Thursday, 6 November 2014

Wishful thinking on the demise of supermarkets

Should I give up Asda, 5 minutes walk away, and drive a 10 mile round trip
to get to a butchers, greengrocers etc?
I have a bit of a history with 'natural food' journalist Joanna Blythman. Don't get me wrong, I've never met her, and we've never argued, but I have often mentioned a quote from her in her days at the Soil Association when she came out with a statement that managed to be both an understatement and an unnecessary scare. Writing in the Guardian, she remarked:
You can switch to organic... Or you could just accept that every third mouthful of food you eat contains poison. Are you up for that?
The understatement is because practically every mouthful you eat contains poison, whether you buy organic or not. Food contain poisons both natural and artificial. Usually far more are natural - typically around a factor of 1,000. And the unnecessary scare is because the fact is that the levels of pesticide residues on non-organic food are sufficiently low that they provide far less risk than that from the food itself - and that risk is (for uncontaminated food) is minimal with almost everything except that ubiquitous poison alcohol. The key to understanding poisons is that it's the dose that matters. However, I should move on, as this isn't the topic of this post.

In her recent article in the Observer, Ms Blythman celebrated the demise of the supermarkets. I don't disagree with her assessment of some of the issues faced by the big supermarkets, but I think she is indulging in pure wishful thinking if she thinks that in a few years they will have disappeared and we will all be good Stepford Wives/Husbands, spending the entire day trolling from butchers to greengrocers to half a dozen other shops in order to have the tea on the table when our partners come home.

Yes, it's true that we are tending to shop more frequently in small quantities, rather than a single big weekly shop, but most of us don't live in a fashionable London suburb, or a quaint market town, that still has its neat row of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers all ready for us to pop in with our hessian baskets akimbo. For good green reasons I do most of my food shopping on foot - and that means shopping at an Asda superstore or a Tesco convenience store. The Asda (pictured above) is closer and has much more range - and is very friendly and has some good pricing - so that's where I go.

About once a week we do a bigger shop, though no longer the traditional 'shopping for the week' and for that we go to Waitrose. It's a new building, well-designed with great facilities in which to sip your free latte (or whatever). It is actually the most enjoyable supermarket I've ever used. Unlike the butchers, I don't have to stand in a queue - in fact not even to check out, as Waitrose have the natty check-yourself-as-you-go system.

Of course it's a dangerous trap to assume the rest of the country is like you. (Could Ms B be doing this?) Lots of people have a day job that makes it less easy to pop to the shop than mine does - and many of them will pick up food shopping in whatever they pass on the way to the bus or the station. They don't want to spend an hour browsing round six different shops, they want to quickly pick something up and get home.

So by all means enjoy the decline of the big supermarkets. They were, indeed responsible for the kind of misleading selling that Ms Btythman mentions. But it would be wrong to assume that this means that they are going to disappear - they will change and survive - or that most people will go back to toddling round a whole range of food shops on a daily basis. It's not going to happen. It will remain a self-indulgent luxury for those who have the money to live in the right places and the time to do it.

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