In praise of supermarkets

Russell McCarthy

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Topics Politics

When it was announced that the UK’s major supermarket chains, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, had slashed their profit forecasts for the year, there was little mystery as to why. The rapid expansion of German discount companies Aldi and Lidl has been eating away at the profits of the two more established chains, with more than half of UK households in the UK now shopping at either Aldi or Lidl. Lidl’s sales soared 18.3 per cent in the 12 weeks up to 17 August, while Aldi’s sales rose by an extraordinary 29.5 per cent in the same period.

But this explanation hasn’t satisfied everyone. In the Guardian, columnist Deborah Orr argued that, post-recession, people are doing smaller shops more regularly – opting to go to farmers’ markets where they experience ‘more enjoyment, more connection’ than they would during ‘a joyless hour in a big-box store’. And, while she admits this method of food shopping is not cheap, she claims it provides good value because it doubles as a leisure activity.

While the popularity of farmers’ markets is a relatively new phenomenon, it is unlikely that they are making anywhere near as big a dent in the large retailers’ profits as the rise of the German discount stores. While farmers’ markets are enjoyed by some, the fact that people are increasingly being enticed into the austere surroundings of Aldi and Lidl tells us that the weekly shop is a less important part of people’s lives than ever before. When it comes to groceries, people want three things: quality, value and convenience. All other considerations are secondary.

In generations gone by, before the ubiquity of refrigeration and food preservatives, people were forced to go shopping every day – visiting half-a-dozen different shops to get what they needed for a single family meal. What Orr calls a ‘joyless hour’ was, not so long ago, a joyless 10 hours each week. The arrival of supermarkets in the Fifties and Sixties was revolutionary. For the first time in history, ordinary people had access to an array of exotic foods from around the world, never before available under one roof. And, what’s more, it was affordable; large chains were able to buy mass-produced food in such bulk that food producers were lining up to offer them the lowest prices possible.

While Orr is entitled to enjoy a few hours at a farmers’ market on the weekend, the fact that, today, buying food can even be enjoyed as a leisure pursuit, rather than a daily chore, is because of the great benefits supermarkets have brought with them.

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Topics Politics

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