I’ve always thought, and argued from time to time, that the appeal of supermarkets was largely mystical, or, in the sense used by Roland Barthes, mythological. The mystique or mythology is a combination of unlimited material abundance and modernity: these vast, gleaming, spotlessly clean warehouses are not just stores where we go to buy produce but temples where we worship our contemporary gods. These are the gods of consumerism, who do not demand sacrifices in the usual sense, but rather the opposite: they command us to heap our trolleys high, with goods whose fleshly origins, instead of being laid bare in their bloody reality, are cosmetically smoothed over with polish and packaging.
In supermarkets it is not just money, as in the Roman saying, which does not smell: nothing smells; decay and corruption (not to mention the precise provenance of many goods) are kept at bay and out of sight. These are temples of a materialism which is strangely immaterial; even the earth that normally sticks to potatoes has been replaced by a synthetic substitute.
My idea that supermarkets are not really about practicality but about mystique may seem counter-intuitive, or plain daft, given the immense power and success of these retail behemoths, based apparently on two eminently non-mystical advantages: convenience and price.
There is no denying that the first of these attributes has a certain power and persuasiveness; where else can you buy Bollinger, bog paper and freshly baked organic boule from adjacent aisles? And then you can probably take out a mortgage and renew your house insurance policy while you are checking out the aforesaid items (no matter if this brings on apoplexy in the people behind you in the queue).
The idea of being able to do all your shopping in one expedition is certainly tempting, and I do not claim to be immune from its temptation. All I can say is that I have experimented recently with using supermarkets less; and the less I use them, the better I feel.
One of the reasons for this could be rather pompously termed disaggregation. Once you start disaggregating the supermarket, or separating its apparently overwhelming offering into component parts, the mystique starts to shatter. Take the aforementioned organic boule, which is a kind of loaf: it is more or less edible, but I have yet to find bread baked in a supermarket that is really good, that is a match for the excellent bread I can buy from specialist bakers.
Fish and loaves have gone together since at least New Testament times. My local large supermarket has a dedicated fish counter staffed by knowledgable fishmongers, one Portuguese, one Vietnamese – charming guys who really know their fish – but there is still something rather sad about it. The counter is hidden away in an obscure corner of the immense emporium, and little patronised, so there is none of the bustle and banter you get in our excellent fishmonger on Golborne Road.
While we are being biblical, we might as well move on to wine. Supermarkets have proved immensely adept at selling wine, with the result that more than 75 per cent of wine bought in the UK comes from supermarkets. No doubt they are also good at making deals, or squeezing suppliers, sometimes to the benefit of consumers. But the nature of their business, predicated on large volumes and readiness of supply, militates against the provision of really fine wines, not to mention the kind of service – the ability to discuss wine, as it deserves to be discussed, in detail and in its finer points, at a personal level – that can be provided by a specialist wine merchant.
I do sometimes buy wine from supermarkets but usually I’m aware while doing so that I’m sacrificing something – call it soul, call it cultural biodiversity – to the gods of convenience. Once again, you can disaggregate not just the supermarket itself but its component parts, in this case the wine selection. If I am really interested in, say, Italian wines, would I find a satisfying selection in the supermarket?
Probably not: my local one relies heavily on one or two big firms that provide standardised versions of well-known denominations (Chianti, Barolo, Prosecco). You will not find a single Sagrantino, or Aglianico, or Morellino di Scansano. I would do far better to make a small expedition to a specialist shop such as Lea & Sandeman, whose buyers trawl the peninsula seeking not just the reliable, but the excellent.
That leaves price. The idea that supermarkets are always cheaper is plainly nonsense. Every time I bother to walk across the canal to a nearby street market, I am astonished by the (reasonable) price of vegetables and fruit, seldom more than half the price of what I find in the supermarket. Milk (but pity the squeezed farmers) and branded products may be cheaper in a supermarket, but not much else. And that is not to mention their infernal habit of persuading you to buy things you do not really need.
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