Ideally we would all like to shop like the French, strolling, complete with picturesque wicker basket, along the local high street, buying bread from excellent bakeries, discussing freshness with the fishmonger, choosing cuts from the butcher. When I lived in Paris, I shopped virtually every day. But in the UK, parking restrictions, the lack of good local shops, a dearth of artisanal bakeries, make this fantasy of continental shopping unlikely.
Food shopping is increasingly done online, even students such as my daughter get their shopping delivered to campus. The British shop online more than any other country in the developed world.
Shopping online only works for products you already know. Who gets inspired for a seasonal dinner when shopping online?
I enjoy food shopping, I’ll admit that I even enjoy going to supermarkets. The first thing I do when going abroad is check out the street market, tick, but also the supermarket. You find out more about a culture from supermarket shelves than from guidebooks; what products are most popular, what is deemed highly necessary. The entire aisles of pasta, vistas of varieties of tinned tomatoes, the green and gold bottles and tins in the olive oil section, lined up like the finest wines with prices to match, tell you about Italy. A Mexican supermarket will have stacks of ready fried tortillas and dozens of salsas. Most supermarkets also sell gadgets. In Italy it’s vital to have a tomato grinder and espresso pot, while in Mexico possessing a tortilla press is bog-standard, and in the UK, a kitchen isn’t complete without an electric kettle and toaster.
France, along with the fantastic small shops, traiteurs, bakeries and markets, also has more hypermarkets than any other country, so artisanal food businesses don’t necessarily mean no big business. But I have remarked that French supermarkets stock local products and specialities from their region. Even their petrol station shops along the autoroutes carry local foods from the area.
Going to a supermarket in this country is a dispiriting business. While we all enjoy going to outdoor food markets when the weather is good, supermarkets on the other hand are soulless and joyless. There is greenish strip-lighting, ugly plastic/metal shelving and displays, unmotivated staff who know little about food and the same old brands hogging the space. Rarely are local food, local producers and suppliers celebrated. The cookbooks are by telly chefs, the in-house coffee shop, if it exists, are now chains.
How much time does the average family food shop take? At least a couple of hours a week. Why can’t this be a pleasurable experience? The neglect of our high streets is part of the landscape now, people like to drive to one place to get their shopping. Since the first supermarket (which opened in Streatham in 1951), the big four supermarkets, Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda and Morrisons, have benefited hugely so do they not owe us something? Time to give back to the community? How about they spend some of their massive profits on improving the food shopping experience? Some trickle down?
I have a dream, an idea of a shopping revolution that would mirror what happened to book shops in the 1990s. Supermarkets would become fun places, more like Wholefoods, but cheaper. Here are a few ideas:
- Local food: local suppliers and producers being given shelf space. To have shelf space at the end of a supermarket aisle costs £5k. Make sure that some of the shelf space is affordable for small producers.
- Aesthetics: nicer lighting. I loathe fluorescent strip lighting. Shelving and shop fittings in attractive colours and natural materials.
- Supermarkets have all kinds of tricks to make their food look ‘alive’: smells piped in, fresh produce near the entrance. Can’t we make the food more enticing without such fakery?
- Live music: support local artists and musicians. Friday night gigs.
- Sofas, nice seating areas: have an area. Make a supermarket more like a cool cafe where you want to hang out there.
- Demonstration kitchens: local chefs could advertise their restaurants and educate people on how to cook
- Talks about food: debates and panels, question and answer sessions.
- Stock more interesting cookbooks not just telly chefs.
- Train the staff. The amount of times I’ve asked for a food product and the staff don’t know/care anything about food or cooking. We want curious food fascinated staff. My local Tesco has staff mainly originating from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. So, for example, when I ask for vegetarian haggis or Greek vine leaves, they immediately reply ‘no we don’t have it’. Two minutes later I find it on the shelves. Two comments about this: staff should be given the opportunity to taste new products that come into the supermarket. They should be educated about food. Secondly, the specific knowledge of staff’s origins and home cuisine should be reflected. All staff should have name badges detailing what they like to cook and their area of speciality knowledge. Staff should be given cooking lessons. Working in a supermarket should be a cool job.
- Tastings for customers. Not some crappy mass produced product who have the money to spend on aisle space but good food, new food. Educate.
- Information for customers: on seasonality, what to eat this month. Not talking down to them, not frightening them with food scares. Inform them about other kinds of diets: vegetarianism for instance. Actively discourage them from buying cheap meat. Show them how to manage their food budget.
There has been much talk about the food revolution in the UK. Everyone is instagramming their dinner, going to/hosting supper clubs, attending street food markets, eating trendy fast food, eating out more often, watching aspirational food TV. But this is primarily young urban trendies with income to spare. How about really making a food revolution? The supermarkets are in the best position, in terms of money and retail space, to make this happen. They have a social responsibility to enable this.
In fact I challenge the big four: give me a supermarket and let me play with it.
What would you like to see in supermarkets? What ideas do you have to improve the experience?