Supermarket sweep

by Stephen Tall on June 21, 2006

Simon Hoggart reports, rather deliciously, in today’s thegrauniad on David Cameron’s speech championing “the new politics” at the National Family and Parenting institute:

“We have got to big up Asda!” he told us, excitedly. I wondered which Tory leaders would have brought the same message to the people. “Swan and Edgar – Respec’!” Churchill might have said. Or “Let us give due esteem to Sir Thomas Lipton’s Emporium of Quality Comestibles!” as Disraeli never tired of saying.

Indeed, supermarkets were big-upped – or is it bigged-up? – no end today. Daniel Finkelstein, who I’m sure used to be called Danny, was unequivocal in The Times:

Every battle for liberty has a front line. In the battle for economic liberty, many of my friends believe that the front line is the rate of tax. And I certainly agree that this is important. But for me the front line is the freedom of supermarkets — big, fat, galumphing, supermarkets with 26 varieties of Coco Pops and large car parks — to conduct their business.

The thing is, I agree with Danny, sorry, Daniel.

Indeed, not to do so would be entirely hypocritical, given almost all my food shopping takes place at my local Tesco, 30 seconds’ walk from my flat. It would be possible for me to buy everything I need (pretty much) at shops other than Tesco. But it would be more inconvenient, take me longer, and cuesta mucho dinero.

Am I guilty of rational self-interest in its most negative form? Perhaps, yet Finkelstein mounts a breathless, slightly glib, but robustly reasonable defence:

Concerned about food prices? Supermarkets drive them down. About inequality? Studies in the US have shown that the creation of superstores (particularly Wal-Mart) has disproportionately benefited those on low incomes. The environment? There is far more chance of persuading the big chains to accept their responsibilities than the old corner grocer. Concerned about pay and conditions for shop workers? Organic food? Labelling? Supermarket chains have raised the bar in all of these areas. And most important of all, they sell things, high-quality items and downmarket items alike, that consumers want to buy.

The ideal is, of course, a diversity of local retailers, so that the small, independent shops can co-exist happily alongside the large chains. Local and national government, in establishing regulatory frameworks, can both help to ensure the high street lions and lambs play happily together.

The larger role, though, is acted by us as consumers. The single biggest reason why local shops close is because fewer people are shopping there. We might lament the fact; but it would be more useful to face it, and understand why.

(I will also parenthetically add that, in my own council ward, Headington, though the large student population is sometimes unpopular with local residents, they are at least regular patrons of the local shops. They are not the ones driving to the out-of-town supermarkets, or ordering their weekly shop via the Internet.)

Supermarkets exist, and are popular, because they are good at giving people what they want. Simply to diss them – see, Mr Cameron, I can get down wiv da kidz’ argot as well – is to miss the point, or deliberately to avoid it. They are a creation of society’s aspirations to have a choice of quality foodstuffs available at reasonable cost whenever we need them.

Have a cheap pop at Tesco or Asda if you want – but at least address how else you would enable people to fulfil that basic want.