On Supermarkets

What would we do without the ubiquitous supermarket?

We are repeatedly reminded by farmers that supermarkets are the enemy of British farming, forcing down prices and dictating trading terms. Perhaps this is true. As I have said in my article ‘There’s No Way Out’, we have the society we deserve.

Some farmers have used their imagination and gone organic, produced their own sausages or even opened to the public. Others seem to think that the government should bail them out, create some kind of nationalised industry.

For my part I am jolly glad we have supermarkets, most of our lives have been improved by them, sorry farmers, my morals buckle a bit when confronted by the alternative. Supermarkets allow me to buy my groceries, clothes, toiletries, medication, housewares and much more in one stop. I can wheel them to my car and drive from door to door. As a conscientious consumer I can’t easily make my ‘opinion’ known about the fact that I would prefer to buy local produce, British goods etc because my local supermarket doesn’t offer these goods. If it did, I would buy them. If supermarkets charged more for these products, I would pay it. Simple. But I’ll be blowed if I’m going to traipse all over town to find them, too time consuming, too frustrating. Food shopping is a necessity not a pleasure, not for me anyway.

My earliest memory of a supermarket is of going to one with my mother. It must have been before I started school and I know I was very small because in the snapshot in my memory, the counters are way above my head. I can still picture the muted black and white marble floor with the name Sainsbury’s inlayed into the tiles. Counters extended along each side, different products being sold at intervals along their length. Each product: bacon, cheese meat and so on, had a separate queue and I don’t remember any self service element; I suppose groceries were on shelves behind the counters.

My recollections of supermarkets cease until I was in my teens. I suppose I went to school and my mother shopped without me. I can’t say I blame her, if I have the choice I don’t take my kids shopping. Horace costs too much and Mavis gets bored and starts riding on the side of the trolley causing it to veer alarmingly in the every direction but the one I want to take.

Supermarkets had moved on apace while I was at school, they now expected their clientele to serve themselves and ultimately, shopping was transferred from a trolley on wheels to a conveyor belt where it cruised towards a seated assistant. This assistant did not yet have the benefit of a bar code reader and entered the price of each item from the label into a till. Not sure whether tills said ‘Ching’ or ‘Beep’ at this time. One disadvantage of this system was that the label regularly fell off before it got to the check out, or it was not there in the first place. The whole queue would wait resignedly as the assistant rang a loud bell and shouted ‘Doris, could you get me the price of this luv’ and Doris would stroll of to look for the item. There would follow a shouted conversation which went something like this: ‘Vera, where’s the Branston Pickle? I can’t find anything since they’ve rearranged these shelves’
‘At the end of the third aisle, near the ketchup’
‘OK, got it. Flipping heck there’s no prices on any of these!! Carol, got any Branston Pickle in the stock room?’
‘Hang on, I’ll have a look’
Pause while Carol disappears. The queue, still resigned, stares out at the passing traffic and dreams of the Costa Brava.
The pause gets longer. Eventually Carol reappears looking flustered. ‘Found it! I had to look it up on the flaming stock list, there were no labels in the stock room either.’ Carol’s voice rises in volume and screams ‘It’s one and three’ then in more regulated tones ‘We’ll have to get these priced up Vera or we’ll get no bloody peace all day!’

OK so you get the picture, still a personal, not quite slick shopping experience; the check out being the main problem. My mother, who is pretty assertive, would not pay her bill until she had packed all her shopping into her shopping bags. If she paid up too early the purchases of the next shopper would pile down the chute on top of her own and she would be racing to get her bags filled so as not to get in the way. The whole paying experience was rather stressful.

In time I began my own relationships with men and supermarkets. One day I decided to do the weekly shop. I was wandering towards the entrance, list in hand, when the doors in front of me opened, all by themselves! The smell of freshly baked bread titillated my nose and a vision of white floors and shining steel shelves presented themselves to my wondering eyes. It was like something from science fiction. The supermarket as we know it today had been born. No longer did we back through doors, hands laden with shopping bags, no longer were the next person’s goods sent towards us before we were ready. We were being asked for our opinion and the shop was listening. Goods suddenly had nutritional information on the back, packages were regulated so we didn’t open up a great big box and find one cornflake inside. Everything was aimed at keeping the customer happy. And we are, we got what we asked for, we now take it for granted and why not.

So much did I take for granted that I popped over the road to my local Iceland one evening after work. That morning I had parked my car behind the shop, so having trotted in through the front doors, which opened obligingly. I filled my trolley with whatever I needed and paid my bill at the bleeping, rolling, smiling checkout.

As there were only about four of them I gathered up my bags in my hands and headed to the back of the shop to get to my car. I stood impatiently in front of the back door waiting for it to open. Nothing. An assistant was passing by and I remarked, over my shoulder, that the door seemed to be faulty. Came the withering reply: ‘You need to push it madam’.

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