Those dark Satanic supermarkets

The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced (and it is probably less likely to contain salmonella). You can buy a fresh, frozen, tinned, smoked or pre-prepared meal made with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish, prawns, scallops, eggs, potatoes, beans, carrots, cabbage, aubergine, kumquats, celeriac, okra, seven kinds of lettuce, cooked in olive, walnut, sunflower or peanut oil and flavoured with cilantro, turmeric, basil or rosemaryMatt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

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Retailing has evolved dramatically over the last 100 or so years. At the turn of the century products would generally be fetched by an assistant from shelves behind a counter, while customers waited in front of the counter and indicated the items they wanted. This was time-consuming, labour intensive and expensive. But, cars, fridges and freezers transformed. the economics of the grocery industry, enabling greater economies of scale for both customers and supermarkets. Shoppers were now able to buy far more groceries at one time than they could have carried home in their arms from their neighbourhood shop. Fridges and freezers now made it possible to stock up on perishable items like meat, fish and dairy products. Customers thus made fewer trips to grocery stores, with larger purchases each time. Cheap land in the suburbs allowed supermarkets to build larger and larger retail areas.

Supermarkets would emerge gradually. In 1916 American entrepreneur Clarence Saunders created the concept of a self-service grocery store with his Piggly Wiggly stores. However these stores did not sell fresh meats or produce. There is some debate about the first supermarket. I will go along with the Smithsonian Institution. They recognise King Kullen, which was opened by Michael Cullen, inNew Yorkin 1930. The chain, which began when Cullen leased a vacant garage inQueens, is still around today and ownership remains in the Cullen family.

Now supermarkets dominate retailing and have become vast emporiums stocking food, but many other things too – cosmetics, furniture electrical appliances and books to name but a few. However the rise of the modern supermarket has not been greeted with universal acceptance. Indeed they have been subject to opprobrium from both the left and the right. Excessive choice’ is seen to be corrupting In the 1960s Herbert Marcuse ingeniously inverted Marx’s theory of the ‘immiseration of the proletariat’. Marcuse argued that capitalism was forcing the working class to consume excessively. The real evil of capitalism is prosperity, which seduces workers away from their historic mission—the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, by supplying them with “tools of enslavement” such as cars and household appliances. And more recently Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor, claimed that consumers were overwhelmed with relatively trivial choices.

The right also disliked large stores. For the Nazis the enemy was the department store. This fitted in perfectly with their anti-Jewish agenda. One of their favourite targets was Woolworth’s. A Nazi pamphlet handed out to the people of Hanoverin April 1932 attacked the system which enabled “the gigantic concern Woolworth (America), supported by finance capital, to build a new vampire business in the centre of the city.” The Nazis frequently led boycotts against department stores. And once in power they imposed restrictions on the building of new department shops and retail chains. In May 1933 Hitler’s government passed a Law for the Protection of Individual Trade, which restricted the services and types of products that department shops could sell. Later in the same year department and chain stores were prohibited from offering a discount of more than three per cent on prices.

Now we are going to fast forward 80 years. Last year in Stokes Croft, a bohemian area ofBristolteeming with independent shops, squats, bars and clubs, rioters destroyed a Tesco Express. This action was immortalised by Banksy. This commemorative souvenir poster went on sale atBristol’s Anarchist Book for £5.00, with all proceeds going to the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft and associates.

Tesco plc is a British multinational grocery and general merchandise retailer, which  according to Wikipedia is the third-largest retailer in the world measured by revenues (after Wal-Mart and Carrefour) and the second-largest measured by profits (after Wal-Mart). If we are to believes its critics, in a few years theUnited Kingdomwill be renamed Tescoland. Why does such a successful British company inspire such hatred?

I was reminded of these themes by an article I read in the Observer a few weeks back: Who’s the thief here, Tesco?  It was a classic example of the economic illiteracy that is not uncommon on the comment pages of this publication and its sister paper, the Guardian. The article was written by Carole Cadwalladr. It was written after the arrest of celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson for pilfering cheese, wine, onions and coleslaw from a Tesco superstore in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. The Sun of course couldn’t resist sticking the offset serrated knife in with a page of jokes about the hapless chef:

Antony Worrall Thompson stole some cheddar? How dairy!

I went to see Ready Steady Cook the other day. It was fantastic. Antony Worrall Thompson absolutely stole the show.

Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was stuffed up Worrall Thompson’s jacket.

Antony Worrall Thompson has been caught shoplifting milk, yeast and flour from his local Tesco. He’s clearly run out of dough.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Unless you’re using the Worrall Thompson recipe book.

Antony Worrall Thompson stole some cheese and wine. And that was only for starters.

Wozza was caught stealing cheese from Tesco. He should have done it more Caerphilly.

Asked how he feels about stealing cheese, Antony Worrall Thompson admits it wasn’t very mature.

Anyway let’s get back to Ms Cadwalldr’s article. It has a rather a dubious premise: although Worrall Thompson was wrong, Tesco deserved it because they should employ more staff. She was particularly vexed by self-scanning, which has become prevalent in many countries. Actually I am against this system, which I hardly ever use. My take is simple: why would I work for the retailer, scanning and bagging items for free?  It reminds me of those restaurants where they bring the steak to your table for you to cook it on a stone. Perhaps I should wash the dishes as well! I might as well bring my own Fairy washing-up liquid.

Cadwalladr’s objection is different. She condemns self-scanning for its destruction of jobs. Therefore I imagine for her self-service stores must be a no-no. I hope she also refuses to take lifts that don’t have operators. And he surely won’t use digital cameras as they have destroyed all those jobs in laboratories that used to develop films. As one wag put it in the comments section:

Why not print The Guardian on old-fashioned printing presses? How many jobs would that create? It would also bankrupt it by making the cover price prohibitively expensive. What’s not to like?

She doesn’t exactly cover herself in glory with her economic analysis:

Or buying a cup of tea at a motorway service station. (Unit price, what? Maybe 2p? Sale price? £2.75. I’m a rubbish capitalist and can’t do the sums but isn’t that something like about 20,000% profit?)

She seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that you need to pay rent. You need staff to serve it. And what about the insurance, the electricity, the furnishings and everything else you need to be successful.  But maybe Cadwalladr ought to give up the day job as it’s obviously so easy to run a business.

I am not her to defend the retail chain, but I am not convinced by the arguments we hear the Tescophobes. Here are typical ones:

No one wants them hereWe hear people saying that the local community are really against it. If that is the case, then they should be delighted because Tesco are going to lose a lot of money if nobody shops there. Of course the reality is that there is probably a lot of demand.

Their food is awful. If the food is so bad, nobody will go there.

They are out to create a monopoly. Apparently they are an evil empire bent on destroying all competition. I don’t know what Tesco’s long term strategy is. But I always suspicious about charges of monopoly against firms who have been consistently cutting prices. There are campaigners claim that they don’t like monopolies, but want to stop a new shop opening up to compete with another one. I don’t get it.

Supermarkets are not run by saints. They are run on the basis that they will make a profit. If you don’t like the ethos of a supermarket, don’t shop there. And I’m sure supermarkets will also be responsive to consumer pressure, because if not they will see their bottom line affected. But don’t try to impose your preferences on others. I think that the retail market should be big enough to accommodate both large and small retailers. Small shops which offer convenience, expertise or something different will still have a niche.

I go to my local Día supermarket, because it’s a two-minute walk from my flat. And of course it’s cheap. If I earned more, I would probably go somewhere else. Día is the world’s third-biggest hard-discount group behind German retailers Aldi and Lidl. I know that the idea of cheap food is not fashionable these days but I salute these champions of cheap food. Cadwalladr attacks Tesco: “Making money out of poor people is what we call “business”.“ I beg to differ.

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2 Responses to Those dark Satanic supermarkets

  1. Fraser Allen says:

    Very interesting and intelligent article. Slagging off supermarkets has become such a lazy temptation for social commentators. They all shop there though. One small observation. There is a little grocery shop near my office and a small Sainsbury’s. I go to the Sainsbury’s – not because it’s cheaper but because they are more friendly.

    • Ian Stride says:

      The irony here, of course, is that big, bad supermarkets – in their new guise of “markets”, “metros” or whatever – are “out-cornershopping” the little cornershops with their apparent drive on relaxed formality. Even El Corte Inglés would have us believe -to judge from their latest radio campaign – that their in-house fruit and veg assistant is on first name terms with Saturday morning shoppers and on hand to offer them first-hand advice on quality best-buys. Room for a touch of healthy cynicsm, perhaps?

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