As I grow older, I find myself growing increasingly unimpressed by supermarkets. However, unlike many people of advancing years I do not find myself looking back with misty-eyed nostalgia to some golden age which existed in my youth.
When I was first brought forth up this world, supermarkets barely existed in this country. Even as a young lad, they were much more modest than today’s behemoths – so far as I can recall, my local examples were of a similar scale to today’s MiniMe “local” supermarkets. Then again, I was also much smaller so perhaps I am over-estimating their size. Even in those far-off days, I had an interest. As a boy, I remember regularly visiting the supermarkets in my North Kent home town and recording the prices for a range of staples (flour, eggs, sugar etc) in the various supermarkets in a little notebook. These supermarkets had names now long forgotten: David Greig, International and Keymarkets to name but three. I don’t remember actually doing anything with the comparative price information I collected, but it is interesting to note I was a good 30 years ahead of my time. Long before the internet and price comparison websites (variously helmed by meerkats, opera singers and robots) a small boy in North Kent was out there preparing the ground.
The range of goods in those “early” supermarkets was very limited compared, many things which would now be considered staples had never been dreamt of in my youth (in my family at least). Today’s supermarkets pride themselves on the huge “choice” they offer their customers, but this so-disant choice only stands up to rather limited analysis. Living near the city centre, there are three MiniMe supermarkets within a five minute walk of my flat – but even considered together they have a poorer selection of fruit, veg, meat or cheese than I could find in the village of Sawston between Mary’s (greengrocer) and Searle’s (butchers). They can’t even get close to competing with the village Budgens – which is not quite the damning indictment it might seem, but is still rather unimpressive. All three offer a very similar “choice”, clearly more interested in competing with each other than serving the customer.
Moving to larger supermarkets does increase the range of good on offer, but still leaves a rather impoverished choice. I tend to use Waitrose as the nearest, cycle-friendly (ish) larger offering – though it is one of Southampton’s smaller large supermarkets. This seems to offer a broader range of goods than the larger more mainstream chains, but even this stores uses shelf-space to sell saucepans and books (to give but two examples) and tries to be a garden centre in the summer. This move away from “sticking to their knitting” (food and the other basics of the weekly shop) is even stronger in the big four – and even in upstart Aldi, more than half the store is given over to random tat. All supermarkets seem to believe that offering cheddar produced in multiple countries is a range of cheeses and seem to believe that stocking seasonal fruit or vegetables grown nearby is to be avoided at (nearly) all costs.
Recently I tried Sainsbury’s, which is only a little further away than Waitrose and is many times larger. If anything, it seems to sell a narrower range of “weekly shop” goods – though there may be a wider range of brands on offer and a lot more examples of each product (neither of which seems much of an advantage to me). The sheer number of ready-meals – showcasing sugar, fat and the fruits of the biochemist’s art – were certainly far more numerous while, for example, the range of frozen fruit was much more limited even than in Waitrose (Sawston Budgens could put them all to shame – where the frozen fruit was even locally grown!).
So, I have been seeking alternatives – being a city, Southampton seems to lack greengrocers or butchers though they may exist somewhere in the suburbs, so it has taken me a while. Rice Up (as previously mentioned) is slowly displacing the supermarkets in some areas – whilst it offers a much narrower selection of fruit and veg, these tend to be more local and from a much broader range. There I have been able to buy purple(!) carrots, fresh turmeric, kohlrabi and other things never seen in the supermarkets. There is no sign of a baby anything! However, there is a degree of lucky dip as to what they will have available on a given day. They are also reasonably good on dry goods, but are very vegan – so no diary or eggs. Generally, they are very price competitive – though I am used to Waitrose which may make that easier.
In a very welcome development, a new shop called Nutrilife has just opened around the corner from me. This is somewhat health-food based, but isn’t vegan, and so has now provided me with a source of local eggs and cheese: I can thoroughly recommend Winchester Mature. Jack – the owner and all of the staff (even more impressive when I tell you it is open for 14 hours a day) – will also order stuff for you. So, I can finally obtain Sharpham Park pearled spelt without going to London. I can also displace a lot more of my supermarket purchasing – as long as I can order a couple of days in advance – and pick it up a mere 3 minute walk away (and at a price which is no higher!). Nutrilife is still a work-in-progress, so it should become even better and a more vital part of my food shop in the months to come.
It would seem to be suprisingly easy (if you are willing to work full-time in a very real sense) to outcompete the vast commercial empires that are our supermarkets. I feel that there is (or should be) a message of hope in my ramblings for all corner and local shops. I believe that while this post has been in “preparation”, there has even been a TV programme (which I missed) suggesting that I am not alone in being disaffected from the supermarkets. Can I dream of a local greengrocer and butcher returning in the months to come?