Six kinds of strawberry jam? It's ridiculous
I am not a great fan of doing chores. I guess that's why they're called chores. However, there is one task that I used to treasure - the family food shopping. I like food and I like shopping. What's not to like? What's not to like nowadays is, on the one hand, the ruinous prices of the small specialist shop and the other a deeply oppressive buying environment of the supermarket chain.
I recently retreated in panic from a deli where I was expected to pay £3 for a small white loaf and £4 for a bit of emmenthal that would barely feed a mouse. I was driven into a large branch of my local supermarket. I felt that the moment I entered, I was the pawn in some psychological game where I did not know the rules. The bread and the cheese were half the price. However, that was where my sense of satisfaction stopped and anxiety took over. Because somehow I knew that someone somewhere was determined that I didn't just walk out with the cheese and the bread.
Bright packages and alluring typography called out to me everywhere like sirens. The weight of choice was oppressive - six kinds of strawberry jam, 20 blends and strengths of coffee, 15 types of cheddar. The sense of being manipulated is overwhelming - the fact that they had put the staples, such as bread, in the deepest part of the shop, is just one of the many tricks designers use to break your will and draw you into the "supermarket experience".
Trying to buy anything was an immediate mindfuck, because apparently I couldn't just buy one thing. Everything was two for one or three for two, or, in one remarkable instance, five for four. It struck me forcefully that you were not being rewarded for buying in bulk, but punished for buying singly. I needed some ham, but I gave up my search for a small pack of ham as the single item was nearly 80% of the price of two and I only wanted one.
I turned to the wine. I felt like I would like to uncork a litre of red and down it there and then. I wanted a bargain. However, I had visited this supermarket often enough to notice that the half-price wines simply popped up and down, just long enough to justify - legally - the idea of having been "on sale" in the first place. They were cheap wines artificially surcharged then "reduced" to the proper price. Like the "mix and match", they were a swindle.
The minutes were ticking away. I considered one of the deals where you get a three-course meal for two for £10 including wine, but gave up after remembering that the last one I had bought tasted of nothing but sugar and salt. The "ethically sound" shelves tugged at my conscience, while the gourmet section tempted me with almond calisson at £13.99 and spelt dinkelbrot. I didn't know what either of these delicacies were, but I knew I wanted them.
I needed some steak, but knew that meat from supermarkets tastes like something that had an unhappy death. Eventually, bedazzled and confused, I forced myself out with just the two purchases - after 20 minutes wandering dazedly - only to be faced with the self-checkout, and the incantation "unexpected item in bagging area". How unexpected can it be? Yes I had a small, temporary victory over the social psychologists and marketeers, but felt thoroughly dismayed by the whole experience.
If someone invented a supermarket that was a) small b) good quality c) good value and d) entirely free of spurious "special offers", I would cross town to get to it. As it is, I am going to start shopping online. It's not going to save the high street, but it might just preserve my sanity and my wallet. Two, in fact, for the price of one.
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Photo: Tim Lott: 'Bright packages and alluring typography called out to me everywhere like sirens.' Photograph: Karen Robinson