Belfast Telegraph

We've made supermarkets pay the price, now it's time to check them out again...

By Rosie Millard

Just when you feel assured that society is committed to going one way, because progress and television insists that it must be so, the unforeseen happens and whoa!

There is a volte-face, and suddenly progress doesn't look so sure-footed.

This is what is going on with the suddenly unfashionable must-have, the Kindle, and it seems to be happening with our supermarkets.

Having peered into the future, which was all about the abandonment of books, and giant food halls groaning with processed nutrition, all at once people have voted with their feet, and started walking back into bookshops and ordinary street markets.

It fills me with a sort of unruly joy not only because paperback books are back, but also because Tesco is now flogging off some of its shops (43 to be precise), which have become unprofitable. Well, they always said capitalism was ruthless.

Tesco has also mothballed plans to open a further 49 stores. Meanwhile, arch-rival Sainsbury's has just announced that its sales fell over the Christmas season for the first time in a decade, and to cap it all, even though it had a jaunty festive ad, M&S also had a disappointing Christmas. Essentially, Marks has had to swallow the unappetising pill that its posh ready-made food is not actually cutting the mustard.

I know about this because my parents, aged 83 and 84 and who don't always feel like cooking, eat quite a lot of ready-made food. So I sometimes see the contents of the lasagne and fish pies that they buy, and frankly they are more high altitude than high-end.

The supermarket gloom, all of which suggests that people are preferring to do their monthly shop at discount stores, and topping up by shopping little and often in the local market, is being held up by personal anecdote. "I can't remember the last time I went to a supermarket," said a friend of mine last night. "I just go locally these days."

Ringing my older sister, I was told by one of her five children that she was "out at Lidl". This was a first. But it won't be a last. When I finally got hold of her, she was full of the joys of Lidl's winners, namely bargain olive oil, cheap salami and, er, affordable horse blankets. Not that she owns a horse. But horse blankets are the sort of strange things that are sold in the middle aisle at Lidl.

Habits are changing. Now that many people's working hours are utterly porous, thanks in part to our smartphones and the unsleeping modem, our shopping hours have become similarly undisciplined. Nine-to-five working hours are not necessarily the norm.

So it has become much easier, not to mention an awful lot cheaper, to rely on daily foraging, rather than a weekly military operation, for household necessities.

The other thing is that we are not stupid.

People are feeling the pinch in their wallets, and have steadily ignored the BOGOF tempters in the big four supermarkets. They have done the figures, helped by online comparison sites and good old-fashioned adding up. They have then walked away and bought stuff which is weighed personally, paid for in cash and given to you in a brown bag. The prices for fruit and veg in your local market are so much less than those in a supposedly "good-value" supermarket, they almost make one gasp and stretch one's eyes.

Of course, the supermarkets are not going to go down without a fight.

The fact that Tesco has just slashed the price on more than 300 separate food items in its stores this week, and advertised that fact in all the papers, is just the beginning of it.

Plus, as a Channel 4 Dispatches showed recently, local convenience stores such as the Co-op aren't quite as cheap as they might be.

So perhaps now, having kicked them where it hurts, and keeping your new-found affinity to the greengrocer and local butcher, it's time for us to show the supermarkets a teeny bit of residual love, and take advantage of these super-low prices.

Only, if you are going to go back take a basket rather than a trolley. Remember to shop at the end of the aisles (where the bargains are), and above all, stick to your list. Be mean, and keep them keen.

Belfast Telegraph


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