Debate | Are supermarkets that super?

60 years ago local, independent food stores were at the heart of the high street and greengrocers were the cornerstone of our communities. Now, big brand supermarkets dominate the nation’s shopping habits. The ‘big four’: Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons are responsible for over 75 per cent of the UK grocery market. LS debate asks, do we benefit from supermarkets as a society?


Rebecca Gray

First Year Politics and Parliamentary Studies

Supermarkets are seen as the pinnacle of all capitalist evil but, despite their poor reputation in the press, their role in making our lives more manageable is undeniable. As the nuclear family and the stay at home mother are becoming a thing of the past modern day consumers demand and deserve more freedom. They want to shop at convenient locations, at convenient times. Shoppers do not benefit from small high street grocers that close just as you leave work.

The practicality of 24 hour supermarkets means you can shop when it suits you and the global production process ensures that fresh food is readily available and on the shelves when you need it to be. With the introduction of Internet shopping the weekly shop is now more accessible than ever. Food is brought to your kitchen at a time that suits your routine. The huge range that the superstores now stock also allows you to buy your groceries and a month’s supply of alcohol while also topping up your mobile, picking up that last minute birthday gift and a plethora of other goods. Supermarkets stock a wide range of products from TVs to tents, from plates to perfume; the choice is incredible.

Crucially, the fierce competition between supermarket chains creates healthy competition. With the majority of people in the country living within five miles of five different supermarket chains, the big names have to battle it out to gain customer loyalty. This means price cuts, special offers and loyalty cards that give rewards to customers who shop in a certain store regularly. It is these benefits that make a family of four’s income, or even a student’s loan, go that little bit further every month. I’m sure most people are aware of schemes such as Tesco’s Price Promise, Sainsburys’ Brand Match and Asda’s Price Guarantee; evidence of the scramble to cut the cost of branded foods that we eat every day. This intense rivalry has recently sparked inventive new ways for supermarket chains to appeal to the public. A number have chosen to publish magazines packed with seasonal recipes, quick-fix home decorating tips and health and beauty advice. These publications are accompanied by strong marketing promotions that endorse healthy eating, the local sourcing of fresh food and the encouragement of home baking, a hobby that has taken Britain by storm over the past few years.

A further benefit of large corporations is their ability to invest in the local community. Over the past decade, supermarkets have provided schools with millions of pounds worth of sports equipment, and they have consistently supported Red Nose Day, Comic Relief and Cancer Research as well as contributing to local charities. It is worth highlighting that there are thousands of supermarkets in Britain creating thousands of jobs for both skilled and unskilled workers. The increasing availability of ‘flexi-time’ work also supports and gives opportunities to those in society, for example single mothers, who have difficulty balancing their work and home lives. The wages may not be the equivalent of the banker’s bonuses, but, as Tesco keeps telling us, in a time of recession and austerity, every little helps.

Although our supermarkets cannot always claim the moral high ground, they have certainly adapted to support a modern day lifestyle. They have revolutionised the way we buy food, and their popularity speaks for itself.


Edd Colbert

Fourth Year International Development and International Relations

Supermarkets have undoubtedly complemented our modern urbanised lifestyles. Yet this is not to say they benefit our society, rather that they support a completely food insecure society riddled with diseases of affluence. The breakdown in people’s connection with the provenance of the food not only led to problematic situations such as the horse meat scandal, but has also resulted in the destruction of rural economies and a major decrease in the number of young farmers in the UK. This disjuncture between the seed and the shelf is the result of supermarkets – the reason why a number of children today believe ‘food comes from [insert supermarket name]’.

As men and women have begun to work longer hours over the past decade, supermarkets have catered for their needs by offering 24 hour opening. Yet suggesting that smaller, independent stores could not do likewise is neglecting the fact that the majority of these retailers had closed their  doors long before people started working increasingly unsociable hours. The decline in the number of independent food retailers was triggered by the arrival of these larger stores. Whereas independent food retailers would generate revenue for local economies, supermarkets leach money from communities and invest it in their own back pockets.

The race to rock bottom prices due to high levels of competition between the big four has led supermarkets to offset the cost of food onto rural economies and the environment. The drive for ‘cheap meat’ has not only given rise to the infamous factory farming of livestock, but it has dramatically reduced the number of high welfare farmers out of business. Take pig farming as an example: the price competition between supermarkets means that we now import 60 per cent of the pork consumed in this country from places such as Denmark, Holland and, in some cases, Chile. The immoral contracts imposed on arable and dairy farmers by supermarkets further restricts access to an already monopolized market. These contracts leave farmers vulnerable to market fluctuations, often leading supermarkets to abandon British farmers at the last minute in pursuit of cheaper products from abroad.

A few years ago British dairy producers, the supermarkets’ primary ‘loss leaders’, began receiving less than the cost of production for a pint of milk. The idea that customers ever ‘demanded’ such prices is a farce. Customers will of course select a cheaper option over a more expensive option of what looks like the same product, but it is the supermarkets that demand this happens to increase their profit margins.  The recent trend for supermarkets to ‘invest’ in local communities via charities similarly  disgusting. Supermarkets don’t care about making children computer literate or better at sport; they care about ensuring that children grow up knowing their brand. The further attempt of supermarkets to act as nutritional advisors to their customers is equally appalling. The very fact that healthier food options are more expensive than junk food demonstrates the profit-motives behind keeping these proposals from being realised.

Supermarkets not only promote an inherently food insecure and unhealthy society, but they actually do their fair share in creating this dysfunctional society in the first place. Their increasing success demonstrates their monopolistic control of the way we sustain ourselves but this is beginning to be challenged. Indeed, what is apparent is that we need change.

In an online exclusive, Florence Scott carries on the discussion here



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