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14 March 2005

Shopped

I've recently read Joanna Blythman's book, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets and fundamentally I agree that supermarkets are limiting our options and in part adding to the ongoing ignorance of the British food buying market.

However, I feel that in much of the book Blythman shoots herself in the foot. There are many examples of her contradicting herself and her argument is very one sided.

The most blatant contradiction is her sweeping statement that food purchasing on continental Europe is totally different to that we experience in the UK. She conjours up street markets in little Normandy villages, or Provencal hillsides. However, she then goes on to refer to the likes of Carrefour, Casino and Ahold in the same breath as Tesco, Sainsbury's et al.  As such, she seems so intent on proving her point that the supermarket phenomena is unique to the UK that she blanks out all other information that points to the contrary. The significance of this is that if in France or wherever they're able to have a combination of the street markets and the supermarkets then there is hope for us. I realise in the UK we don't have the ingrained history of daily/weekly markets but nonetheless those markets that do exist are growing and entering general consciousness. I also think that with things like Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better campaign which appeal to a mass audience, there is a growing awareness (not just amongst the chattering classes) of the importance of knowing about the food we eat.

As for the one-sided argument, she constantly casts the supplier as the poor innocent dupe and the consumer squeezed between this end-of-the-world struggle between supermarket and supplier. She goes to great length quoting anonymous suppliers noting what supermarkets had done to them and across the board it comes across as heinous. But all I keep thinking is, they would say that wouldn't they. It is obviously a good thing that Blythman has given the suppliers the opportunity to have a voice but I can't help but feel that if they were a bit more organised - formed some sort of collective - they would have far more power with supermarkets. Blythman might respond that this gives the supermarkets the excuse to increase their own brand products that she intimates is their end goal but I disagree with this. I fail to see how consumers will be weened off their branded goods on to own brand items, whether we're talking food or non-food items. Clearly there is a market for own brand, but I think the problems that M&S have faced is a clear example where once the own-brand gets even slightly tainted, perception of the entire brand takes a nose-dive.

Finally, she makes no reference to the importance supermarkets play in keeping the prices down on non-food items. Interestingly it is non-food items that they are increasingly moving viz Tesco and Asda. You might argue this proves her point, that they are squeezing food down to the minimum, serving the lowest quality at the highest price. The flip side to that coin is their acceptance that they can't offer us the quality we're now demanding, we're widening our food shopping horizons and therefore they are branching out in to new profit centres.

As I said at the beginning, the book is well intentioned with many good points. But, I feel it is overly simplistic in its analysis and as such might be unconvincing to many, which is a shame because fundamentally she has point.

(This was first posted on egullet)

Blythman J, 2005, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, Perennial (ISBN: 0007158041)

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