Why I don’t buy this ‘People’s Supermarket’
Channel 4’s latest one-man mission to change consumer habits has little to do with the interests of The People.
Last summer, I was stood outside a pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street, a pretty, mostly pedestrianised, street about a mile east of London’s West End. Cigarette in one hand and pint in the other, I noticed a new shop, The People’s Supermarket. ‘Looks rubbish’, said a friend. ‘There’s hardly anything on the shelves.’
But this is far from a throwback to Stalinist Russia, as became clear with The People’s Supermarket, a new Channel 4 series following the fortunes of the store that aims to provide a new model for food shopping in Britain. The store’s founder, Arthur Potts Dawson, has form for this kind of thing, being the brains behind a number of ‘ethical restaurants’, most famously Acorn House near King’s Cross. (My one experience of dining at Acorn House suggests that eating there could not only lighten your wallet, but also reduce your waist size, given the less-than-generous portions.)
Potts Dawson wants to break the stranglehold of the big UK supermarkets, which he believes are too powerful, too wasteful and too tightfisted with the nation’s farmers. Instead, he wants supermarkets to be owned by local communities, with the aim of supporting other small businesses and environmental concerns.
It’s certainly true that the big supermarkets have created an oligopoly between them. At the end of 2009, for example, the big five chains controlled over 80 per cent of the food market: Tesco (30.7 per cent); Asda (17.3 per cent); Sainsbury’s (15.9 per cent); Morrison’s (11.7 per cent); and Co-operative (7.9 per cent). Independent stores accounted for just 2.2 per cent of food sales. For the big boys, that means bumper profits. But is that kind of market dominance healthy for the rest of us?
Potts Dawson clearly thinks not. In the first episode of The People’s Supermarket, he visits a dairy farmer who is selling up his herd, unable to make any profit on producing milk. Via the middlemen he deals with, he has only been able to sell milk at 15 pence per litre, yet it costs more like 29 pence per litre to produce. Both farmer and would-be shopkeeper blame the supermarkets. As it happens, the reality is more complicated: supermarkets often pay a higher price than the market rate to ensure reliability of supply. What’s really happening is that small farms are suffering as much from competition from big farms and foreign producers as the buying policies of the big UK chains. But that doesn’t fit the current, fashionable bash-the-supermarkets narrative.
Potts Dawson also shows us the wasteful side of the supermarkets. Every day, the big chains throw away about 1,000 tons of food, we’re told, much of it perfectly edible but past its sell-by or use-by dates. Potts Dawson, by contrast, composts his waste food at Acorn House to grow more food and aims to throw away as little as possible at his new shop. To make his point about how The People’s Supermarket will be different, he raids the supermarket bins of London to grab the ingredients he needs for a £150-per-head fundraising dinner.
Yes, supermarkets do throw out a lot of food, but a little perspective is required. That 1,000 tons per day amounts to 16 grams – about half an ounce – per head of population (a reasonable comparison, given that most of our food is bought in the supermarkets). Small shops are often much worse in the proportion of food they throw away. Sure, the UK could be more efficient in its use of food, but the problem lies as much in the absurd, health-panic inspired system of sell-by dates as with wasteful stores.
Above all, however, Potts Dawson knows that his supermarket will be judged on price. He pays a visit to the Park Slope Food Co-op in a well-to-do area of Brooklyn, New York. There, members work one ‘workslot’ of about three hours every four weeks in exchange for a discount on their groceries. Potts Dawson suggests the food is substantially cheaper there, though he doesn’t mention that members must also pay a joining fee ($25) and make a returnable investment of $100 in the co-op up front. While Potts Dawson is filled with evangelical zeal after visiting the store, other people’s experiences are more mixed: some people seem to love it, others regard working for free in exchange for cheaper food as a chore.
The People’s Supermarket aims to follow the same model as Park Slope. Members fork out a joining fee of £25, then agree to work for free once a month in exchange for a discount. However, Potts Dawson gets a mixed response: some of the locals are delighted by the idea, while others are much more sceptical, arguing that if the shop isn’t as cheap as Tesco, then what’s the point?
These Channel 4 ethical crusade shows – from Jamie’s School Dinners onwards – have become as formulaic and predictable as a microwave ready meal: a man on a mission struggling to convince people to support him, but who in the end wins them over and it’s all a Great Success. Whether The People’s Supermarket pans out that way, we’ll have to wait and see. However, in keeping with the stock formula, some of the initial reactions when Potts Dawson opens his store are pretty dismissive. The hard-nosed middle-aged women point out item after item that is not just more expensive than Tesco, but even more expensive than the local corner shops. For all that local residents would like Potts Dawson to succeed, because they like the idea of an alternative in principle, in practice people have limited budgets and are unwilling to blow their money propping up one man’s community-bonding scheme.
What’s really bizarre is the idea that the supermarkets are a huge problem for society. Big corporations will always ultimately be more interested in the bottom line than the best interests of shoppers, workers or suppliers. But the major supermarket chains have been, on balance, a major benefit for society, making available a wide range of good-quality food at prices that are low by historical standards.
You also get a choice of where you shop to suit your pocket, from the cheap-as-chips chains like Aldi, Lidl, Netto and Asda, through to the mid-range stores like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, to the posh nosh of Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. And if you want something different, there are farmers’ markets springing up left, right and centre to cater to that need, too. All of this comes with the convenience of being able to shop just once a week, or the stores can deliver the lot to you for a small fee.
The only people who seem to be bitching about the supermarkets are those who fantasise about the good old days when we (ie, housewives) used to walk from the butcher and the baker to the candlestick maker to enjoy the privilege of queuing up for hours to pay high prices for a limited selection of foods.
The chief irony with the store, and the show, is in the name. This isn’t the People’s Supermarket at all. This is a pet project set up by a well-known chef and his consultant chum with the support of a Channel 4 production team. How many projects can get their seed money from £150-per-head fundraisers?
The People’s Supermarket illustrates very well the narrowed ambitions of politics today. Once, the idea was that The People would take over society; now all we’ve got is a wacky scheme to take over the local shop. At The People’s Supermarket, it’s not the out-of-date fruit and veg that’s going to waste, but the time, energy and idealism of people who could be doing something more useful instead.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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