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Comment: do we really dislike shopping for food?

It’s maybe no surprise that Borough Market is one of the top tourist attractions in London because I suspect I’m not alone in making a beeline… View Article


Comment: do we really dislike shopping for food?

It’s maybe no surprise that Borough Market is one of the top tourist attractions in London because I suspect I’m not alone in making a beeline for the local food markets when I travel abroad.

I’m thinking of the visceral experiences enjoyed at La Bocqueria in Barcelona, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse in Lyon, Mercato Centrale in Florence, and Mercado San Miguel in Madrid.

Although they don’t quite capture the unique flavours of these European classics there are a growing number of food markets in the UK that are now well worth a visit. This follows a heightened appreciation of such markets by consumers, which has led to something of a renaissance around the country. Altrincham and Barnsley were pioneers in resurrecting the out-of-favour town centre food markets and have been followed by the likes of Chester, Doncaster and Crewe.

While growing numbers of people around the country have been falling in love with food over the past decade or two – considering its provenance, seasonality and locality – the chief providers of food have arguably been going in the opposite direction. The major grocers had for years told the British consumer that they hated shopping for food and the supermarkets’ aim was to make the time spent in-store as short as possible. They helped fuel this scenario by making the experience as sterile as possible for shoppers.

But they arguably couldn’t hold the line indefinitely as the country became obsessed with TV cookery programmes, celebrity chefs, and bought books by Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson in the millions. The supermarkets recognised they needed to boost the food experience in-store, which led to the appearance of bakeries and deli counters along with fishmongers and butchers. In the case of Tesco it also acquired food and drink businesses including the Harris + Hoole coffee shops and Euphorium Bakery and introduced branches of these into its larger superstores.

These brands were deemed non-core when a new management moved in at Tesco and were sold off. Meanwhile the deli counters were clearly something that required care and attention as well as money spent on them if they were employing genuine butchers and fishmongers. Rather sadly there was a lack of willingness to commit ongoing money and resources to the counters and they merely offered the exact same products that could be bought pre-packaged off the shelves mere feet away.

Taking this forward to 2020 and Sainsbury’s removed all its in-store meat, fish and deli counters and more recently we have had Tesco announce it is to close its remaining food counters and hot delis having earlier shuttered many of them from its stores. It seems the experiment to add a bit of theatre and food experience into the British supermarket is now over.

The strategies across the board have very firmly shifted to a more cost-focused dynamic. The objective of the major grocers is to compete on price with Aldi and Lidl and jettison any efforts at putting food choice at the heart of their businesses. With these moves the offers of the big supermarkets are very much aligned and the level of differentiation between them has shrunk.

This will no doubt enable them to return to spinning the old line that the British shopper does not really enjoy shopping for food. Because they have stripped their outlets of many of the things of appeal then their argument – within their own domains at least – will be absolutely correct. This is incredibly disappointing because it reflects a race to the bottom by the UK supermarkets.

Interestingly these moves come at a time when the large grocers have an abundance of square footage in many of their stores – partly as a result of range rationalisations, reductions in the non-food items they now stock and the rise of home shopping. To address this they have been collaborating with various non-food retailers and service providers to introduce concessions to utilise this space.

Rather than looking outside their businesses they should instead focus more on what they are supposed to be good at – specialists in food – and make things more interesting. Many of us do actually like shopping for food and it’s not just when we are on holiday.

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