It had to happen sooner or later. We’ve been Tescoed. These days I live in a fairly dull provincial town in the south of England that has nothing special about it. It’s just one of those ordinary places you’d pass through without noticing. But now it has been graced by a brand-new 24-hour superstore opened up in a vast town-centre location that has screwed up access to the town even more than it was screwed up already.
We didn’t need a Tesco, despite what the supermarket giant’s people kept telling us. There are already two massive supermarkets outside the town, and there was a smaller one a hundred yards or so from the new Tesco site that gave up the ghost and closed its doors a day or two after big brother opened. It’s a smaller-scale version of the Walmartization that has already blighted American towns as smaller businesses are ruthlessly elbowed aside. We didn’t need Tesco, but Tesco’s business finders and financial analysts had presumably seen the footfall at its competitors’ stores and decided it wanted a slice of that pie.
But there’s a deeper malaise here. Two generations ago supermarkets didn’t exist. It may come as a surprise, but for thousands of years people have been able to survive without the convenience of giving all their money to a single retailer with a stranglehold on the local economy.
Today the UK food business is dominated by four major retailers, plus a few smaller ones, all competing in a cut-throat market for all the money they can screw from consumers, all with similar claims along the lines of ‘every little helps’ or whatever the latest fatuous TV buzzword is. Competition is vicious. All of these retailers have shareholders who expect results come what may, all desperately edging out competition from every direction they can.
The sad fact is that these places aren’t cheap. They claim to save the consumer money, and on a range of items, they do, especially as using loss leaders of selling goods such as bread and milk at knockdown, below production cost prices is normal business practice in the UK. But step outside that range and things are far from cheap, especially among the shelves full of those convenient microwavable sugar- and salt-laden ready meals.
What has happened is that in the course of a few generations, the money in the food business has moved. Until the years after the Second World War, the pockets of wealth that the food business generated resided with food producers, primarily farmers, fishermen, bakers, millers, butchers and the like. By and large, these people used that money to maintain their businesses. In a pattern that is much the same across the developed world, that wealth has since migrated in a remarkably short space of time from a large number of food producers and merchants scattered fairly evenly around the country to the hands of four major retailers and their shareholders. It’s not easy to see how this is a healthy state of affairs, or even a sustainable one, even though the big four and their smaller rivals make much of their commitment to sustainable food production, free-trade, GM-free this and organic that.
The cynical reality is that they aren’t remotely interested in any of this stuff other than as advertising or as a handle to charge a premium for a particular label. But the reality is also that British consumers are primarily interested in cheap, having been educated to do so by the ceaseless advertising that merciless competition generates. A great many people buy their food on price as their main consideration, and they get cheap stuff – but at a price. Cheap white bread made using the fast Chorleywood process contains precious few of the nutrients that old-fashioned slow-rising bread contained, and which humans ate for thousands of years. Meat and butter from grain-fed cattle is likewise short of what made these products so much better when they came from cows that grazed in fields. Pangasius, marketed as river cobbler? In fact it’s a cheap farmed catfish from the Far East that contains about as much nutritional value as the cardboard box those frozen fillets are packed in; and let’s not even go into the chicken, salad or warm-water shrimp businesses, let alone the horrors of fast food.
So next time you do your weekly shop, do yourself a favour. Ignore the air-conditioned supermarket with its lights and muzack carefully designed to calm you into buying more. Spend an hour longer than usual and find a butcher, a fishmonger, a bakery and a fruit & veg shop, or even a farmer or a fisherman who’ll recognize you next time you see him. Give your money to someone like yourself who’s more than likely fighting against the tide and has his own family to support, instead of contributing to yet another skiing holiday for a wealthy supermarket shareholder. You’ll feel better for it, and you’ll probably eat better for it as well.
Quentin Bates’s Icelandic-set crime novels Frozen Out and Cold Comfort are not for sale at branches of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s or Morrison, near you or otherwise.