The torrid time being endured by the big supermarket chains keeps reaching the news at the moment – from Tesco’s financial blunders and its mothballing of new superstores to the first falling sales at Sainsbury’s in years. Sales at the biggest grocery chains are flatlining.
A better future for food shopping
Articles aplenty have set out the reasons: the bite of austerity that means shoppers have quit the weekly superstore binge in favour of regular trips to small local shops; awareness of food waste and just how much good food we throw away; loss of trust in the big names in the wake of the horsemeat scandal; and the real challenge – the rise of the discounters now targeting not only those with the tightest belts but the more affluent middle classes.
So it’s mostly doom and gloom for the Big Four: Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons - although the discounters have reasons to be cheerful. And perhaps there are reasons for the rest of us to be cheerful, too, at this turn of events. The big chains have ramped up their stores and taken a huge chunk of the market over the past 30 to 40 years. We have seen an onslaught of supermarkets halted only when communities challenged new superstores they didn’t want or need. Few would doubt that the major chains won all the big battles but lost a few skirmishes. So now we are saturated with grocery stores – and in 2012 there were another incredible 44 million square feet in the planning pipeline, enough to build more than 1,500 new superstores. On the way, many a high street has suffered and become moribund.
So forgive me for rejoicing a little if the big chains are no longer getting it all their own way. They have acted far too long to bolster their own position at the expense of the other food retailers – the smaller shops in towns and villages – that suffer or die when a new supersize-me store opens up. I doubt those behemoths really cared much for the impact they would have on smaller businesses, the suppliers who relied on smaller outlets for a market, or the villages and people who would suffer when their local shop closed or the high street went into decline. So there’s an element of poetic justice if these chains now themselves face more intense competition.
But I hope there’s another upside: that part of the downturn or stagnation in sales at the Big Four comes from people realising there is a better way to shop and that better way is to start to shop at a much wider range than just one supermarket. People might be realising that it’s just a whole lot more interesting to go to markets, farm shops, farmers markets or join box schemes, than battle in a vast shed with overwhelming arrays of produce. That trading the superstore experience for something more modest but more exciting, artisanal produce, local, distinctive, perhaps made by the person who sold it to you, can help you enjoy food and food shopping more– and enable you to support someone from your patch, someone you meet, something a bit different.
So let’s hope that supermarkets continue trade on what they are good at – stocking up on the store cupboard essentials and non-food products – but that many more people begin to seek out and discover local food and support a new array of businesses that grow, produce and sell it. Let’s hope that councils discover that revitalising food and bringing it back into town centres can create a new buzz and joy in going shopping. Let’s hope they find ways to support new outlets and new markets and regenerate the traditional ones. Let’s hope Government sits up and takes notice and drives forward policies that support real diversity in our shops.
There’s a final, more serious side to this story – the big chains don’t want to trade with thousands of small businesses. Tesco has a producer network of 2000 businesses globally across 47 countries but and turnover in 2014 of £48 billion in the UK alone. In our research into local food webs we found more than 2,000 different businesses supplying to local food outlets in 19 towns and cities across England with estimated turnover of around £132 million. If the big chains take a huge market share then the market disappears for smaller businesses, shops and the producers and growers who supply them – this is what has happened in the past 40 years.
Thankfully, there are signs that new businesses can start to supply those outlets and create jobs and opportunities locally and businesses that spend more in their own local economies. There’s real hope that there’ll be a much better choice in the future of where to buy food than by driving to that weekly ‘big shop’. Give it a go, seek out some local food and don’t look back.
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