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Lost In The Supermarket

February 28, 2010


Supermarkets are a necessary evil.

Sure, we’d all like to spend our Saturdays wandering around posh farmers markets lovingly selecting our ethically grown cauliflowers and free range turnips, but for most people, that’s just not realistic.

We don’t have a lot of time. We don’t have a lot of money. The choice of independent shops within walking distance of our home is limited to a post office that closes at noon, a poorly stocked Costcutter and a smelly key cutting place that most people are afraid to enter. Ergo, we use the supermarkets.  Needs must and all that.

Nevertheless, in the past few years, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with my reliance on The Big Four (you know who they are). It’s not that I’m exactly against big business on principal – most of those supermarket chains began with a single shop, run by a single enterprising person, and grew from there – being successful, whilst it might be annoying, is not a crime.

Still, the more I think about it, the more sinister the supermarket’s control over our shopping habits seems.

Tesco is more powerful than the government. If they really do take one in every £3 spent in the UK, then that’s more than most of us pay in taxes. The ubiquitous loyalty card scheme is basically one huge voluntary ID card system. You pass over details not only about your name, family, address and bank accounts, – but also about what kind of sanitary protection you favour, and whether you’re regularly using contraception. I probably wouldn’t discuss those kinds of matters with most of my friends, yet I have, by using a loyalty card, willingly volunteered this information to total strangers, in return for the measly bribe of a couple of quid off my groceries.  I must be insane.

When supermarkets form contracts with suppliers, it is the supermarket that decides how much (or how little) they will pay for their goods. Negotiation just isn’t something that happens here – you accept the paltry deal offered or there’s no deal. The fact that farmers in the UK are denied the right to negotiate a fair price for their produce – actually makes me quite angry.

Consider that some of us also bank with the supermarkets, buy insurance from the supermarkets, buy furniture and electrical appliances from the supermarkets, have phone and broadband deals with supermarkets – is it not a little bit crazy that a single institution can completely control so many aspects of our lives? We, quite rightly, tend to complain when we feel that the government is poking its nose in and attempting to take control of our leisure time, but we are quite happy to pay a private business to do the same.

 I also detest the whole experience of supermarket shopping. Aisle after dreary aisle, pushing a trolley around like an over-domesticated zombie; not speaking to anyone; feeling irate when some poor old biddy manages to grab the last pack of discount cheddar before I do;  horrible fluorescent lighting and wild temperature fluctuations between the chilled section and the bakery; queuing at the checkout; surly checkout operators who expect me to answer riddles three before they’ll allow me to have a carrier bag, because they’re supposed to be helping the environment, despite the fact that my fair-trade bananas already come in a completely unnecessary shrinkwrap. The supermarket may be cheap and convenient, but it’s also depressing as hell.

But is it possible to do a normal grocery shop without resorting to Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, or Sainsburys? I wasn’t convinced, but so sick of the weekly/ monthly trolley-slog that I was prepared to conduct an experiment.

Vegetables I was pretty confident about. I’ve moved around the country a lot, and whenever I’ve been lucky enough to live near to a greengrocer or market – I’ve used it (I also recently gained the use of a garden, a greenhouse, and ambitions to grow my own – more of this some other time). There are very few advantages to buying fruit and veg from the supermarket. Supermarket veg is over-priced, over-packaged – and often not terribly fresh. Greengrocer veg is usually sourced more locally, delivered regularly in small quantities and selected personally by the shop owner or his staff. Therefore it tends to last longer, and the lack of overheads means it’s often cheaper too. You might not get quite as wide a choice as you do at the larger shops, but if it forces you to get creative with what’s available, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It was the non-veg part of the shop that concerned me. I buy a lot of carbs – rice, pasta, cous cous, and a lot of tinned pulses. There’s also the quirky things I like – like herbal and fruit teas – would I be able to find the stuff I like, and, if I did, would it cost me a fortune?

I normally spend between £30-40 on my monthly shop (I top up perishables between times) – so I set myself the task of spending no more than £40 to stock up on all my usual staples using “proper shops” (i.e. independents) rather than supermarkets and chain stores. This is based on a single, vegetarian adult, starting with relatively little left in the cupboard from last month.  All prices round up to nearest £1.

For those of you who know Cardiff, my journey took me down to the City Road/ Albany Road/ Whitchurch Road area.  This area is a good place for  a no-chains shopping trip, as, unlike the city centre, it’s a real hotbed of independent traders.( You might also try Clifton Street in Adamsdown, where there are a couple of nice little shops and cafes). These are the places I visited:

Indian grocers – (also known as “ethnic shops”, a term I detest).  If you want herbs and spices, go to an Indian shop. A huge bag of chilli flakes will cost you about 80p – you’ll pay that for a tiny crappy jar in Sainsburys. I picked up a nice big bag of broken cashew nut pieces for a couple of quid too. You can also buy rice, flours, pulses, oils and various other ingredients. The one I went in has a small meat and fish counter at the back, if you like that kind of thing. Spend: £3.

Wholefood shop – I have to give them a free ad.

This is the cheapest most unpretentious wholefood shop I know. It’s just off Albany Road, next to the secondhand record place (which is also worth a browse). The stuff is sold in big polythene bags stacked on shelves or in boxes on the floor. The selection is huge, you can buy in bulk, and the staff are really friendly – (and often singing!). I was able to pick up a 2.5 kilo bag of brown rice, some wholemeal cous cous, a few tins of chickpeas, a nice big bag of wholemeal bread flour, and some olive oil. The oil was a little more than it might have cost at the supermarket, but not scarily so, and it did have that reassuringly cloudy look which suggested a more natural state! Everything else was roughly on a par with what I would have paid in Tesco or Morrisons. And most of it was organic (I have mixed feelings on organic produce – I like the idea, but I’m not rich enough to pay a premium for it). Spend: £16

Grotty pound shop – you gotta love ‘em. Washing Up sponges here £1 for huge pack. Spend: £1

Greengrocers – familiar territory  – it’s noticeable that the cheapest stuff is all labelled “Welsh” or “English” – it’s cheaper because it hasn’t travelled as far, therefore cheaper = fresher.  I was particularly impressed to get a big bag of dirty potatoes for 50p (always buy dirty potatoes, for some reason they last longer). Also picked up free range eggs. Spend: £7

Corner shop – Where else would you buy your milk? Spend: £1

Co-op: Yes, unfortunately I had to cave in a little due to my reluctance to pay a 300% mark-up on pasta and tea. I like to eat wholegrain pasta (ever since reading an article as an acne-plagued teenager about white flour being bad for the skin, I’ve tried to avoid it) – and whilst some of the places I visited during the day did stock it – it would have cost me nearly £2. Bollocks to that – principles or no principles. At Co-op it was a far more respectable 70p a bag (even their posh stuff didn’t cost £2!), same story with tea. I also picked up some yeast (which I just plain forgot to look for earlier in the day), and some brazil nuts off the clearance shelf. I don’t feel too bad about the Co-op – they are, at least, a pretty ethical company, and their own brand produce is all fair-trade – something for which I do think it’s worth spending a few extra pennies . Spend: £5

Total spend: £32

So how did it compare?

Well, surprisingly, cost-wise, there was actually very little difference. In fact I think I got slightly more for my money from shopping at “proper shops”, both in terms of amounts of produce, and the general quality. 

From a time point of view, theoretically – not so great. The whole thing took me the best part of a Saturday afternoon ( I did have a break for coffee and cake at Coffee #1), whereas a trip to Morrisons down the road would be completed in little over an hour. But, y’know, I really didn’t care. Going to Morrisons is a chore, and I’m glad to get it over with – but this I quite enjoyed. It was a bit of an adventure – I enjoyed the variety, exploring all the different and surprising things various shops sell, the human interaction with the shop workers (for some reason people in small shops are always more cheerful than people who work in big ones) – it was a nice day out.

My major gripe with the whole thing was the accessibility – or lack of same. Walking the two miles to the shops was fine – carting everything back again, less so. I don’t have a car ( though my boyfriend often kindly loans his chauffeur services)  but there’s a bus that will take me from virtually my front door, to any of Cardiff’s supermarkets. And while I’m there, I get a trolley, to carry my purchases from one section to another. As with most UK shopping streets, Albany Road isn’t quite so simple. It’s a nightmare to park down there – so taking a car would be out of the question even if I had one. There are buses, but they’re irregular, and unlike the supermarket services – they don’t take me door to door, and they don’t help me carry bags of stuff in between the various shops I need to visit. Now, I’m relatively young, I’m fairly fit and healthy and I don’t have kids – I’m kind of willing to deal with the pain-in-the-arse factor once a month or so. But if I was eighty-five, in a wheelchair, or had two young children in tow – I’m not sure I’d be feeling quite so positive right now.

One thing that would really help smaller businesses to compete with the likes of Tesco and Asda, is making them more accessible. Better public transport and non-permit-based parking would be a good start. Supermarkets can afford to provide huge car parks and free bus services – it’s one of the things that makes them so “convenient”.

Never underestimate the power of free parking.

Smaller shops just don’t have the resources to do the same – so they lose out. I don’t know what the answer to this is. The Albany Road traders could club together and raise enough money to build a small car park – but where on earth would they put it? The council could help by changing the parking regulations – but I can see the local residents having a few objections. Free or subsidised public transport might be more realistic (and maybe I ought to find out who to write to with this suggestion!), but to be honest, I’m not convinced that making buses free will mean more people will use them. We love our cars – we love the convenience, the independence, the comfort – buses are a poor man’s way to travel.

I’m not certain whether anything can realistically be done to loosen the supermarkets’ ironclad grip on the country’s wallets – and I’m sure, despite my best intentions, that Tesco haven’t seen the last of me. But I do think that independent shops are an important part of our culture, and that shopping in them transforms grocery shopping from a dreary chore into a pleasant day out. I recommend it.

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