Saturday, 12 October 2013

Shopping in supermarkets

People want to eat well, and learning to cook is a factor. But shopping well is equally important.
Ideally we would all like to shop like the French, strolling, complete with picturesque wicker basket, along the local high street, buying bread from excellent bakeries, discussing freshness with the  fishmonger, choosing cuts from the butcher. When I lived in Paris, I shopped virtually every day. Parking restrictions, the lack of good local shops, a dearth of artisanal bakeries in the UK, make this fantasy of continental shopping unlikely.
Food shopping is increasingly done online, even students such as my daughter get their shopping delivered to campus. The British shop online more than any other country in the developed world.
Shopping online only works for products you already know. Who gets inspired for a seasonal dinner when shopping online?
I enjoy food shopping, I'll admit that I even enjoy going to supermarkets. The first thing I do when going abroad is check out the street market, tick, but also the supermarket. You find out more about a culture from supermarket shelves than from guidebooks; what products are most popular, what is deemed highly necessary. The entire aisles of pasta, vistas of varieties of tinned tomatoes, the green and gold bottles and tins in the olive oil section, lined up like the finest wines with prices to match, tell you about Italy. A Mexican supermarket will have stacks of ready fried tortillas and dozens of salsas. Most supermarkets also sell gadgets. In Italy it's vital to have a tomato grinder and espresso pot, in Mexico possessing a tortilla press is bog-standard, and in the UK, a kitchen isn't complete without an electric kettle and toaster.
France, along with the fantastic small shops, traiteurs, bakeries and markets, also has more hypermarkets than any other country, so artisanal food businesses doesn't necessarily mean no big business. But I have remarked that French supermarkets stock local products and specialities from their region. Even their petrol station shops along the autoroutes carry local foods from the area.
Going to a supermarket in this country is a dispiriting business. While we all enjoy going to outdoor food markets when the weather is good, supermarkets on the other hand are soulless and joyless. There is greenish strip-lighting, ugly plastic/metal shelving and displays, unmotivated staff who know little about food and the same old brands hogging the space. Rarely are local food, local producers and suppliers celebrated. The cookbooks are by telly chefs, the in-house coffee shop, if it exists, are now chains.
How much time does the average family food shop take? At least a couple of hours a week. Why can't this be a pleasurable experience? The neglect of our high streets is part of the landscape now, people like to drive to one place to get their shopping. Since the first supermarket (which opened in Streatham in 195), the big four supermarkets, Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda and Morrisons, have benefited hugely so do they not owe us something? Time to give back to the community? How about they spend some of their massive profits on improving the food shopping experience? Some trickle down?
I have a dream, an idea of a shopping revolution that would mirror what happened to book shops in the 1990s. Supermarkets would become fun places, more like Wholefoods, but cheaper. Here are a few ideas:
  • Local food: local suppliers and producers being given shelf space. To have shelf space at the end of a supermarket aisle costs £5k. Make sure that some of the shelf space is affordable for small producers. 
  • Aesthetics: nicer lighting. I loathe fluorescent strip lighting. Shelving and shop fittings in attractive colours and natural materials.
  • Supermarkets have all kinds of tricks to make their food look 'alive': smells piped in, fresh produce near the entrance. Can't we make the food more enticing without such fakery?
  • Live music: support local artists and musicians. Friday night gigs. 
  • Sofas, nice seating areas: have an area. Make a supermarket more like a cool cafe where you want to hang out there.
  • Demonstration kitchens: local chefs could advertise their restaurants and educate people on how to cook
  • Talks about food: debates and panels, question and answer sessions.
  • Stock more interesting cookbooks not just telly chefs. 
  • Train the staff. The amount of times I've asked for a food product and the staff don't know/care anything about food or cooking. We want curious food fascinated staff. My local Tesco has staff mainly originating from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. So, for example, when I ask for vegetarian haggis or Greek vine leaves, they immediately reply 'no we don't have it'. Two minutes later I find it on the shelves. Two comments about this: staff should be given the opportunity to taste new products that come into the supermarket. They should be educated about food. Secondly,  the specific knowledge of staff's origins and home cuisine should be reflected. All staff should have name badges detailing what they like to cook and their area of speciality knowledge. Staff should be given cooking lessons. Working in a supermarket should be a cool job. 
  • Tastings for customers. Not some crappy mass produced product who have the money to spend on aisle space but good food, new food. Educate. 
  • Information for customers: on seasonality, what to eat this month. Not talking down to them, not frightening them with food scares. Inform them about other kinds of diets: vegetarianism for instance. Actively discourage them from buying cheap meat. Show them how to manage their food budget.

There has been much talk about the food revolution in the UK. Everyone is instagramming their dinner,  going to/hosting supper clubs, attending street food markets, eating trendy fast food, eating out more often, watching aspirational food TV. But this is primarily young urban trendies with income to spare. How about really making a food revolution? The supermarkets are in the best position, in terms of money and retail space, to make this happen. They have a social responsibility to enable this.
In fact I challenge the big four: give me a supermarket and let me play with it.
What would you like to see in supermarkets? What ideas do you have to improve the experience? 

24 comments:

  1. http://www.manchesterbusinessphotos.co.uk/we-take-google-business-photos-to-tesco-watford/

    The new 'concept' Tesco in Dartford sounds like it read your manifesto! It's supposed to be a destination rather than a chore. Giraffe restaurant, artisan bakery, etc.

    (I do work in the grocery industry, before you think I'm unbearably sad for Google Earth-ing supermarkets...)

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    1. That sounds interesting. I met a Tesco executive at the Woman of the Year lunch who said they were trialling a couple of ideas, perhaps that was one. Have you been there?

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  2. Imagine if supermarkets had gardens & greenhouses so could grow their own veg & salads. Maybe it could be in the middle like a quad and the rest of the supermarket would be based around it looking on. Great location for a supermarket conservatory restaurant with a difference too.
    Personal shopping assistants in store? You have the same one each time so you build up a client relationship?
    Supermarket education programme tied up with schools? Have to start young. Shocking how many 17 year olds know nothing about food - even if they have a baking tray in their house. Has to be non promotional by the supermarket - maybe it should be a supermarket group collective. Ultimately it would be beneficial for them if they thought long term. They could also fund a food champion in the school?
    A supper club in a supermarket after closing - in the aisles. I used to do one in the middle of a deli.
    If everyone is instagramming their dinner surely the supermarkets should be doing something with this? Getting customers to pass on the pics of dishes they made after shopping at that store. Run them on huge screens. Give other people ideas. Competitions. Prizes!

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    1. Love that idea! In fact all of your ideas are fantastic. I'd be up for doing a supermarket supper club. I think there was one in Paris.

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  3. The French don't shop like the French anymore. Carrefour (the huge French supermarket retailer) is bigger than Tesco. If they were all wondering around popping into their boulangeries, how come there are so many hypermarkets?

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    1. As I say in the piece, they do seem to manage to have great fresh produce markets, have fantastic local boulangeries, traiteurs, patisseries, wet fishmongers, butchers AND have massive hypermarkets. I lived in Paris for six years and the South of France for a year and it was certainly the case. You had the best of both worlds. The French will sometimes buy a supermarket baguette but know where to find their local artisanal boulangerie, which doesn't get part frozen baguettes from a central depot, for special meals, the weekend etc.

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  4. I have also heard of the Tesco Extras - one has just opened in Watford - which offer much of what you are looking for. I think it is changing in France. They no longer have long lunch hours to go home but are fitting in with the rest of the working world so just can't and this is reflected in their shopping and eating. I have French friends who've told me this. But likewise much is changing in UK with more farmers' markets and local artisanal shops opening. People are looking for better food but it will take time to make a big change. Part of the problem is, I think, lots of younger people simply don't know how to cook so we need to be teaching kids in schools about food and cooking. I have to say your vision for a hypermarket offering all these things is my nightmare. I hate those kind of places - even the bigger branches of supermarkets we already have and avoid them - but working from home I have the privilege of being able to shop on a more daily basis so it is different for me and I realise people working long hours need something different.

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    1. Yes I agree that cooking needs to be taught in school. I know what you mean about hypermarkets, like department stores and shopping centres, there is something particularly exhausting about them. No where to sit down, nowhere to put your coat, having to carry your shopping around, having them overheated so that staff are warm but customers are boiling. Shopping is dehydrating too. It's all about grabbing money. But actually if shopping were a more pleasant experience you'd go more often.
      I also think Amazon should subsidize book shops: you can go in flick through but your books will be sent to your address at the same price Amazon do them. A bit like Argos for books?

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  5. Love all the ideas in your post!!! I would like them implemented in the USA too. It sounds like some of the high-end supermarkets are doing some tiny aspects of what you recommend but not nearly enough. Love the suggestions in the comments too... esp the greenhouse center. You would think some supermarket would see the benefit and the marketing possibilities in all these wonderful suggestions.

    As I was reading your post I was thinking "Whole Foods" (aka "Whole Paycheck"! LOL!) and then I see you mention them. I think some of what you say is why I shop almost exclusively at Whole Foods or analogue. Yes, it's far more expensive and I also have a lot of issues with Whole Foods' presentation of one idea and a different reality (there's a LOT of conventional junk in a Whole Foods) but the atmosphere and the "party line" are far more congruent with the suggestions in your post and the comments.

    Thanks for the dream! :) Christina

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    1. Yes a place where stuff is growing, an atrium, would be both educational, refreshing, and a true link between growing and eating...
      I do love Wholefoods, but it is terribly expensive.

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  6. I think all of these suggestions are great. I visited one yesterday and while the young was friendly and chatty (makes a change) he did have to double check that the cauliflower was a cauliflower!

    I would love to shop at all the different local specialist shops but simply don't have the time or have them local improving the supermarkets and bring the regional and specialist to the supermarket would be good but how do you stop the corporate monster spoiling it.

    Cooking is alsoa real issue my MIL survives on a very small budget but still has amazing food as she can cook well and make the most of it.

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    1. Yes those young people who don't recognise vegetables that Jamie Oliver discovered in his school dinners programme, become the next generation of sales people in supermarkets. It's incredible to think that they don't know what a cauliflower is!

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  7. I particularly empathise with your views on demotivated and ignorant staff, who are more interested in getting the shelves filled than in helping customers. I also detest the way that aisles get blocked by those massive trolleys that they use for assembling orders for internet shoppers. That sort of stuff should happen only in the early hours of the morning, and not at prime time for "real" shoppers.

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    1. Staff are low paid and I doubt they are introduced to new products at supermarkets other than, here is where to put them, here is how much they cost. Often the staff are from different cultures and so will not know the food of the British Isles. My suggestion is that supermarkets embrace this and reflect the food culture of the staff they have.
      The aisle blocking is really irritating!

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  8. I can't help thinking you get the shops you deserve. If the British shop almost exclusively in supermarkets, it's at least in part because that's what they want. When they still had the chance to save their local butcher/fishmonger/bakery, they didn't take it. I still remember when a Tesco opened in the Cotswold town I lived in 15 years ago, which at that time had a full range of food shops. At Christmas, the butcher told me that one of his regular customers bought a turkey in Tesco, brought it into the shop, and asked him to dress it for her. The excellent butcher and greengrocer closed down within months. People there were well off, they had the choice of supporting local businesses, and they didn't take it.

    If artisan shops still exist in France alongside the supermarkets, it's because people use them. In the past, at least, government policy has supported them, for example by restricting the hours supermarkets can open and only allowing Sunday opening a few times a year, while your local épicerie and boulangerie can open every Sunday. It looks as if that may now be crumbling -- I just hope we don't end up with the British "shop 24 hours a day 7 days a week" mentality.

    Frankly, rather than tarting up massive supermarkets to look like small shops, with the profits going into the pockets of executives and institutional shareholders with no stake in the local area, I'd rather support local shops and put my money into the local economy.

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    1. True!
      I don't think you can put the genie back in the bottle. Supermarkets are here to stay, it's conveniant, it's in one place, you don't have to deal with bad weather or no parking. So supermarkets should accept social responsibility and diversify what they sell, educate shoppers, embrace local foods and suppliers, be a part of the local community and most importantly, excite people about food.

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    2. That's exactly what I meant by "you get the shops you deserve" :) It's convenient (assuming you have a car), in one place, etc. etc., so if that's important to you then that's what you'll do. I'm not saying there's no place for supermarkets, just that you don't have to rely on them for food shopping. Like Beth I buy washing powder, toilet roll etc. from the supermarket, but almost all the fresh food I buy is from the weekly market or local shops.

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  9. Still think supermarkets are the devil... I manage to avoid them by getting a veg box, doing a mammoth (i.e £600) dry goods shop every 9-12 months and picking up meat, cheese, bread etc from random places on the way home from work. I think that I might start a 'bring back the larder' crusade...

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    1. They are the devil but a neccessary modern evil? They make so much money they need to invest some of it back into good food.

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  10. Another wonderful post!

    Where I live I’m totally spoilt for choice. Three Waitroses (including John Lewis Food Hall), Marks’ flagship stall and the usual smattering of ‘locals’ and ‘metros’ surround me.

    With the exception of perhaps having the worst and said fluorescent strip lighting in the industry Waitrose offers the best service for me as a supermarket shopper. I absolutely adore the booze section as well as the bakery and cheeses on offer. The staff members are chirpy, well informed and can converse properly in English. If I’m ever forced to relocate it’ll need to be within walking distance of a Waitrose.

    The ready meals at Marks are simply godsend for singletons like myself. I simply do not have the time or urge to cook for just one person, so goodbyes to the local independents like The Ginger Pig and Blandford Fruit Stores.

    Incidentally the Sainsbury Locals and Tesco Metros are also essentially convenient for my reduced-price fags and the odd lotto ticket.

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    1. So... am I to understand that your life consists of booze, cheap fags, lottery tickets and ready meals? :)

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  11. Why should the supermarkets get all the rewards without the responsibility? I visited Nepal last year. There is a lot of literature given out about reducing your waste footprint and taking rubbish home with you as it's such a difficult place to dispose of waste. The river beds in Kathmandu were awash with rubbish of all kinds, towering piles of undegradable cast offs - mainly packaging from fmcg products made by multi-nationals. Not meaning to go off topic - just to say I believe that these corporations must do more than just contribute to share-holder value and participate in some CSR designed to appease negative PR.
    Also love going to supermarkets overseas - but sadly now becoming homogenised by global brands too. Great article as always.

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  12. Great that you point it out! Mostly people focus on quick and dirty shopping and eating and that's the way they and their health looks like.

    I stay away from supermarkets as much as I can and prefer to buy on farmers markets, from artisan food producers or from traders that care. I love to get great treats and ingredients that you normally enjoy only during vacation but not on the back of an exploited producer.

    Traders that care about consumers/buyers should do also care about products and producers because sustainabililty doesn't start by complaining about waste. It start with the chioces I make, so I prefer to spend my money where my mouth is!

    As a foodie I rather buy what I love, need, like and stay away from things I don't really need. I don't believe that the small producers will win the markets back from the big ones, but I hope that I keep the variety of products and choices to buy great products from honest producers!

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  13. These are some great ideas...ever thought about starting a business? ;) xxx

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Please leave a comment, it means I am not shouting into the void!