What role do supermarkets play in your life?

Once upon a time there were no supermarkets. Most people who have grown up in Australia have forgotten or never known a life without sheds filled with neat aisles of groceries and the ka-ching! (or bloop!) at the checkout. As tourists or concerned consumers, many of us love produce markets and some of us regard supermarkets as fairly evil, but we are still largely dependent on a lifestyle with supermarkets close to the core.

What role does the supermarket play in your practical life and in your issues-driven decision-making?

I’m going to list a few of the many issues surrounding supermarkets and my own feelings, then invite comments.

It can be argued pretty well that supermarkets in Australia:

(+) brought more variety into people’s lives
(+) helped people explore new foods and cuisines
(+) give some people access to better ethical choices, such as organic food
(+) often help consumers save heaps of money

(-) are greatly responsible for the pervasive consumer obsession with low prices
(-) strongly distort the retail market, imposing restrictive supply and pricing arrangements on producers/manfacturers
(-) make massive profits while claiming to be working in the consumers’ interest
(-) often charge much higher prices for fresh produce than small retailers or markets
(-) promote convenience and price, often at the expense of quality and, increasingly, variety

It could also be argued (though opinions are more likely to differ) that supermarkets:

  • promote a self-focused lifestyle of convenience (Gobbler pointed out in a comment recently that this can be more perceived than real)
  • reflect consumer trends or what manufacturers claim are consumer trends
  • reduce the amount of thought that consumers put into food choices
  • present consumers with too many unhealthy or unethical options
  • offer a picture of food which is too distant from reality (seasonality, cost, etc)
  • only react constructively to consumer issues when they see a profit opportunity


So what do I think and do?

We’re spoilt for choice and seduced by cheap goods, sometimes so cheap that you doubt whether the supplier actually gets more than a cent, gross, for each unit. None of this is transparent – I can’t know whether a house-brand item at $1.50 is of more benefit to the producer or manufacturer than the $1.95 other brand. I don’t know whether a cut-price special is a loss-leader for the supermarket or a massive discount extracted from a supplier. In general, I make my choice based on quality or a measure of price-quality-conscience based on my budget.

I try to buy Australian rather than imported products, except where a local equivalent is too poor to compare. (A difficult decision, and different people will have different thresholds, of course!)

I have no loyalty to a particular supermarket chain because I’ve heard enough stories from suppliers about how each chain controls the availability of products and makes it hard for new products or small suppliers to make it onto the shelves (shelf space is often bought by manufacturers).

I try not to buy fresh produce of any sort from the supermarket.

I would like to be able to buy more fresh produce from quality suppliers with a good approach to their livestock, their producers and/or the environment. Often this isn’t possible because I can’t easily buy bulk. My work schedule frequently gets in the way of going to markets. And my budget often makes it impossible to go for the choices I would prefer. (For those of you with the space for bulk purchasing or looking for alternative sources, A Goddess in the Kitchen has a good post which mentions in the comments some suppliers worth considering (Rutherglen Lamb, Aussie Farmers Direct).)

So what about you?

Do you try to avoid supermarkets or embrace them? What solutions work for your ethical, environmental, or personal perspectives? Remember, the focus here is on supermarkets.

[Note: A few valuable comments on this theme after a previous article may have been drowned out at the time, so those readers are welcome to repeat themselves here if appropriate.]

24 thoughts on “What role do supermarkets play in your life?”

  1. It depends. This week I was busy and missed the markets so defaulted to IGA, which although further away from Coles of Safeway is the preferred choice of supermarket. I prefer the markets but where else do you go for bog roll, bog standard salt and McVities digestives than the supermarket? It’s all a matter of convenience a bit like the Smash which my mother used for a while despite the fact we had perfectly good spuds growing in the garden.

  2. I think this is a great topic for discussion, Duncan! A few recent posts and comments around the Aussie blogosphere have portrayed the typical supermarket shopper as a thoughtless consumer who prepares only two-minute meals and I think we’re underestimating the full scope of our supermarket culture if we stop there. I, for example, shop at one of the Big Two several times a week as well as cooking most meals from scratch.

    Why? Because when I walk home from work at 6pm or so, they’re all that’s open. I don’t plan most of our meals any further ahead than that. I do have an interest in the principles of SOLE and have taken a few steps to assuage my supermarket-guilt. First, Michael and I split the shopping list and he buys the fresh (mostly seasonal) produce from a independent grocer. Second, I avoid the supermarket’s own brand of products wherever possible in the hope that this will help maintain diversity on the shelves.

  3. Supermarkets – necessary evil in my life. I try to minimise what I buy there. But, much as I support my local stores, like to buy organic and from small providors, it’s just too darned expensive to do this all the time.

    So I buy fruit and veg from Harris Farm market and small producers wherever possible. I buy some stuff locally, but do use the supermarket for toilet roll, frozen vegies, baked beans, yoghurt.

    Other thought – as a shopping experience supermarkets are the pits. And Aldi is the worst of the pits. I feel every ounce of joy and happiness being sucked out of my body within five minutes of entering. They are the Dementors of the food shopping world.

  4. I’m not sure if our supermarkets are the same. My idea of a supermarket is an air-conditioned space that is a collection of all sorts of packaged products sold by piece (not by bulk), with sections for dairy, meat, seafood, fruits, and vegetables. Plus housewares. Only two chains here have house brands. We also have the warehouse-types that sell by bulk.
    I’m mostly very appreciative of supermarkets, because they make my “exotic” ingredient lists a cakewalk. I don’t expect to find molasses, raspberry preserves, Nutella, instant espresso, canned artichokes, mustard, and aluminum foil anywhere else. Least of all not under one roof. Perhaps the worst thing that supermarkets do in my book is put up fresh produce of questionable quality. And this manifests itself most in those pre-plastic wrapped fruits that you picture above. Some of the grapes under the superficial layer are moldy and squished. They even sell pre-cut mangoes and melons. Why?!?
    We get all our meat from the supermarket because outside of the specialized (ergo expensive) butchers, it’s the only place where the cleanliness standard is quite high.

  5. Great range of comments so far:) Many important issues there.

    @Manggy: your perspective adds another valuable layer to our understanding of the supermarket’s role for consumers in different places. By the way, the plastic-wrapped fruit in the title picture is actually from Portugal. An egregious excess in packaging. Thankfully, most Aus supermarkets don’t approach this level! We also don’t have the warehouse supermarkets like Costco yet… within 12 months things will have changed.

    @Kathryn: imagine that Aldi is actually lovely in comparison to some of the even more basic, soulless chains in Europe (Penny, ED, …)! Conversely, the main British supermarkets have done a lot in making the experience more pleasant in the last eight years, driven by tighter competition and greater consumer concern about food (origin, organics, etc).

  6. I adore the romance of wandering down to the local butcher, popping in next door to the fruit n veg and stopping by the bakery on the way home (as I did when I lived in rural England). It made my relationship with food so much more intimate. And if they were all neatly ensconced in my local shopping centre, I still would.

    However, with a raucous toddler in tow these days I don’t have time (read: energy/wherewithall) to traipse all over town in search of various wares. It’s all I can do to get in & out of the supermarket before a nuclear meltdown!

  7. Duncan,
    Interesting post as always. I must admit that I live in small, yet upscale neighborhood in Northern California. Yes, we do have one big name super market, though it’s a big name supermarket, the actual store is pretty small. I never seen too many people shop there either. We have another local market, it is more of a gourmet market, though it is notorious for its high price, they do sell a lot of local produce and has the best meat and fish and dairy product! I would never dream to buy fish or meat from other super market, not even from Whole Foods (it is an organic big chain super market in the U.S), which also close by from our down town. The other market is only sell fresh produce, lot’s of them are from local/neighboring farm. This one is more of like farmer’s market, if you wish. The sell the best and the freshest veggies and fruits.
    So, these are two market that I have been very loyal to for years. And the nice thing about them is, if they don’t carry product that I need, I would just ask them and they’ll be happy to provide it.

    So, do I hate or love, oppose or embrace big chain super market? No, none of that! because I know that for most people, big chain super market is convenience and offer much more affordable goods!

  8. A topic that always generates a good discussion Duncan.
    Supermarkets are not evil.
    Charlene Chong gave a paper at the last Sympsosium of Gastronomy in Dover, Tasmania last year that expanded her theory. She argues that she is a generation that only ‘knows’ the supermarket & hasn’t been conditioned to see them as anything other than what they are on the surface, that is, a big shop.
    I have written about the supermarket paradox on a few occasions so you know where I stand on this issue but as Ed put it so delicately. ‘Where else to you get bog roll?’
    The other glaring issue is that supermarkets are businesses & they will bend to the demands of the market. Unfortunately for many of us F__dies in blogaphere, we appear to be on the fringes of what the mainstream want & consume so we’ll always feel under represented by what these markets offer. Until we become the mainstream I reckon supermarkets will continue to disappoint us.

  9. As others have mentioned, I cannot get away from using supermarkets for many staples – pasta, tinned toms, rice etc, especially if I cannot get the time to go to markets on the weekend. I never buy fresh produce from the supermarkets (unless I am desperate) as there are some decent green grocers around (but not butchers where I live)

    The home brand issue upsets me a little, as I think the idea behind the low prices is to get everyone to buy homebrand and then once the other brands have been killed off, increase the price of the home brand products, leading to less choice and higher prices. Or maybe that is my cynical view.

    Two issues from the last few weeks
    1) I had a mental breakdown in the supermarkets trying to choose milk. Its milk, why are there 20 different brands and why are there vitamins and minerals added to it??? There is no scientific proof that the body can even absorb vitamins and minerls when assed as supplemetns or in tablet form. I am mad enough that they pasturise it, why muck around with something so simple?
    2) I wanted some barley for a soup this weekend. Why do coles and safeway not stock barley? it is a basic grain. They have millions of different types of prepackaged low fat snack products and meals and 2 minute rice, but not a simple grain. ARgghh!

    I should add that I was broken by the supermarkets this weekend so am a bitter person. And it really depends where you live as to how well stocked they are. The supermarkets were my mum lives has much better choice in products

  10. I too believe supermarkets have their place in the average lifestyles of today’s food consumers, especially those working full-time 5 or more days out of every week. Like others above, they offer us convenience for impromptu (and after-hours) gathering of dinner supplies. We get most of our household consumables and alot of non-perishable foodstuffs from the supermarkets (these in particular are too expensive elsewhere) and admittedly often meat as well, though with the latter we make it a habit to first visit the long suffering butchers located just outside its giant rival. If they have what we want and the price is reasonable, we’ll get some meat there in preference to the big-two. On the weekends where we’ve made it to the fresh produce markets (like QVM) we will get most of our week’s fruits and vegies plus seafood/meat then, as to us greens and fish are the worst produce (based on visual appeal and selection) at the supermkts. But even though we enjoy the markets, we don’t spend every weekend visiting them (whether no opportunity or desire), so again the supers supplement some fruit/vegie shortfall.
    Being only two of us it is not realistic to bulk purchase fresh vegies/fruits like some others do. Half will go the way of the green furry creeping unmentionable before we get to them! And sharing involves too much commitment for the parties involved and has never worked for long (from past experiences).
    You bought up an important point on their role in introducing variety and new foods into ppl’s lives. I’m sure many have first purchased anchovies/nori/fish sauce/etc for recipes calling for these ‘exotic’ ingredients at the supermkts! Asian/Mediterranean/Indian grocery stores located at every suburb and corner wasn’t the norm not that long ago (especially in cities other than Melb/Syd) and even now many do feel intimidated by venturing directly into ‘foreign’ territory. But after first introductions and ever incresaing exposure, folks learn and may then go after better/more authentic brands etc from the smaller shops. My point is, the supermkt was probably the wading pool to gain familiarity.

  11. When it comes to the grocery shopping. My life has changed considerably in the last 18 months. When I lived in Brisbane, I had my local butcher who supplied me with home made Italian sausages, organic meat and so on. I had my local fruit shop that I would buy my produce from all the time which was stocked directly from the markets and the farmer. I had several great deli’s where I could get my freshly sliced small goods and wonderful cheeses. I could buy home made cannoli and Italian almond biscuits at a little bakery down the road. I could get prawns that had been cooked that morning at the seafood place I always went to at New Farm.

    Now I am only subjected to big name supermarkets here in Townsville. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to know that the bananas and mangoes I buy here, that are grown in North Queensland, travel all the way to the Brisbane markets first. They then get bought and shipped back up here on trucks and then I can finally buy them. There are absolutely no descent fruit shops here. The two fantastic deli’s here are an hour south in Ayr and an hour north in Ingham. The markets here on the weekend are mainly full of cheap arse fruit and veg that is nearly off. I have no choice but to shop at Woolworths. Even the Coles supermarkets here have nothing on the ones in Brisbane. Our IGA’s are run by 15 year olds that don’t have a clue how to even stack fruit.

    But with change you must learn to adjust. I find that Woolworths is stocking heaps of options that I never looked at before when I lived in Brisbane. I have no choice but to spend time searching for the unique things I want in Woolworths and surprisingly they obviously realize the lack of shopping here and they are giving us the options. So in a way Woolworths has made it bearable for a foodie like me. So as much as I miss the fact that I had so many options when I lived in Brisbane, I am grateful that Woolworths can provide such a variety for me here in Townsville.

    I understand the whole debate about small suppliers and all that big supermarkets are doing to them, but when you are faced with no options unlike the choice in larger cities, I can’t help but be grateful they exsist even if it is only for your bog roll in a big city.

  12. I used to think the little labels on fruit and veg at supermarkets were a pain in the backside, but now its the only way you can tell where produce comes from.
    Supermarkets for me have become a stop of last resort and give me panic attacks if I have to spend more than a couple of minutes inside one. I only shop at small markets and directly from growers and makers. I don’t deal with wine reps only winemakers.
    All cool Duncan.

  13. I think supermarkets have their place too. I mean, like Ed and others have said, where else are you going to buy necessities such as toilet paper, toothpaste, shampoo etc.

    The supermarket is a second option for fruit and veg, meats and seafood for me. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever bought any seafood from a supermarket. I used to buy my deli items at a supermarket too, but now I go to the local deli as it has much more choice and the food are of a much higher quality.

    The supermarkets obviously has it’s limitations if you like to eat more “exotic” food. I’m lucky that I’m so close to Springvale and all my Asian goods are covered. But for others, even get Asian groceries would mean a trip to the supermarkets. Actually, Springvale Coles stock things like Durian even, at a really good price. On the whole, the supermarket is a really convenient place to drop by after work when everything else is closed.

  14. Straight up – I use Supermarkets. I recall the first, Dickens, opening 500 yards from my aunt & uncle in North Balwyn in the very early ’60s. The excitement and joy that followed, help yourself, rows & rows of great variety. While I agree with Duncan about the variety & new foods, I also include a quote from a book I was reading last night while looking for recipes for beef tendons.

    “Despite the fact, therefore, that U.S. grocery stores now stock an average of 7,525 different food items versus only 867 in 1928, the implication with respect to dietary variety is clearly deceptive, since a vast majority of currently available food items are expensive, prepackaged, and often precooked and processed foods. The actual variety of fresh protein foods readily available to the average consumer is far narrower today than in 1928. Present marketing and advertising policies of food manufacturers are designed to promote these trends ever further…”

    “……deterioration of the American diet can best be attributed, therefore, to a complex combination of affluence, laziness, and parental permissiveness, the biggest encourager of which probably has been a rapidly accelerating concentration of ownership and management in the food-producing, processing, and marketing industries, with increasing integration of operations, beginning in the 1930s….”

    “Efficient exploitation of “convenience-laziness” considerations, often in the partially false guise of household economics, by these growing food-producing-processing-marketing industries, particularly as they have become increasingly merged into giant financial conglomerates, has pressured and cajoled the American consumer into a dietary conformity and mediocrity of taste rarely matched elsewhere in the world….”

    Sorry that it is so long & feel free to cut it back/out. It is from Unmetionable Cuisine by the late Calvin Schwabe (1979). That was long before Petrini et al set up Slowfood.
    We are never going to get rid of supermarkets, but hopefully we can change consumer trends and not have them created by manufacturers/ advertising agencies. The Gruen Transfer on ABC is a good watch.

  15. I love the Gruen Transfer. Theonly show I am watching at the moment.

    Back on topic. I don’t love supermarkets. Well the big 2 anyway. I shop at Leos (IGA) when I have to do the supermarket thing. I am fortunate that I am able to buy most things in bulk or from markets (including bog roll!) I make my own cleaning products. Since I recently lost my raw milk contact milk is about the only thing I need to buy from the supermarket. That’s only because I can’t get the unhomogenised organic anywhere else close to home. I actually can’t think of anything else I buy from the supermarket. So for me, the supermarket is a rarity. The luxury of cooking for 4, having a second freezer, large pantry and only being in part time paid employment.

    One of my main objections to supermarkets is actually cost. On quality whole goods I can get better prices wholesale or at markets or direct from farmers. Particularly as I buy most things in bulk.

    Hope I’m coherent, Lil Miss is climbing on my head.

  16. I’m blown away by how interesting and diverse these comments have been. Keep them coming. It’s great seeing how we all reach our own decisions about how to manage our circumstances and ideals.

    @Ran: my Safeway sells barley… piled at the end of the meat section… go figure.

    @Thermomixer: although I agree broadly with the sentiments in the quote, the American supermarket experience is *usually* very different from ours, with far less of the basic ingredient diversity we see here, and far more of the processed stuff.

  17. Great comments. I just wanted to add that Briish supermarkets, Tesco, Sainburys and Waitrose have always had the edge on Australian ones with better design and more diverse produce. We tend to follow the trends here.Also Coles and Woolies/Safeway tend to stock and price according to the local environs. That’s why they differ in range and you’ll be ripped off at some. Aldi in contrast is pitching itself as being far more transparent with no difference in pricing across it’s stores which is a much more honest approach and shows much more respect for customers. The only thing is whether you’ll put up with no brand versus the brand you love. I still remember the wonderful days when the David Jones Foodchain was in St Kilda. They had a notice board where customers could ask questions or for products to be stocked. It was modeled on a famous US-supermarket, the name of which escapes me for now. Staff across the board were empowered to answer questions candidly and it really worked – until the plug was pulled, of course.

  18. Duncan – thats the other thing i hate about safeway and coles – it doesnt always make sense where they stock things. I have seen couscous in all sorts of not obvious parts of the market (wouldnt it make sense to always have it in the pasta section??? apparently not!)

  19. Ran, I find it confusing, too. Why, I wonder did my local Safeway decide to move the sugar from the baking aisle to the tea and coffee aisle? (Answer offered by my helpful marketing/advertising savvy partner is that it is so that one gets confused and has to wander back, passing more shopping ‘opportunities’ along the way!)

    Yep. It’s the toilet paper/liver treats (for dog, not me)/toothpaste thing that draws me in at least once a week. It’s convenient. But I never, ever buy anything fresh from them. I’d far rather pick and choose my own variety of produce as it’s the backbone and bulk of my diet.

    When I worked full-time for other people the supermarkets really were a saviour – open late, lots of choice…that choice seems to have narrowed of late, though.

    For a while I shopped at Macro Wholefoods, but you know, they’ve become the most expensive ‘supermarket’ in Australia. A woman in front of me spent $653.00 on one small trolley’s worth of stuff – much of it things she didn’t need to buy including bio-friendly cleaning products (from Europe for gawd’s sake). I wanted to grab her and show her that a bottle of cheap vinegar and a box of bi-carb soda from the supermarket of your choice is all one needs for a clean home. Needless to say, I only shop there once a month for beans and lentils and the like now.

    Gosh. How I’ve rambled.

    But you know what? I detest the Gruen Transfer… nothing I didn’t already know, I’m afraid. How clever that advertisers have finlly found a way to get themselves on the ABC. Hmmm…

  20. I actually find going to markets and some specialty shops a bit daunting, particularly when you’re trying to order in a foreign language (as it is for me in France). I mean, how exactly do you ask for just the right amount of food you want when it doesn’t come wrapped up in a supermarket style package? An English friend of mine once ended up with an enormous tub of houmous because he didn’t know how to order it properly. And he paid the price for it too!

    Another friend of mine went to a fruit and veg shop to get me some ginger (a smallish piece is all I needed) but came away with a big bag of fruit too because he felt silly just buying a 50 cent piece of ginger.

    Anyway, I’ve overcome my phobia of buying from markets, and have learnt over time how to avoid getting stage fright at the shop counter. A few French language tips were also helpful!

  21. I’m with OldCook…Many times I’ve abandoned a half-laden trolley mid shop because I’ve stacked a wobbly…me, not the trolley! Now even driving into a supermarket carpark makes me queasy. Am lucky that our little independent supermarket in the village stocks an ok range of items & the owner will do his best to order something in if you ask. That & a local Sunday village market keeps us fed & me sane-ish. What a fab blog this is!

  22. I think this is a very interesting conversation.
    I use supermarkets but prefer online so I dont have to physically go.I prefer to buy meat and veg at markets or local shops if possible.
    I cant believe Ed thought supermarkets in UK are good. I lived in London for a year and Sainsbury and Tesco are great if you want a ‘ready meal’ (never). Waitrose better but very expensive and everything packaged beyond proportion.

  23. I haven’t shopped in Safeway or Coles for over a year. I went into the QV Safeway recently to buy a single, $1.70 item and found the experience so unsettling: the lights, the noise, the garishness, the acres of products, even the heights of the shelves. We talk about society being ‘desensitised’ to many things, and I believe one of them is how hideous and disorientating supermarkets are, for the express purpose of lulling/subversing people into excessive purchasing habits.

    I’m part of AC Neilsen’s Homescan program, so every week I send a statistics company details of everything I’ve bought. Much of the produce and most of the shops I visit can’t be identified in the data as they’re not catered for in the options given to me to scan – what I find most interesting about that is the bias to keep recording information on what is already the norm, rather than discovering what people are doing outside the box.

    My biggest issue with consumption is its excess, and supermarkets indulge constantly in pushing consumers to excess. A lot of grocery bills are high because they include so many products that will languish in fridge/pantry. If I could push society into the European model of buying bread from a shop that makes bread, meat from a shop that carves meat, fresh produce that was picked that week I’d feel so much more content. I know there are arguments for calling supermarkets more convenient, but in so many places we no longer go there because it’s convenient, but because they’ve outgunned any other option.

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