Creative accounting 'no surprise' in retail

Former buyers have spoken out about the culture of “creative accounting” across the big retailers and warned more could have their practices scrutinised in the wake of the financial investigation at Tesco.

Consultant and former Sainsbury’s BWS boss Allan Cheesman told OLN: “There is creative accounting everywhere and the dilemma of City expectations and trader reality.

“I am not insinuating anything, certainly not illegal. It’s just that you are in the realms of forecasts, budgets, estimates and guesstimates and in a volatile market that can be tricky to get right. I would love £1 for every forecast I got wrong.

“You also have the dilemma when producing forecasts for the City and shareholders that you need to make those numbers realistic and achievable. Sometimes those making those numbers in the financial part of the business would be in contrast with what the traders, who are close to the market and sales, can actually achieve.”

A former-retailer-turned supplier said it was “common practice” for buyers to push back on suppliers. She said: “There are lots of practices which go on, they aren’t a secret, it’s just what happens.

“Buyers will call and ask: ‘What can you do?’.

“I’m sure that kind of thing has happened to most people. Buyers are under so much pressure and they have to meet increasingly tough targets.”

Another said: “I don’t think any of this is too surprising.

“These things go on everywhere. Supermarkets always have the whip hand and you have no real recourse.

“I’d say things absolutely do go on in supermarkets, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot more comes out in the wash.”

Another former buyer for a large supermarket added: “The story has caught the media’s attention and this will really put the spotlight on the industry and how it operates.”

But Cheesman disagreed that the Tesco case would impact other businesses.

He said: “I do not think this is some Machiavellian situation that will uncover plots or industry practices. Our trade is simple – buy and sell and agree mutually with business plans, overriders for annual volumes, promotional monies, new product support and things such as gondola end features.

“None of this is rocket science or secret. Each company also has its own procedures and processes and, indeed, some are tougher than others.

“There are also financial controls governing what you can say and what you should say. Clearly in a declining market getting those numbers accurate is tough.

“I don’t see any of this activity as criminal unless people have stolen funds. Misleading bosses is not an offence, although misleading the City will get you into trouble, hence the Tesco investigation.

“I am sure suppliers will not just hand over cash unless there is extra business involved. Even if they did it wouldn’t be criminal – just stupid.”

Tesco has suspended a total of eight senior employees as part of its ongoing investigation into a £250 million accounting black hole.

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