Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Head of Waitrose Bemoans Lack of Choice in Traditional Grocers.

In an unashamed piece of PR spin in today's Daily Mail, Mark Price, head of supermarket giant Waitrose, extols the virtues of supermarkets such as his own.

In a brash swipe at independent grocers of a former age, the CEO states that,

"British food retailers do an incredible job providing great food to the nation. If any of us were to be transported back to the grocery stores of only 20 years ago, I think we would be dismayed at the lack of variety and inspiration."

The claim that independent retailers provided limited a limited range of food products in the past is one often made by apologists for the industrialised food sector. The problem with Mark Price's claim is that the independent grocery stores of 1991 had already been decimated by the scale of the factory-food-supermarket monopoly.

By that time, local wholesale fruit and veg markets had been closed across numerous cities in Britain, pushed out of business by global firms whose purchasing power and market dominance had lead to farmers being forced into punishing deals with the large supermarkets. A similar story befell the locally-sourced meat and fish markets that historically provided for the local, independently-owned retail market.

In the course of the replacement of the local food market with the globalised industrial model, the reality is that customer choice was drastically reduced in several key respects. Apples are a typical example of this decline. There are 6,000 varieties of English apples. Many are extremely localised. Yet, how often at any of the supermarkets do shoppers have a chance to buy an Adam's Pearmain, a Hampshire, a Tallow Pippen or half a dozen Hoary Mornings?

The logic of global supply chains and maximised profits means that children growing up today will almost never eat anything other Coxes, Royal Gala or Bramleys - though they will be exposed to French Golden Delicious, Granny Smiths, and other imports flown in from New Zealand and South Africa.

The narrative that supermarkets have increased choice is true only if we compare the processed packaged food on offer with that available when local independents were on their death bed twenty years ago. A comparison with an earlier age will reveal that choice has been drastically reduced.

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