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The rule of the supermarket in British life.

Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets. Joanna Blythman. Fourth Estate. [pounds sterling]12.99. xv + 368 pages. ISBN 0-00-715803.

Imagine you had let into your house (a mansion) a group of new servants, who promised to enlarge your lives by making them easier, showing you things you never knew existed and saving you money. For many years these servants--named Asda, Tesco, Safeway, Waitrose, Sainsbury and several others--did exactly what they promised, and your life was enriched beyond measure. But gradually they became what a medieval king would have called 'over-mighty subjects', and began to raid your wallet and bank account, to fill your larder with inferior goods and generally to tyrannise over you. They serve other masters--not you, but their shareholders--and if you ever have a fleeting wish to go back to old, pre-supermarket, ways, you find to your surprise that the old suppliers you dealt with are not there any more, or are uncommonly surly.

Joanna Blythman has produced a tract for the times, dissecting the supermarket culture and suggesting ways of bringing it to heel. Before I say too much in her praise, let me say what her weakness is. She romanticises the pre-supermarket shopping culture, almost to the extent of an old sepia postcard showing a high street in which children in pinafores are looking at the butcher as he loads his pony and trap. Anyone who can remember housekeeping in the 1950s and 60s will recall the abominable service we had from the old British high street. The shops only sold one line of goods each. You bought meat at the butchers, stationery at the stationers. There were no trolleys; you carried it all in a bag you provided. If there was a hill, you climbed it. If it rained, you got wet. If you forgot an item, you went back. The shops shut at 5.30 p.m., plus one afternoon a week. The service was provided by untrained and underpaid assistants, and it showed. If you had come by car, you had had a struggle to park it.

The memory of thirteen years of rationing was still fresh and raw. The need to 'register' with a butcher and a grocer; the opportunities for favouritism, to produce something from 'under the counter'; and the universal phrase if you asked for something in short supply: 'Don't you know there's a war on'? had all contributed to make the British shop-keeper literally hated. So, when Jack Cohen (founder of Tesco) introduced an American idea of staggering simplicity he was hailed as a saviour. The idea was simply that if you let the customers into the store-room, they would not rob you but would do half the shop-keeper's work, fill their baskets from the shelves and then meekly queue to pay for it.

Now, however, the supermarkets have taken over. The deceptions they practise on the customer are manifold. Every meat dish tastes the same; so does every fish dish. No wonder; the E-numbers see to that. The pictures on the packet are the most appetising things about them. Joanna Blythman doesn't mention the English used on the packets, with its emphasis on 'fresh', 'rich', 'delicious', 'Mediterranean-style', and so forth, but I imagine attics where Oxbridge graduates with Firsts in English churn out this stuff, while dreaming of better jobs--writing headlines for The Sun, perhaps. But the customers are not the most deceived. The principal sufferers are the suppliers, and most of Joanna Blythman's book is spent on the way these farmers, food processors and nurserymen are systematically ground down by the supermarket buyers.

This came as a revelation to this reviewer. I had assumed that the buyers would be people of standing and experience, at least in their thirties, with some years of dealing with growers of vegetables or manufacturers of cosmetics. In fact, they are people in their twenties with one concern only, to 'widen the margins', i.e., to buy as cheaply as possible, using techniques of manipulation that can be applied equally to suppliers of meat or jeans or fruit juice. Pity the producer of something the supermarket finds attractive: he will be asked to devote his whole effort to supplying one chain, promising to supply no-one else, and thereafter spending sleepless weekends fearing 'de-listing', while various consignments, which seemed all right to him, are rejected for whimsical reasons.

This is a necessary book, and I recommend it. I close by observing that Tesco employs 140,000 people, or 40,000 more than British Army. I admire Tesco, on the whole, and visit regularly. But, when the (frozen) chips are down, I do not think the Shelf-Stackers Light Tinned Brigade is more important to this country than a real armoured brigade, and I find it strange that we have a society and an economy that seems to think so.
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Author:Wedd, George
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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