Cultural shifts in attitude have a habit of creeping up on us gently and spinning us around in the opposite direction. In less than a decade our attitudes to the environment, smoking in public places, and same sex marriage have shifted dramatically so we have reached a kind of public consensus, as if we had always held these views.
Exactly the same can be said of the supermarkets. Not very long ago we used them as regularly as our washing machines, but something has changed. The tide is turning.
Every morning we wake up to yet another juicy slice of bad news for the big supermarket brands. They are bleeding customers and, it appears, are unclear why.
The big, hairy Goliaths are losing their grip slowly but surely every week. And what a grip it was. They thought the world was theirs forever and suddenly it seems it’s not. They are currently in a state of panic, making desperate daily announcements, promising to be good in the future. So what happened?
The weekly mega-shop became a routine for billions of western families. Every weekend, right across the planet well meaning parents would pile their kids into the car and head to the seedier edge of town where sixty thousand square feet of hell awaited them. If the kids were lucky there might be some sort of play area for them; probably a grimacing fibreglass menagerie of sorts, or a ball park where children could learn to drown each other in ping-pong balls.
For any normal, reasonably well balanced child this weekend nightmare was even worse than church! At least church was spookily weird and didn’t last very long. The supermarket shop seemed to have no natural end. Once the trolleys were full there was always some pharmacy shopping to do or a dry cleaner to visit.
It wasn’t exactly fun for us either. There was no restaurant as we know it, not if you were a semi intelligent biped. The eating area was usually a school canteen type of affair where screaming kids had been replaced by slavering octogenarians, endlessly masticating their two dollar fry ups. It was all about price back then. You could fill your belly for a couple of dollars (pounds or euros) and then save money on the weekly provisions. The meat was a tad tough, sure, but it was half the price of the local butcher. Every little helps, why pay more? saving you money everyday, live well for less. We were so grateful!
That’s why we drove twelve miles to get there: so we could save ten cents on a can of beans. The journey paid for itself, sort of, but we never actually worked it out. It’s just what everyone did, so it made sense. Every family had its preferred supermarket and your choice announced to the world exactly how poor or posh you were. That way, the supermarkets became a rich source of school bullying too.
Sometimes we’d sneakily snack in the aisles and hand the kids treats to stop them moaning. We’d guiltily present the empty wrappers at the checkout though, to prove that we may be greedy, but at least we were honest. We certainly weren’t going to use the restaurant: that was obviously for the poor and downtrodden. Occasionally we’d daydream that one day they’d have a bar like in some of those big Spanish supermarkets, but it never happened of course. Probably some health & safety law that prevents serving alcohol in a place we drive to. Nothing like a pub, of course.
For a good long decade we’d carry a fistful of loyalty cards in our wallets like top trumps, as if we were outwitting them somehow. Mustn’t put all your eggs in one wire basket, we thought to ourselves. They would send us statements every so often, on a kind of invoice looking thing, that showed we’d accumulated over four hundred thousand loyalty points and were now entitled to ten percent off Rice Krispies. Oh the excitement!
This, of course, was part of a massive programme by all the major supermarkets. It would, culminate in the term ‘big data’. They had files on every one of us and we imagined that somewhere deep inside head office there was a room filled with James Bond style computers, where six foot diameter spools whirred gently and made pleasant bleeping sounds. They knew everything about us: where we lived (of course) our ages, whether we preferred custard creams to garibaldi, how much we spent at Christmas and how many times a year we went on holiday. Then, every so often, an alarm would go off and the giant computer would spit out a length of ticker-tape: a voucher especially for us! It was usually something uplifting and glamorous like a discount on bulk dog food. For years we wished we’d had a dog so that we could cash in on all this generosity.
Then, after the 2008 crash, the GFC, the apocalypse as I call it, we began to question things. We started to realise that we were spending more on fuel getting there than we could ever save on groceries. We also began to notice how much we were throwing away. Those big bags of salad were like soggy underpants by the time we’d pulled up to the house and all the well intentioned, shiny fruit and veg (the stuff that makes us look like good parents as we push our trolleys around) that too mostly ended up in the bin. The oversized flagon of milk had always turned to yoghurt by the middle of the week and we’d have to venture to the petrol station to top up anyway. Curiously, we always had to eat the jumbo pack of fresh cream eclairs in one sitting, lest they passed their sell by date. This was no way to eat, no way to live, in fact. The kids were miserable, obese of course, and to be honest, when we went food shopping and fought over what we each wanted, we ended up hating our own family as much as the dead eyed neighbours we’d pass in the aisles.
It was about this time that we rediscovered our local deli and butcher where we would top up the mega shop as the weekend loomed. We found that it made sense to buy fresh meat each day, instead of having to tentatively sniff the poly-tray and meat tampon. We actually enjoyed choosing our protein each night and it felt good to be investing in local stores, in our own community. We shook things up a bit with a takeaway on a Thursday.
Everyone was happy with that, and we were spending less money and throwing much less away. Then we got really smart. We ordered the big, bulky, boring things online to be delivered once a fortnight: the toilet rolls and cleaning stuff, basically. They were even cheaper than at the supermarket and it saved us lugging it all home. This was when we realised we didn’t need the supermarkets as much anymore.
On top of this, we found out some of the things they were up to, like using horsemeat instead of beef. We also watched videos on the internet showing how they keep chickens and how they make that processed ham we put in the kids’ pack lunches. Yuck! Then we learned how they bully their suppliers into selling things less than it costs to produce! Well that can’t be right, not in anybody’s book. Oh yes, and some of them were fiddling the books too, making out they were doing better than they were. If we did that they’d send us to prison.
We never liked them that much in the first place but now we’re starting to hate them.
Supermarkets must now choose what they want to be: nice or nasty, basically. Do they invest in their stores to make them appealing? (with proper restaurants serving freshly cooked healthy food, together with an engaging events calendar) or do they go nasty and strip out any niceties to compete with the discounters who consider even shelves to be luxury furniture?
They may be dying but they ain’t dead yet. They still have time to change if they really want to but it will need a massive cultural shift and tankers rarely move like speedboats. In fairness, one or two are already showing signs of adapting, promising us better looking stores with decent restaurants and ethical business practices. Who knows, we may even get to like them again.
In the meantime, we are quite enjoying ourselves, using the corner shop and getting to know the fat, flirtatious butcher. (We never really chatted to the supermarket butcher, but then again, he is about sixteen). We’ve learned that stores are exactly what they say they are: giant warehouses where things are neatly stored. They’re not really for us. We now know we want our shops to be engaging, friendly places where they actually really remember us and don’t just pretend. We’ve learned to like food shopping again and we love it when a shop, or a brand, asks us to sample something or wants feedback on a new range. It’s like they actually value our opinion! And we love just popping in to say hello and find out what’s new.
I guess it’s a funny, old fashioned thing called community.