Britain's longstanding exclusive relationship with the supermarkets is in terminal decline
Ten years ago, I published my anti-supermarket book, Shopped, to a warm reception. In print, on air, at live events, audiences showed a surprising willingness to accept the charge sheet drawn up against our big chains. Supermarkets had closed down small shops, operated a feudal system with their suppliers, bullied their way into communities, encouraged consumption of rubbish food, generated unprecedented levels of food and packaging waste and clocked up environmentally ruinous food miles; this much was relatively uncontroversial. The stumbling block came when I said that I successfully organised my own food shopping so that I rarely used them.
While a persistent minority always knew from personal experience that this was perfectly feasible, the more common reaction was that the idea of writing the once-a-week supermarket shopping trip out of your life, however appealing and laudably idealistic, was as impractical as making your own clothes. While we might lament the damage supermarkets had caused, and resent the dismal, uniform tedium of the shopping experience, supermarkets were a non-negotiable feature of modern life.
And yet a decade on, the supermarket sector is in meltdown. An overstatement? Hardly. In the cool-headed assessment of the Grocer magazine, the most authoritative voice on UK food retail, "consumers are abandoning supermarkets in their droves". Tesco, once the darling of the stock market, the government's pet performing British company, is in the most acute distress. From January to June this year, its profits crashed by 92%. Investigators have yet to plumb the depths of the big black hole in its books. Morrisons is also in a bad way - its pre-tax profit for the six months to August was halved. Sainsbury's share price has dropped. Even the supposedly trend-bucking Waitrose cannot be complacent: its profits for the first half of this year slumped by 9.4%.
Overall, sales at the "big four" supermarkets - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons - have been stagnant, or in decline, since last May, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. Rating agency Moody's predicts that their profit margins and sales will shrink further.
Two German discount chains, Aldi and Lidl, acted as the immediate nemesis of the fat, smug, greedy status quo of British food retail. They dealt a deadly blow to our familiar chains by exposing just how expensive they really are and continue to shave grocery market share off them. Before the discounters appeared, most British consumers swallowed the attractive proposition that UK supermarkets offer unbeatable value for money. In truth, they overcharge routinely, putting a minimum 30% mark-up on everything they sell, although the most egregious margins are systematically squeezed from sales of fruit and vegetables.
Our indigenous UK supermarket oligopoly got away with this because it talked in a labyrinthine "price-matching" language of loyalty cards, vouchers and points, guaranteed to tie even the most diligent price comparer in knots. When the German chains arrived in town with clear, unequivocal low prices, our native chains were exposed as grasping opportunists.
Once you know that Lidl can sell three pomegranates for £1.25, why on earth would you stump up £1 each elsewhere?
And when the penny drops that Aldi charges you 98p for a kilo of satsumas, a corrosive worm of suspicion lodges in the brain as to why Tesco wants you to pay £2.50 for the same thing.
The consumer following that the big four took for granted for the last 30 years was not based on emotional loyalty, but on pragmatism. What's the alternative? They're cheap. They're in my area. But now that the myth of low prices has been demolished, we are primed to pick away at a scab formed over long-suppressed grievances. Frustrated communities the length and breadth of Britain have watched dismayed as supermarkets have used their bullying might to foist unneeded stores on them. But when last September, the small town of Sherborne in Dorset sent Tesco packing, it showed that a community could say no to this chain and win.
Supersize supermarket formats, "extra"-type stores are now written off by analysts as white elephants, an over-enthusiastic last century blunder. The big four pin their recovery hopes on smaller shops, but a long-established critique of the mind-numbing homogeneity of the shopping experience they offer resonates more widely.
The British grocery marketplace was beginning to fit the standard critique of food retailing in the Soviet Union: everyone shops in the same places and all the food they sell is the same. In this respect, those disillusioned with our big chains are unlikely simply to transfer their business to drab, limited and functional Aldi or Lidl.
But the discounters have done the UK a service by shaking up our shopping habits. More of us now shop more frequently for food and don't expect to buy everything in one place. And this is good news for the lively, ever more buoyant and creative independent retail sector that, after three dark decades, has gathered its breath and is now going from strength to strength.
Falsely characterised by defenders of the supermarket system as a turn-the-clock-back indulgence for those who would prefer to live in the 1950s, the truth now is that the most interesting and genuinely varied food is now to be found there. Traditional markets, small shops, farmers markets, box schemes, bread clubs, food co-ops and online enterprises are all holding their own or doing better than before. The alternatives to supermarkets not only look more attractive, but increasingly shrewd and practical.
Britain's longstanding exclusive relationship with the supermarkets is in terminal decline as more people conclude that they have had quite enough of devoting a morning to driving to a soul-crushing store, buying the same things and paying ever more for them each week.
This is no mere passing argument, but an irretrievable relationship breakdown, one built on slow-burning resentment, from which there is no way back.
Joanna Blythman is the author of Shopped (Fourth Estate). Her new book, Swallow This, an investigation of the processed food industry, will be published in February
The Observer Food Monthly's award for best independent retailer 2014 went to Delifonseca of Liverpool. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Observer