Swiss shopkeepers take on retail giants in battle of ballots

There's nothing unusual about the traditional shop on the corner going under to the big chains. But what about the little guy fighting back with a national referendum?

Sounds like David against Goliath. But, says Rudolf Moser, a shopkeeper in the town of Steffisburg, ''Something has to be done or we shall have a dictatorship of giants.''

Mr. Moser is one of the 113,000 Swiss responsible for bringing a people's initiative aimed at protecting the family-style shop. Supporters want the building of shopping centers banned if local shops can already satisfy the regional population's needs, and they want tax measures to ensure a better go for the small retailer.

The village shop, where customers are greeted by name and the shopkeeper knows each housewife's quirk, is as Swiss as the cheese it sells. In the last two decades, however, the number of independent grocery stores has declined by more than half, and more than 500 communities now have no shop of their own. At the same time, the share of total grocery sales space controlled by the country's two largest chains has grown to 60 percent.

It is hard to go anywhere in Switzerland without meeting up with the ''Big M.''

''M'' stands for Migros. Few people outside Switzerland have heard of it, but it is one of the world's great success stories. Migros is Switzerland's largest retailer, biggest employer, and top grocer - with a 31.8 percent share of the country's market for food and related items.

The company has been growing since 1925 when a gutsy man with a dream, Gottlieb Duttweiler, set out to revolutionize a retail industry which he believed exploited the consumer with too high prices for little quality.

With a fleet of five Model-T Ford trucks making curb stops, he hit the Zurich streets selling a Spartan six items - sugar, coffee, macaroni, rice, shortening, and laundry soap. In handbills, he explained to the housewife a philosophy built on ''High gross sales, low profits, freshest possible merchandise direct from the producer without the musty smell due to long storage.''

Mr. Duttweiler convinced the housewives and prospered against supplier boycotts, other grocers' harassment of his customers, and even a 12-year ban, passed by the Swiss parliament in 1933, stopping retail chains from opening further stores.

If politicians could do that to him, Duttweiler decided, then he'd better get in on the ground floor. He founded a political party, the ''Alliance of the Independents.'' He moved into the newspaper business with a weekly, aptly named Action. And in an attempt to reduce dependence on food retailing, he started a travel agency with package deals for the little guy - a pioneer move in those days.

Eventually, a Duttweiler grown rich on consumerism turned his business into a cooperative, of which any Swiss can be a member. He laid down that a set percentage of sales was to go to socially relevant, nonbusiness activities each year. In 1981, under this cultural levy, as it is known, Migros gave away more than $30 million. It goes to the arts, sport education, and consumer and political projects.

Today, Duttweiler's offspring has branched into books, clothing, household appliances, furniture, hobby and gardening shops, gas stations, insurance, and even a bank. A company with a conscience, it has also been one of the first to push energy saving, recycling, and content information on packaging. Migros apprentices learn what it is like to be handicapped, through arranged holidays with handicapped people, and older employees can attend classes on how to cope with retirement.

Not allowed, however, to expand commercially outside Switzerland, the Big-M must bottle up energies in a tiny domestic market of 6 million people. This means, regardless of how many good projects sales support, bigness can be a problem in a small country.

Migros is not the only big retailer at which the initiators of the ''save the little shop'' referendum are pointing the finger. It is, however, the largest and the most powerful. With annual sales of more than $4 billion, Migros comes out nearly $1 billion ahead of its nearest competitor.

What to do about bigness in a small market?

''To really brake growth we would have to close down on Saturdays,'' a Migros executive speculates. ''In our days, women like to do as much as they can under one roof: learn French on one floor and shop on the other.''

Generally accepted is that shops around Migros do well if they offer a different product to their giant neighbor.

''Migros acts as a magnet,'' Mr. Ruf notes.

But that is just what traditional small shopkeepers like Rudolf Moser oppose: ''The village shop dies because housewives go to these big centers with their satellite shops.''

In a survey organized by Migros itself, 65 percent of its suppliers admitted that they gave price advantages to the bulk-buying chain, one reason Migros can sell below its small competitors. Isn't that an advantage for consumers, an example that bigness has its advantages? Or is it unfair? Whatever the answer, Migros has recognized that it must curb growth.

It is hard to imagine, however, that such a curb will do much toward helping the shop on the corner as more Swiss housewives get a taste for centralized shopping.

Even the Swiss government has come out against the protection of the small-shops referendum.

On Oct. 30, referendum supporters will meet to decide if they will proceed despite government opposition. Almost certainly they will, in which case the Swiss people will have to decide soon on the fate of the corner shop.

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