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Reflections on a supermarket

A new Sainsbury’s supermarket has opened near where I live in Pimlico, central London. Very good it is indeed. Just about every food obtainable that I would ever want plus lots more. I made my first trip the other day and it triggered off some thoughts about what these big food chains represent in our culture.

First off, the customers looked genuinely excited, cheerful. It may seem weird that in an age of abundance where we take such things for granted, but the opening of this store seems to have created quite a buzz in the area, rather like the opening of a multi-plex cinema. Shopping for many people is an extension of leisure activity rather than just about the utilitarian business of buying food for the table.

The neo-Luddites in our midst claim to despise all this. Supermarkets, they say, force smaller shops out of business and these big stores’ buying power squeezes the margins of suppliers. To the first charge, I say that if small stores are indeed being forced under, it has more to do with the burdens of regulation and tax which necessarily weigh more heavily on small firms than on larger, more established ones. And secondly, the increased buying power of large stores is indeed a fact, but that also means the consumer gets to benefit. And a big store’s brand-name visibility means the owners of the business have to fret constantly – and they do – about product quality. Let’s face it, if you buy a tin of beans from Megastore Inc and it turns out to poisonous, then think multi-zillion quid lawsuit. If it is bought from Uncle Fred Cornershop, probably not.

And a final point. Supermarkets, it seems to me, have played a considerable part in the liberation of women from traditional household chores, and hence made it easier for women to leave the home and go into work. If we had no superstores and only small stores, then shoppinig would take much, much longer, and hence put even more of a strain on family life where most couples have to be earners out of financial necessity.

Of course the anti-globalistas are none too keen to focus on the essentially conservative, dare I say, reactionary nature of what their hatred of big business means. No reason for us to be shy, however.

Right, off to explore the wine counter.

16 comments to Reflections on a supermarket

  • Yes, supermarkets are marvellous and Sainsbury’s inparticular are good and getting better they very often have excellent low price and multi-buy promotions on quite luxurious goods. In fact I have just come from the Sainsbury’s near me having purchased a bottle of Canadian Club for only £12.00. I love drinking whisky/whiskey and find that Sainsburys have at least one or two high quality brands on special offer every week. The range of food is also amazing, my local teems with fresh lobsters and exotic fruits; however there is one product that is never in stock in any supermarket and that is Veal, the silly squeamishness of the general public seems to mean that this delicious product can only be purchased from specialist butchers.

  • toolkien

    My only reservation regarding such enterprises is the ability of the State to regulate more effeciently, half of their collectviziation is done. It is a phenomenon I am observing here in the US. There seems to be this endless grind toward merging and acquisition at the expense of the ‘middle’ market. Many ‘small fry’ outfits who fly just below the regulatory radar are the only alternatives it seems. So, giving it another 20 years or so there will be huge corporate entities ripe for the picking by the State and not much else. In my fevered imagination I can foresee a time when there will be just a few outlets for media, food, utilities, credit etc etc etc, all tightly regulated by the State. I can’t imagine it being too much different than the lumbering bureaucracy of the old Soviet Union. So I guess I don’t fear big corporations as long as they are freely created via private choices, to invest in, to trade with, or to work for, I just think that the State needs to be reduced so that a de facto centralized economy doesn’t develop.

  • Having observed both sides of the pond, the one difference in buying habits is quite dependent on the appliances available in the household. The storage capacities of refrigerators and freezers in the UK are far smaller than comparable items in the USA. The savings to be had from buying larger quantities of items on special offer are much more limited by that factor than by the size of the enterprise offering them.

  • bear, the (one each)

    A horrid phenomenon we have here in the States is those awful “loyalty cards”. This is where Kroger or Safeway or whomever has you sign up for a card to give you “deep discounts” on things because you are a “loyal customer”.

    What it really means is: that packet of crisps (bag of chips in American) that WAS $1.99 is now $4.29, but they let you have it for $2.29 with your loyalty card, thus “saving” you $2.00.

    I use a fake name and address for my cards, but it still smacks of “papers!” just to get a less-inflated price on groceries.

    Do you folks there in Britain have those stupid cards?

  • I too live near this Sainsburys and it is truly a source of great glee. The main reason is that our local Tesco’s is filled with some of the nastiest people I have ever encountered in the retail sector.

  • Jonathan L

    If only the CAP were to be abolished we would have even greater abundance of choice at better prices. Then Sainsbury’s and their ilk could shop for us around the globe, and who knows what delights might become available to the ordinary consumer.

    All this choice, and still the state thinks they can regulate such companies to make them better.

  • Antoine Clarke

    As it happens I used that very same store today and last Thursday on its opening day. The format is to recreate the feel of an indoor market with stalls littered around the store. I quite like it, but the staff seem a bit lost: don’t know the products they’re supposedly ‘expert’ with.

    I’m not convinced the ‘touchy-feely’ layout will wear well: I think it could be a horrible place when packed and half the small shelves are empty.

    But for now, it’s putting pressure on the overpriced Victoria shops.

  • veryretired

    There is an apocryphal tale told of a visit by Brezhnev and his wife to the US in the ’70’s period of detente , during which Pat Nixon took the Premier’s wife on a tour of the local sights.

    They stopped at a department store, and Mrs B’s comment was that they had better in the SU, (GUM, the big Moscow store), they went to a museum, and she again commented that they had better.

    Then they went to an A&P store. As they walked in, Mrs. B was speechless as they walked throught the produce and bakery aisles. When they came to the meat department, her eyes started watering, and she just stood with her mouth open as tears ran down her face. The tour was over.

    I have heard the same story repeated about the experience of various immigrants who come to the US and walk into a market for the first time. We are so used to the bounty of agricultural and other products on sale for (actually) very low prices, 24 hours a day, that we don’t realize the amazing story behind this cornucopia.

    Every time I hear some Luddite complaining about technology and modernity, I wonder how long they would watch the millions who would surely starve without the world wide food production and delivery system before they realized that everything they ate, and wore, and lived in, and rode in, and took for their illnesses was technology.

    Do people actually need fourteen different kinds of bread? No, all we need is a sharp stick, some fire, and a cave, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong to have the other choices. Freedom is, in its simplist definition, the ability to make choices for oneself.

    And there is no substitute for a good deli counter. Life’s joys are not always big and portentious. Sometimes, all one needs is some really good corned beef and a decent loaf of rye. The beer is optional, although recommended.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    I dunno. Small stores in my country are getting squeezed out by the big stores, which can often offer lower prices because of economies of scale, even when you discount taxes and regulations. And in two more decades, many of the small stores will be gone.

    I’m not saying whether it’s good or bad, but as a cyberpunk fan(sorta), I personally find this trend towards megacorps and massive companies kinda unsettling.

    As for the other point about female empowerment, that simply isn’t true. Small stores located all over the neighbourhoods in my country make it extremely easy for housewives and even working mums to shop for everyday items quickly and easily. However, the growing numbers of such chain stores in strategic locations with their often more competitive prices have a see-saw effect on consumers.

    The choice for most people boils down to this: Do I want to take a slightly longer journey for much lower prices, or do I just want convenience and get the stuff I need for just a short walk?

    In cities, with so many people faced with time constraints, the growing trend is to shop for a week’s groceries in one shot, and for this, the price advantage offered by the large stores are too enticing to resist, convenience for a few trips everyday be damned.

    The point about fridge storage also strikes me as a very important observation, inasmuch as it has an effect on buying habits.

  • Veryretired is right. The endless abundance of food cheaply available in the West is an amazing tribute to the spontaneous organizational power of the free market. How these socialist buffoons can look on this and imagine that their schemes of planning can do better is similarly a tribute to their bottomless capacity for self delusion.

    Throughout history attempts at collectivising agriculture and food production have resulted in gigantic famines, ‘The Black Book of Communism’ details all the horror that these hubristic goons lead their countries into.

  • Jonathan: Did you find anything good? Sainsbury’s wines are purchased for them by Oddbins’ buyers, and are often extremely interesting. Much better than Tescos if you ask me. They often have interesting bottle conditioned beers, too. (Plus they have beers made exclusively for them in Greenwich in accordance with the Bavarian beer purity laws. The Kölsch lager is particularly good).

  • Tony H

    That’s interesting Michael – thanks for the inside info about the Oddbins/Sainsbury’s link. I’ll look more carefully at their wines in future, though my closest supermarket is a Safeway – crap in comparison with either Sainsbury or Tesco. Actually booze is not a useful point of comparison, since it reminds us of the outrageously high UK tax on the stuff compared with the rest of the world – the only country I’ve visited where it was more expensive is Finland. cf Paul Coulam’s reference to “only” twelve quid for Canadian Club, and indeed I snapped up some J&B the other day on “special offer” at the same price – it costs two-thirds of this in a German supermarket.
    The Safeway in question opened a few years ago in my small town, after an uproar of speculation that it would destroy the small traditional shops that characterise the place. These fears have proved utterly groundless, with pre-existing shops and lots of new ones alike all flourishing.

  • Verity

    Paul Coulam – “… endless abundance of food cheaply available in the West.” Er, no. Cheaply available in the United States and Canada – and other points unstrangulated by the EU’s vile, communist CAP, yes. Food in Europe, no. In fact, I have never, anywhere in the world, encountered a higher food tab than in the UK and Europe.

  • fnyser

    Yes the mega-stores are good. I can buy cheese from 20 countries so I get the Danish Brie rather than the froggy kind.

    It would be a shock stepping out of an Irma and into a Fred Meyer or Safeway Marketplace – Irma you can have your choice between 5 kinds of Knorr soup packets whereas in the US there’s 10, plus 100 Campbell’s, and 10 other brands. Going to DK years ago, for me the shock was the other way around – where’s the food? And what’s that scabby thing that kinda looks like an apple?

    The Big old Safeways are in the process of being supplanted by the HUGE Safeways. Fred Meyer has a wine selection better than the wine shop nearby AND they have a buyer on-hand to answer questions or order something special. Just don’t work for them (union shop, +10 cents an hour, all and more lost on dues). The savings from going to a warehouse store are not so much now that the regular grocers have gotten so big.

    Yes indeed REAL proportional representation where I get to vote with each full dollar for my wishes among 10’s of thousands of choices – not 10 cents on the dollar left me to choose Tomato or Leek Knorr&trade

  • Cydonia


    According to Lev Sukhanov, it was just such an experience that prompted Boris Yeltsin’s decision to leave the communist party in 1989:

    “A turning point in Yeltsins intellectual development occurred during his first visit to the United States in September 1989, more specifically his first visit to an American Supermakert in Houston, Texas. The sight of aisle after aisle of shelves stacked with every conceivable type of foodstuff and household item, each in a dozen varieties, both depressed and amazed him … “What we saw in the supermakert was no less amazing than America itself”, recalled Lev Sukhnanov who accompanied Yeltsin on his trip to the U.S. and shared his sense of shock .. “I think it is quite likely that the last prop of Yelstin’s Belshievik consciousness finally collapsed after Houston …””

    (from Michael Dobbs’ “Down with Big Brother – the fall of the Soviet Empire p. 318)

  • benski

    Anyone with any experience of farm food production in the UK knows that in many cases the CAP has actually lowered prices by effectively making up the shortfall between the rate set by supermarket cartels and the cost of production.