Supermarkets are great, aren’t they? Perhaps that question even sounds like a rhetorical one. But why? Why do the supermarkets meet with such widespread public approval? Indeed, with the big chains now providing everything from underpants to kettles and even to policies for insurance cover, this ever-expanding encroachment across the entire retail sector and beyond surely makes the question worthy of more than just a casual shrug of the shoulders and some vaguely defensive remarks about how they widen choice, or keep prices down (which is a great benefit for the working classes) or else altogether more glowing reports of the marvellous modern convenience of the non-stop, one-stop shopping experience.
So my intention here is to scratch a little of the gloss from the packaging with a less well advertised version of the truth about supermarkets: a handy and fun-sized analysis of just what makes me hate them so much, and why I wish more people would hate them too.
If you’re wondering why I’ve positioned the word ‘price’ so it is hanging precariously above this paragraph then it’s because ‘price’ is one of the so-called “4Ps of marketing” – and I’ll deal with the other 3 in their turn. Marketing being so key to supermarket success, it seems more than fair to take one of their analytical tools, and twist it around.
The commonly accepted opinion is that supermarkets are cheap – not that the major supermarkets would themselves choose such a vulgar descriptor as ‘cheap’ to label their own ‘low cost’, ‘value’, or ‘family range’ obviously. And of course they ought to be cheap, one only has to consider the huge competitive advantages of bulk purchasing and having low overheads (compared to smaller traders). So in some regards, supermarkets do indeed provide the cheapest alternatives, and especially when it comes to the enticing ‘loss leaders’ on basic goods like milk, sugar and petrol, but then cheapness invariably comes at a cost. Just ask the small independent farmers, who have been so wrung out by the tightening of a supermarket cartel that many are unable to earn any sustainable profit at all, with increasing numbers being forced out of business altogether.1
On top of which, supermarkets are in a position to by-pass local producers altogether and bring in goods from countries in ‘the developing world’. Now obviously there is little alternative to fetching coffee from Central America and bananas from the Caribbean, and if supermarkets operated fairly such imports would represent a useful way for the poorer nations to bring in much needed money. To the big supermarkets, however, ‘fair trade’ represents little more than a kind of modern brand offering a lifestyle alternative to the more discerning customer and, as with other ‘luxury’ products, gives them a useful excuse for adding a little extra profit. It is not a universal policy, as it ought to be, and you won’t find the regular items in the aisles more honestly and openly described as ‘unfair trade’, and yet this is clearly what they are.
On the other hand, and leaving aside such exotic produce as coffee, bananas and tea, temperate crops are obviously better grown locally and, regardless of excuses about ‘insufficient volume’ and so forth, there is just one outstanding reason for transporting mangetout from Kenya… or, to offer a different example, clothing and electrical products manufactured in Far Eastern sweatshops where the workers are surrounded by suicide nets and earning less than a dollar a day. None of our local farmers or manufacturers can possibly compete against this dismal but distant slave labour force, even should they wish to join in that particular race to the bottom.
We are lulled into believing that supermarkets, and if only by virtue of competition between themselves, pass on the greater share of their own discounts at the checkout – discounts from deals that are often little more than extortion – and yet even this perceived (and wholly self-interested) benefit is mostly an imagined one. If you doubt this then I strongly recommend watching a recent Channel 4 “Dispatches”2 which, though hardly the most riveting of documentaries, is illuminating nonetheless because it provides a very direct comparison between baskets of goods from the big chains and equivalent baskets bought from local independent retailers.
Now I have long suspected that supermarket ‘value’, especially when it comes to fresh produce, is something of a fiction, but I had no idea (before watching the “Dispatches” episode) that the major supermarkets are generally selling goods at as much and even more than 40% above the price in the market – and here I mean that real market in your town centre.3 To put this into perspective, the typical markup on essential goods in an old fashioned convenience store is a mere 15%. And please note that the supermarkets’ 40+ % price difference is already on top of the market traders’ retail price, so heaven only knows what their true markup is.
In short, the supermarkets are absolutely fleecing their customers and, as their empires now expand again with the opening up of more and more ‘local’ or ‘express’ branches, we can expect their markups to rise again – in fact, markups are already significantly higher in their new convenience stores – for some products, as much as 80% higher than their already bloated prices in the superstores!4
There was a time when shops did one thing and road systems another. That shops and roads were generally in close proximity owed to the simple fact that finding a location close to a main thoroughfare helped to bring in custom. But then two decades and more ago, this long established relationship between shops and roads began to alter.
The problem was that the major supermarkets just couldn’t find premises big enough in order to expand their lines of products. Added to which, maintaining premises in town centres meant paying higher business rates (or just “rates” as it was back then). In response to this, the largest chains headed off to occupy the edge of our towns by building huge new super-supermarkets or ‘hypermarkets’ (as they were briefly called). Unfortunately for the supermarkets, however, their gains in competitive advantage over the local high street and corner shops were to some extent offset due to sheer remoteness. They urgently needed ways to improve access and to make their far-off presence a lot more visible.
One big solution to this problem was actually rather straightforward – all that was needed was to encourage local councils to re-lay the traffic system directly to their own advantage. New lanes, extra roundabouts, and special traffic lights allowing customers to and from their huge car parks and back into the busy traffic flow. And apparently no amount of local government favouritism was too much for the supermarkets – after all, old-fashioned high street trade was beginning to flag and revenues need to be found from somewhere. So most councils were quite delighted to bend over backwards for the new megastores.
All of which was entirely above board, no question about that. Otherwise we would have to consider the unseemly possibility of widespread instances of local government corruption – but where’s the evidence for any such a culture of corruption in local government? There’s barely a shred…
Aside from ‘value’, supermarkets also like to boast about ‘quality’, but once again, where’s the proof? Self-evidently there’s no difference in quality when it comes to procurement of the leading brands, HP Sauce being HP Sauce wherever you go, but there’s also very little difference between the supermarkets’ supposed ‘own brands’ (since these are produced side-by-side along the same factory production lines), so it is only when we compare fresh produce that any meaningful judgement can be made. And what do we find?
Supermarket produce is highly standardised, which means that any off-putting or else amusing abnormalities, like the sorts of carrots that during the innocent ’80s caused such hilarity on BBC’s “That’s Life”, are banished to a bygone age. Apples are polished, peppers immaculate, potatoes with barely a scar, let alone a scab. But appearances can be deceptive, and the fruit and veg from the pre-supermarket hegemony of my childhood had no less flavour, and, having come direct from neighbouring farms, thus spending less time in transit and storage, was generally fresher and tasted so. But then factory-farmed supermarket produce will never compete for flavour with the best that local farmers or market stalls have to offer – and this is perhaps truer for meat and diary produce even than for fruit and vegetables. But hey, those horsemeat burgers5 sure looked appetising didn’t they?
Having made appearance a priority, supermarket vegetables are scrubbed cleaner than any vegetables in history – there is barely a scrap of dirt, even on carrots or potatoes, but then some of the produce in our supermarkets is spared the indignity of growing from the dirt in the first place:
“Welcome to Thanet Earth: is this a taste of the future for UK agriculture?” ran a headline for a Guardian article back in June 2008, with the strapline: “Cucumbers and peppers for eight months, tomatoes all year round in seven giant Kent glasshouses”. And here is a very brief snippet from that article:
The crops themselves will be suspended from the 8m ceiling in huge hydroponic rows, their roots never touching the chalky Kent soil beneath.
This is Thanet Earth, Britain’s biggest greenhouse development, which will increase by 15% the UK’s crop of salad vegetables. Cucumbers and peppers will be picked continuously from February to October, tomatoes harvested every day of the week, 52 weeks a year.6
Click here to read the full article.
No doubt technologies like hydroponics have a part to play in the future of horticulture, but I believe we should be cautious about becoming dependent upon such methods. The article says that the plants receive all of the nutrients they need to grow, but what is less clear is whether they receive all of the nutrients that we need to grow. Do we as yet even know how to produce food that is fully nutritious by such artificial means?
Meanwhile, and if you prefer your food to be more naturally tended, you can always stick to the organic range – assuming, of course, that you can afford it. ‘Organic’ to the supermarkets translating to mean ‘luxury’ again, and so justifying a premium price for what was once just ordinary, everyday produce. Admittedly, when I was a child, the only greens available at Christmas time were frozen peas and Brussels sprouts – sorry, but did I ever mention my terribly deprived childhood?
The 4Ps make up what marketing experts refer to as the “producer-orientated model”, a name given because, and following years of dedicated inquiry and research, marketing itself advanced with what was little short of a quantum leap; the old prototype challenged by the staggering clever alternative called the 4Cs of the “consumer-orientated model”. The breakdown in marketing analysis could suddenly be shifted away from Price, Position, Product and Promotion to look instead at Cost, Convenience, Consumer, and Communication. A perceptual shift which is unquestionably one of the most significant advancements in marketing history, if not one of the finest achievements of the modern age!
Now let’s more closely examine these 4Cs – what do we find? For instance, with the substitution of ‘Promotion’ with ‘Communication’. What are the marketing men getting at here? Since surely ‘Promotion’ is something we all understand, and something that has relatively little to do with ‘Communication’ in the ordinary sense. ‘Communication’ being, in ordinary terms, the conveyance of ideas or information, whereas in this sense the conveyance is restricted only to encouragement and inducement to buy stuff. In fact, ‘Communication’ in the sense intended (if cunningly disguised) has more to do with Edward Bernays’ long-since abandoned other P: ‘Propaganda’ – the P that (nowadays) dare not speak its name. And when it comes to propaganda, there are few organisations more adept than the supermarket chains. That said, ‘Communication’ sounds less aggressive doesn’t it…?
Approaching us with a smile, the big chains are ready to exploit every available weak spot in our human psyche. Preying, for instance, on the well-known fact that celebrity endorsement is a million times more effective than just plain old adverts (something Bernays was first to exploit), and that the one thing better than celebrity endorsement is expert endorsement (also pioneered by Bernays) – so why not combine the two… hmmm, a celebrity who knows about food? Are there any?
And they don’t simply ask for our patronage, but more importantly, they seek our loyalty. Offering discount deals on future shopping trips and future credits on our personal store cards. For all these reasons, they are very much accustomed to receiving a popular thumbs up, because the real business of the supermarkets has always been in currying our favour; assiduously nurturing the people’s preference by running carefully targeted marketing campaigns over multiple decades.
Supermarkets, like most other giant corporations, simply crave publicity at every turn and in every conceivable way, which in the grander scheme means providing sponsorship for the Arts and for charity funds, whilst at a more local level, gently coercing families to collect their vouchers to provide equipment for our underfunded schools. The big chains make use of many such convincers which are designed expressly to play up their concerns for a better society and a cleaner environment; transforming their own labels into medals of honour. And even such bad TV exposure as the “Dispatches” investigation boosts their profile if not their image, especially since they know better than most that “no publicity is bad publicity”. Basically, and when it comes to playing the media game, their presentational skills are unparalleled, having long since understood that receiving any kind of exposure is more than half the battle, and that all exposure can be ‘spun’.
In writing this highly negative appraisal I too am inadvertently providing a little extra publicity for these retail monsters, and in spite of my very deliberate efforts to avoid all mention of actual supermarket brand names in the main body of text. I have also tried to inculcate a little more of my own loathing by sneaky, subliminal means, following in Bernays’ well-trodden footsteps, and deliberately dropping in the word “chains” just about as many times as I feasibly can. For this is what the big chain supermarkets are actually all about. They already control more than 80% of retail trade in groceries in our country 7, and make no mistake, they want the lot – these new convenience stores being the latest stage in their scorched earth policy. And just so long as their takeover continues unchecked there will come a day when the major supermarket chains are faced by no independent competition at all. Little by little, their chains will have become ours.
1 Cattle and sheep farmers, in particular, are more and more pushed to sell their produce at a net loss and, last summer, dairy farmers protested in their thousands against the same supermarket cartel which has forced milk prices so low that they too are increasingly unable to make a living from their business.
“Since the demise of the Milk Marketing Board in 1994, milk prices have been set in contracts drawn up between supermarkets, processors and farmers. The National Farmers Union estimates that it costs its members 29p to produce a litre of milk. In the late spring the three main processors, Dairy Crest, Arla and Robert Wiseman, reduced the price they would pay per litre to 27p. They now propose to reduce that by a further 2p. Combined with rising feed costs, reduced commodity prices, the drought in the US and the floods in the UK, dairy farmers expect to lose between 5p and 6p on every litre.
Earlier this month, 2,000 dairy farmers attended a rally in Westminster to bring attention to the situation. The following weekend they picketed branches of Asda, Morrisons and the Co-operative, which pay less than Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. More pickets are expected this weekend, powered by movements such as Farmers for Action and #sosdairy, which has been trending on Twitter.” Taken from an article entitled “Dairy farmers step up the pressure on supermarkets over cuts in milk prices” written by Dan Glaister published in The Observer on July 22, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/jul/21/dairy-farmers-supermarkets-milk-prices
2 Channel 4 “Dispatches: Secrets of Your Supermarket Shop” first broadcast at 8pm on Monday January 21, 2013. Reporter Tazeen Ahmad compared prices from Britain’s four most profitable supermarket chains (Tesco £3.8 billion; Morrisons £973 million; Sainsbury’s £874 million; Asda £463 million) against prices from local independent traders and also local market stalls. The programme also looked into the rise of supermarket ‘convenience’ stores, asking: “are we paying a fair price for on-your-doorstep convenience, or are we being taken for a ride?” http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/4od#3472025
3 These figures are taken from the Channel 4“Dispatches” investigation and based on the price for a basket containing equivalent quantities of twelve fruit and vegetables (Cauliflower, broccoli, bananas, carrots, oranges, pears, strawberries, tomatoes, spring onions, spinach, apples and fresh coriander):–
supermarket prices averaged just over £10.50; independent green grocer just over £8.20; and market stalls at around £7.30. Doing a quick calculation reveals an additional markup of nearly 30% above independent retailers and around 45% above market traders.
4 From the same Channel 4 “Dispatches” investigation: supermarket ‘convenience’ outlets were pricing pears around 5% higher, broccoli 25% higher and fresh coriander between 40% – 80% higher than in their larger outlets.
5“Tests in recent days showed raw material imported by an Irish processing plant from Poland had up to 20% equine DNA. Products made for Tesco, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland were implicated in the initial scare this month caused by food standards checks late last year.” Taken from “Horsemeat in burgers traced to Polish suppliers” written by James Meikle, published by the Guardian on January 27, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/27/horsemeat-burgers-traced-polish-suppliers
6 From an article entitled “Welcome to Thanet Earth: is this a taste of the future for UK agriculture?” written by Esther Addley, published in the Guardian on June 11, 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jun/11/greenbuilding.food
7 According to 2012 report from Global Agricultural Information Network: “In the UK the retail grocery industry is concentrated with 83 percent market share in the hands of just five supermarkets chains.”