knew instinctively that he could make a modest living from a grocer’s shop in St Helier. ‘Though a grocer’s shop may lack the glamour of fabrics and fashion that has brought success to big retailing businesses in cities, by instinct, young Samuel knew that by providing the essential commodities (food) that would always be in demand by every family in the Island, he could make a tolerable living.’

The Le Riche story is an important one in the history of food retailing in Jersey and it’s a pity that much of that history has been forgotten. As the author of the Le Riches book states in his introduction: ‘Among those several Jersey companies who value their customers and whose early beginnings lie in the enterprise of one small family, the name of Le Riche is prominent. Perhaps because the retailing of food and drink fulfils the needs of everyone throughout their lives, Le Riches, by careful and expedient development, have continued to live up to that initiative and enterprise shown by Samuel Le Riche and his wife Marie in the middle years of the late century.’

By the mid-1960s, Le Riches had become the dominant force in Channel Island food retailing with large supermarkets in St Helier and St Peter Port. Once they had bought out their main competitor in Jersey, Orviss, they reigned supreme.

Both organisations had been locked in a battle for some years to win the lion’s share of the Jersey grocery market throughout those early years. Le Riches looked to build up their business by not just having large shops in St Helier but by creating shops in a number of local population centres around the Island by buying out existing small grocery shops and making them bigger, both here and in Guernsey.

Orviss tried to do much the same by establishing their own extra shops in Bath Street, First Tower, Gorey and St Aubin but eventually Le Riches became a much more powerful force and eventually bought out Orviss.

Orviss had their huge shop in Beresford Street on the left-hand side going towards Halkett Place. It made the corner of Halkett Street and Beresford Street with a magnificent Victorian frontage on the corner of the junction of that little lane that runs up to Queen Street across what locals call French Lane.

Le Riches had their flagship RM Stores at 29 King Street, almost opposite the now newly converted extensive sports clothes store and Flannels, which had once been Noel and Porter. They had purchased the shop and business from a Joseph Taylor in 1933, who had run a ‘grocery and provision merchants’ for ‘the gross sum of £4,500’. As well as a highly valued extensive shopfront in King Street, the property extended right through to Vine Street.

They also had a Le Riches shop at 31 Queen Street, later occupied by Dorothy Perkins, and had also expanded into country areas.

In March 1949, they purchased Newmans Cash Stores at the top of La Marquanderie Hill, which was then the focal shopping outlet for the Red Houses area at Les Quennevais. This shop was at the top of La Marquanderie Hill, right on the junction with the main road (Route Orange) and is now the huge flagship supermarket for Waitrose.

Much has changed even since the 1960s and Jersey now has a well-established web of outlets for the sale of groceries throughout the Island. There is only a certain element of competition here, but it is clear that many rival supermarket groups outside of the Island have researched what opportunities exist for them here and have decided to concentrate their efforts elsewhere in the UK.

If a French supermarket company – or one of the ‘biggies’ from the UK – wanted to operate in Jersey their first priority would be to find a suitable site from which to operate. It would need to be big – similar to Waitrose at Red Houses – and would need plenty of parking space. This would rule out anywhere in St Helier. The space required would need to already be zoned for retail space under the Island Plan and if there was such a space available it would have been grabbed for housing by Andium or Dandara a long time ago, so their chances would be remote.

What many outside supermarket companies are now doing is accepting the inevitable – that trying to set up in Jersey from scratch would be a waste of their resources, that the Island is already well supplied with well-established supermarkets and are, instead, forging relationships with those supermarket groups operating in Jersey by granting them franchises to market their own brands of specialist products.

The current main players in the grocery business in Jersey today are SandpiperCI working with Alliance, Iceland, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer; C I Co-operative, who have a supply deal with Alliance and now with Carrefour, one of France’s major supermarket chains; Waitrose, a supply partnership with Alliance; First Choice, an online service who have a supply deal with Sainsbury (UK).

The ideal situation which could bring down prices would be if one of the large UK or French supermarket firms were prepared to come in, stay free of any of our local operators and start a price war. But that would not be their aim as it would be damaging to their bottom line and that is not what businesses that are successful do.

So don’t hold your breath, everyone.

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