Monday, 10 March 2008

Shopping and fetishes

Since I started writing this blog, around two months ago, I have changed my shopping habits. No longer do I rely on the once a fortnight trip to Sainsbury’s, filling the car up with the regular load.

Now I buy what I can, when I can, as long as it is from a shop within walking distance of my home. This is not because I loathe supermarkets, but because I wanted to see what would happen if I made the change. A very mild version of the film
Supersize Me, the story of Morgan Spurlock’s month eating only MacDonalds food.

However, I am in a much better place than Morgan Spurlock because my choice is wider. I live in a large city and am surrounded by lots of shops to choose from.

This blog began because four food shops opened within months of each other, all within walking distance of my home. Given this, I felt it hardly fair that I should get in the car and drive to a hypermarket and spend my money elsewhere.

The four shops range in character: there’s a French place, a general delicatessen, a wholefood shop and a Tesco Express, the smallest of the types of outlets run by the supermarket. These four shops join a number of locally-owned and run convenience stores, with two of the largest under the Costcutter banner.

It is interesting to compare the Tesco Express to the Costcutter shops, as well as the other larger convenience stores. Walking past two to get to the Tesco this evening, they seemed very empty and rather drab. By comparison, there were queues at Tesco, which was new, bright and inviting.

In Andrew Simms’ book Tescopoly, he describes a visit to a Tesco store as an intimidating experience, one that he cannot wait to end. My visits to my local Tesco, on the other hand, compare favourably with those to the similar-sized convenience stores.

The food offering is certainly more predictable, the quality is assured (or at least has a large brand behind it) and the presentation is better. In particular, the meat range is of a much higher quality, the aisles are wider and more logically laid out.

Overall, however, the differences between the experiences are small. The staff are roughly the same in attitude and background, the food is slightly different, but not much; the only clear advantage of Tesco is that its cash machine is free (Brockley’s only one), whereas those in the convenience stores make you pay.

The point that Simms makes repeatedly is that shopping in supermarkets is alienating for all concerned – grower, producer, shop assistant and customer. But I look at the staff and food offering in the local convenience stores and see little difference.

I know this is not Simms’ comparison – his is between supermarkets and specialist food retailers such as farmers’ markets, greengrocers, butcher etc – but often modern people are not so organised as to get all their weekly shopping on a Saturday morning, or at the farmers’ market on alternate Sunday mornings, so the convenience store is the better comparison.

Simms not only makes a false comparison – between time-consuming specialist stores and time-saving convenience-orientated supermarkets – but also implies that food shopping should become a larger part of people’s lives.

But while eating properly and healthily is important, sometimes the focus on the ‘authentic shopping experience’ seems built upon such people’s (understandable) need for identity support. They wish to buy into – literally – an identity, one of caring about food, or environmental awareness, or French rusticity, and shops emerge to cater to them, at a cost.

Basic supermarkets like Tesco’s, on the other hand, are focused on convenience. Fast and efficient shopping, for the products you want, or think you want. Identity support takes a second place.


matt h2o said...

I think you make a fair point, but I'd argue that in poorer parts of London many people make the effort to make it to the market on Saturday morning because it is significantly cheaper. That's certainly the case up in Dalston, whose Saturday market is always very busy.

I'd also argue that much of the food in said markets comes from similar distributors to the supermarkets - the supermarkets make most of their money on the higher value, highly packaged products, using the profits to discount the basics as 'loss leaders'.

On that note, I'd be interested to know what you thought of the price differentials between the different shops. In my experience in east London, corner shops are often significantly more expensive than the supermarket outlets (even the more expensive 'Express' or 'Local; branches) because of said loss leaders. I'd suspect that that had an impact on people's shopping decisions.

Karel Traister said...
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