Thank Goodness for Supermarkets

I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for a while now, but I was prompted to do so today after I read some of the other blogs named by The Times on their 50 Best Business Blogs.

One of the blogs named under the Retail section of the list is Tescopoly, which is:

An alliance of organisations concerned with the negative impact of supermarket power.

There is little doubt that many people will feel a negative impact of Tesco’s astonishing success: competitors, for example.  But I am in serious doubt as to whether the consuming public, more commonly known as ‘customers’, share this view.  Judging by Tesco’s sales figures, probably not, and Tescopoly implicitly acknowledge this with the statement:

Growing evidence indicates that Tesco’s success is partly based on trading practices that are having serious consequences for suppliers, farmers and workers worldwide, local shops and the environment.

which makes no reference to customers. 

But this post is not about whether or not Tesco’s success at giving customers what they want comes at the expense, unacceptable or otherwise, of local shops, farmers, suppliers, etc.  It is about living in a place without a decent supermarket, and on this point I have quite some experience.I grew up in a small town in South West Wales called Pembroke.  I was born in 1977, so most of my memories of my being a child in Pembroke took place in the 1980s.  Initially, there was one supermarket in town, a Fine Fare, which consisted of four aisles and three grubby checkouts.  This was later taken over by Gateway, and later a Kwik-Save opened in the town.  There was a Co-Op in Pembroke Dock a couple of miles away, but that was about it by way of supermarkets in the immediate vicinity, and the selection and quality of items they sold was poor to say the least.  Most shopping was done in the traditional way by means of trailing from one small shop to the next scattered along a quarter-mile high street, most of which opened at 9:00am, closed at 5:00pm, had an hour for lunch, took Tuesday afternoons and Sundays off, and stocked only half the items you came in for.  For my mother, bringing up four young kids (or, in her opinion, four uncontrollable brats), this was pretty tough going.  And here’s why I know this.

My mother was about as far removed from a modern-day consumer as is possible to be.  We lived in an isolated farmhouse a mile outside Pembroke, with no mains water and heating powered by a coal boiler.  We had no television, as my mother did not approve of them, and the most recent music in the entire house was Mozart’s Don Giovanni until my oldest brother grew old enough to bring home bootleg Bruce Springsteen tapes.  My mother used to grow her own vegetables and summer fruits in our garden – swedes, aubergines, courgettes, spinach, broad beans, runner beans, peas, parsnips, new potatos, lettuce, beetroot, parsley, chives, mint, lemon balm, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants – and use a greenhouse to produce tomatoes and cucumbers.  In addition, we used to get sent into the fields with instructions to come back with as many blackberries in our collanders and as little cow-crap on our shoes as possible.

Those items which were purchased were kept to a mimimum, and in the case of eggs were always free-range from a local farm.  Rarely did she buy ready-blended sauces, flavourings, or complete meals (for starters, they weren’t available).  My mother used to cook all this in meals which started from first principles, i.e. almost all ingredients started as nature intended them to be, with minimal processing and free from all added salt, sugar, preservatives, etc.  Meals were of the traditional British variety – cottage pie, braised beef, stew, lamb casserole, poor-man’s-goose, boiled bacon, liver, steak and kidney pie – and I didn’t eat a pizza, a Chinese takeaway, or a bag of chips until I was about twelve or thirteen years old.  Liquids were restricted to orange juice, milk, tea, water, and the occasional glass of bitter lemon squash.  Fizzy drinks were treated like a pig in a mosque.

My mother used to bake her own bread and rolls, which under certain circumstances could be classified as offensive weapons, and has enabled me to eat Russian black bread and consider it to be as light and fluffy as Mitey Wite.  Not content with growing and cooking all this for us, she was extremely active in the Womens’ Institute in selling most of her produce almost right up until her death in 1995.  Certainly, as early as I can remember (which is about 1981), she was involved in the W.I., and for a few years she used to sell her bread out of a local health-food shop.  When the “organic” food started appearing on the scene in the early 1990s, my mother embraced it wholeheartedly and insisted that anything we could possibly consume organic was so.

(At this point, I leave readers to pause for a moment in sympathy to consider what kind of clothing we were put into, given my mother’s rather puritanical and “earthy” approach to food and lifestyle: during P.E. lessons, my oldest brother found himself surrounded by people wearing nylon football socks and Arsenal shirts, with he wearing stripey woollen socks knitted by a great-Aunt and a strange sports jumper which, being green, consigned him to playing in goal for the rest of his junior schooldays.)

Anyway, my point is that if anybody on this planet were to reject the idea of junk food, low-quality supermarket goods, and the demise of small, local shops, it would be my mother.  And I’m sure that she would reject 95% of what the supermarkets currently sell and complain that certain specialist wholefood shops had gone out of business as result of a major supermarket opening in the area.  But I remember my mother getting extremely frustrated about not being able to buy quality items in Pembroke or Pembroke Dock, and making the effort to go to the small Tesco in Haverfordwest, some 40 minutes away at the time.  Then a Tesco opened in Carmarthern, an hour away, and my W.I.-leader grow-your-own-food health-food-fanatic mother used to drive there once a week to buy stuff she simply could not get locally.  About the same time a decent Sainsbury’s opened in Swansea, and we used to take a family trip there once every couple of months and we kids would run around like we were in some sort of palace, or like the Polish students who I picked vegetables with in the mid-90s did when they went into a proper supermarket for the first time.

Of course, my mother didn’t buy the stuff she could grow at home from the supermarkets.  Knowing her, she probably commented loudly on the inferior quality of the produce on offer to any unsuspecting customer who happened to be standing nearby.  But she knew that feeding Weetabix, orange juice, rice, cheese, vegetable oil, Rivitas, macaroni, and Marmite to a family of six is rather difficult when there is no decent supermarket in the town, and especially if the local shops are unreliable in their opening hours, quality of goods, and stocked items.  Add to that the need to buy such items as washing powder, hoover bags, shoe polish, and other such groceries – none of which could be bought from a single place in Pembroke, never mind the same place as the food was bought – and the journey to find a decent supermarket, even in a second-hand 1.2L Mark-I Golf, was worth it.

In summary, the presence of a decent supermarket in Pembroke in the 1980s would have made my mother’s life an awful lot easier, and I’m sure she’d not have been alone.  Local shops, faced with no competition and maintaining outdated business practices, simply cannot provide a decent level of service to a community: that someone like my mother was forced to drive an hour to go to a supermarket in order to get what she wanted is ample proof of this.  It should have come as no surprise that the supermarkets have been able to move swiftly into rural areas and sweep aside the local competition with customers flowing through their doors by the thousand.

Okay, fast forward 15 years and I found myself living in south Manchester, the first time I’d lived anywhere other than a rural village in my life.  Finding myself regularly shopping in the large 24-hour Tesco in Parrs Wood, I could not believe that this is somehow less healthy, more expensive, or worse for the general public than having to trawl along a high street at a time convenient only for the shopkeepers.  Just before I left Manchester in 2003 and a huge new Tesco Extra opened in Sale, I could barely imagine that my parents once had to make a special 4-hour round trip to Swansea in order to buy an iron.  An iron!!  I could now buy one of a dozen different brands off a supermarket shelf, at prices better than Curry’s, just a few aisles down from the cornflakes and yoghurts.  Who on earth could complain about this?  For me, remembering growing up in Pembroke, it was great.

Now fast forward 4 years, and I’m living in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  Have a guess what?  There is no decent supermarket here.  Granted, it is apparently much better than it was a few years ago when there was no supermarket here at all, but it is still the worst place I have ever lived for purchasing food, groceries, and consumer goods.  Fresh meat and vegetables are available, but there is not much by way of quantity (just 2 leeks were on sale each day during winter), less by way of quality, and your choice is limited to one variety of each item.  It’s also expensive.  A miserable-looking lettuce will cost you a quid.  A five-inch cucumber a dollar.  And so on.  Ready-made sauces are generally unavailable so if you want to make a curry, as I did one evening, you’d better prepare yourself for a few hours of peeling tomatoes, sauteing them with onion, adding spices and chilli, and mixing it together on a stove trying to make it taste more like curry sauce than boiled tomatoes.  When that’s ready, you move onto the meat and veg.  Personally, although I like the challenge of cooking (solely because I have the time), I preferred at least having the option of buying a jar of ready-made Chicken Madras sauce and simply adding it to the fresh meat. 

If a supermarket here stocks Heinz Baked Beans (at $2 per tin), it becomes a talking point in the bars and at work.  If you don’t hurry, you’ll miss them, and when they will have any more in is anyone’s guess.  I haven’t seen any in stock since about February.  We briefly had some Heinz pasta sauce, but that has been missing from the shelves for at least a month, and last week they started selling ready-made fajita wraps but – alas – no salsa sauce, or any kind of sauce, and by the time I got to the supermarket all the meat had gone as well.  Feeding yourself here is not a major problem, but this is because I have time, money, and the (self-taught-through-dire-necessity) ability to cook.  If I was missing one of these, I’d be in trouble.

Furthermore, as in Pembroke 25 years ago, supermarkets here don’t sell a great range of items.  If you find yourself in need of a lightbulb, or a coat-hanger, or a dustpan and brush, or bin liners, or an electrical plug, or a washing-up bowl, forget trying to pick one up in the supermarket as you buy your milk and teabags.  To get the items I’ve listed above in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk would require one to go to at least 3 different shops, one or more of which would probably not stock what you wanted.  Oh, and all of them take cash only.  Yet you could find all these items in a Tesco with your eyes shut.

My exprience in Pembroke and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk makes me wonder about the people who run the blog Tescopoly.  Specifically, I wonder if they’ve ever lived in a place without a decent supermarket.  Given most of them live in the developed west, I very much doubt it.  I am sure it is quite possible that there are some excellent local shops about which outperform the supermarkets in quality if not price.  But these shops represent the few businesses which were savvy enough to raise their game in the face of fierce competition and differentiate their product and market it accordingly.  However, these shops are likely to be like this because of the presence of a supermarket, not despite it.  

Some people cite their local butcher as selling superior quality meat than the local supermarket, and it is undoubtedly true.  After all, the butcher is selling to a handful of select customers who are willing to pay a premium for his products.  But these butchers are often cited as being in a suburb of a major city or a large town, the majority of whose residents will shop at supermarkets.  Were the supermarket to close and everyone have to shop at little local butcher shops, does anybody honestly think the quality would stay the same, and the butcher wouldn’t abandon his loyal customers by flogging lower quality meat to the masses?  If anybody doubts this, I invite them to see the quality of meat and service on offer in a local butcher shop in a place where people have no choice but to shop there.  The result is, or at least it is here, freezers full of dark, unidentified meat butchered with a chainsaw.

My guess is that the opponents of major supermarkets who can genuinely count themselves as consumers (as opposed to anti-capitalists, green activists, and small business owners with a special-interest axe to grind) are an elite who have time on their hands and the money to spare to shop in select outlets catering mainly for, well, people with time on their hands and money to spare.  (Even then, leaving foodstuffs out of the picture, I’d be curious to know where they shop for their washing powder and baby food).  But for the vast majority, even if they do not necessarily buy all, or even most, of their food from the supermarkets, their entry into the locality has been a Godsend.  If natural allies like my mother used to pray for a Tesco to open in Pembroke Dock, then opponents of such a move must be pretty few in number.

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8 Responses to Thank Goodness for Supermarkets

  1. Michael Munro says:

    Tim,
    I believe the big gripe around the Tesco/Wal-Mart/Sainsbury is not primarily about the loss of local outlets (though they do bitch about that). It is also not about having the availabilty and quality of products on offer. The issue is the damage along the supply chain.

    The purchasing practices of the super chains, derived from their massive size are predatory and unsustainable. They have, and wield, amazing power over their suppliers based on their power base of customers. They do this to:
    a) make more profit
    b) be able to charge lower prices (good for consumer)…which leads them to more volume and more profit

    While I’m all for profit, history repeats. Unchecked capitalism results in practices that are anabashedly and inarguably bad for society as a whole (child labor anyone?)

    So, the folks at Tescopoly or any other “anti-big-capitalism” organisation are actually providing a well needed check against the rampages of too much power in one part of the supply chain. This is especially important given the abdication of this role by government or big media. Sure, they aren’t right about everything, but they are right about somethings. And if they aren’t saying it, who will?

    Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart says in his “10 things I learned about leadership”…Your harshest critics are your best friends. When you stop to listen, they are the ones that force you to become better.

    To summarize this long response: The compliant isn’t selection or quality, it’s the damage throughout the value chain by organisations with too much power.

  2. You could say that Tescopoly is to Tesco, as Tesco is to the local butcher: forcing them to raise their game.

    But, if that’s the case (and I think it certainly could be), they could be a little more honest about it and acknowledge Tesco et al’s plusses, rather than just painting them as all bad, all the time.

    (You could also make the side-argument that the “Tesco = evil” argument has serious negative externalities, such as contributing to the planning difficulties they suffer, which in turn lead the supermarkets to create huge land banks.)

  3. W. Shedd says:

    I think it is only in an environment where supermarkets reign supreme, that you will find people complaining about their economic tactics, etc.

    We want what we don’t have. So in recent years, you see a rise in organic food stores and specialty butcher or meat shops (at least in the US). Some of these organic food stores are essentially supermarkets themsevles (such as Wild Oats here). I’m sure that will lead to some eventual complaints as well.

    Still … I don’t see many consumers opting to grow their own vegetables, raise their own hens, pigs or cattle – even though it is immenently feasible and more cost effective for many and can yield the best product. Why aren’t they doing it? Convenience … otherwise known as laziness.

    Interesting to hear about your upbringing, many familiar notes there. I’m the eldest of 4 boys and although we traveled until I was 17 (my father was in the US Army for 21 years) we usually had a garden, picked berries whenever possible (and wild foods as well, such as fiddle-heads), did our own canning of vegetables and fruits, raised pigs, hens, beef when possible. Father hunted so rabbit or venison was not uncommon. Ditto with many home-made clothes and hand-me downs.

    However, my parents have embraced convenience or quick foods later in their lives – while I’ve remained more true to childhood upbringing. Katja loves my homemade biscuits for example (which I learned to make from my grandmother) and pancakes (taught by long-deceased grandfather).

    I don’t think I’ve had a Coke or other soft drink since 2003 … while in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Made a picture of myself drinking a Coca-Cola in front of Lenin’s statue on April 22nd (his birthday). I couldn’t resist the irony.

  4. Damon Evans says:

    Hmmm, I can sympathise with your grocery shopping predicament in Sakhalin. I used to pray that the supermarkets would have some guinness stout in stock on a Sunday, which was a rare occurence (luckily the Japanese equivalent was “usually” available), however since arriving back in the “more developed” world, I am amazed by the choice and the whole Sakhalin shopping experience or lack of it taught me to appreciate it… Even arriving in Seoul and tasting a McDonalds burger was a fulfilling experience ! Just to have the choice to buy or not to buy is a privilege…

  5. Larry Barrow says:

    What I read between the lines is, shopping on Sakhalin isn’t like good old Dubai. Nostalgia already for the good life. It sounds more like what we experienced in Tehran 75′. They had markets but you had to visit many of them just as you said.
    Or East Kalimantan (Borneo) 77′, we had no supermarket, just a big messhall and a little grocery store for the married folks. However the food in Indonesia was excellent. I didn’t need much else except for booze,which we had plenty of, and the best beers in the world “Bintang”, “Anchor”, “Tiger”.

  6. IR says:

    Tim,

    Excellent article.

    A few responses to Michael Munro

    “It is also not about having the availabilty and quality of products on offer”

    As compared to what? To what was before? Have you even read Tim’s post?

    “The purchasing practices of the super chains, derived from their massive size are predatory and unsustainable.”

    If this the case they will be replaced by something better.

    “They have, and wield, amazing power over their suppliers based on their power base of customers.”

    And this is bad because ….

    “be able to charge lower prices (good for consumer)”

    Ok, got it. God forbid.

    “Unchecked capitalism results in practices that are anabashedly and inarguably bad for society as a whole (child labor anyone?)”

    Could you please name one capitalist country where child labor exist today? The only reason child labor doesn’t exist in the developed world is because of the high standard of living. I’ll let you guess the reason.

    “This is especially important given the abdication of this role by government or big media.”

    Oh how I wish it was so. Haven’t you heard aobout the Whole Foods attempt to buy Wild Oat? Haven’t you heard about the local goverments anti-WalMart laws eg. Chicago and Maryland? And press never publishes anti-WalMart articles and nobody makes anti-WalMart movies. Nope, none whatsoever.

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