Helen Martin: Supermarkets have us in bag

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THE onward march of the supermarket is generally perceived as a bad thing. When supermarkets were big, as the name implies, they were limited by the availability of vast sites.

But their foray into the territory of the convenience store, the not-so-super supermarket, has changed the rules of the game, not to mention the look of the high street.

In Bruntsfield, there is outrage that the big deli, Peckham’s, is now to become a small Sainsbury’s.

It’s easy to understand the anger. Independent shops add to the character of the community, supermarkets detract from the individuality of the street. Sainsbury’s livery is Sainsbury’s livery whether it’s in Bruntsfield or Birmingham.

Small shops, and the people who run them and work in them, can’t compete with supermarkets’ economies of scale, bulk buying and squeezing of suppliers.

With cut-price offers, vast advertising budgets and acres of display space, the supermarkets are on a different playing field.

The quality of their produce may be similar, better or often worse, but for a sizeable shop it is almost always cheaper overall. It is convenient too – a one-stop shop.

The problem in Bruntsfield is that Tesco is only a stone’s throw away at Holy Corner. The more supermarkets move into an area, the angrier residents get. One is tolerable, even two begin to feel like a Borg invasion.

What’s interestingly elitist about the Bruntsfield situation is that no-one mentions that within another short stone’s throw is Waitrose in Morningside and, beyond that, Marks & Spencer, presumably because they are a “different type” of supermarket. They are at the upper end of the market, they cost more, they major on more luxurious groceries and they make the area look, well, affluent and classy.

In fact, Peckham’s, or Nastiuks which was there before it, might still have been happily and profitably trading away if it wasn’t for the nearby existence of Waitrose and M&S, which posed much more direct competition than Tesco or Sainsbury’s could in a month of Sundays.

As shoppers, we have a sometimes snobby, schizoid, love-hate relationship with supermarkets, blaming them for all the ills under the sun, from polybag pollution to the demise of local “character” and independent shops. But they would have no impact at all if we didn’t use them and choose them.

Our ideals and noble community spirit always caves in in the face of what a supermarket, even a convenience model, has to offer – the innumerable BOGOFs, the specials, the one-stop handiness that panders to our busy, time-poor lifestyles. And if they have a car park, so much the better.

Despite all the protests and alleged resistance to them, supermarkets fit the way we live today. It’s lovely to stroll round Bruntsfield, Morningside or Stockbridge on a hassle-free weekend afternoon, or on holiday, popping in and out of independent shops, picking up a fancy selection of sausages here, or a smelly soap there, browsing around quirky gift shops, or buying a couple of cupcakes. But that’s not household shopping, it’s a leisure activity.

We no longer have the time to shop in the old-fashioned way, several times a week, toting bags from shop to shop gathering meat, fish, fruit and veg, bread, cheese, toilet rolls and eggs from several one-man Arkwright purveyors. Worse still, even if we have the time, we don’t have the inclination any more.

Supermarkets may only “end bake” their “homemade bread”, their filleting skills might make a real fishmonger weep, their “butchers” may never have heard of rose veal, and common sense tells us a huge proportion of their “fresh” goods have already been frozen or are so pumped full of preservatives to extend their shelf life that the very word “fresh” loses all meaning.

We can know all that, mourn the disappearance of independent shops and despair as yet another of the “big four” extends its empire into our communities. Perhaps even the occasional protest will be so vociferous that a supermarket might back off, or a council might refuse planning or change of use permission.

But, deep down, we all know that once the building is made over, the signage is up and the doors are open, the people will come.

Beat it

TRADE unions are there to defend the jobs and conditions of their members, so who can blame Unison for claiming that 2000 behind-the-scenes police employees will lose their jobs under the government’s plans to create a single Scottish force instead of the current eight?

But hang on. Surely saving money, or at least not squandering it, by eliminating duplication of staff is the whole point of the exercise.

I think most of us were expecting more efficient economies than reducing each force by an average of just 250. For all the upheaval that’s going to be involved, plus the concern over service levels to the public, some would argue the axe will have to cut deeper into the backroom body count than that to be worthwhile.