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Supermarkets: Good or Bad?

Almost all of us have visited a supermarket, but why do we go there? OK, the obvious answer is 'to buy things', but why do we go specifically to a supermarket rather than a local 'corner store' or somewhere else? Is it good that we go to a supermarket, or perhaps we should be shopping elsewhere? The answer probably depends on who you are and what you think about a large number of different issues such as 'value for money' , 'convenience', 'fair trade', 'food quality', 'freedom of choice' and so on.

This page explains what a supermarket is, and presents some views given by various people and organisations. Of course, different people (interested parties) have different views and it's not always possible to please everyone. The views on this page have been selected to represent a wide range of interested parties but fall into two categories; for supermarkets and against them.


What is a Supermarket?

Supermarkets first became popular in the 1950's when many grocery shops became 'self-service'. Until then shops had all used the ' over-the-counter method' of selling where customers told a shopkeeper what they wanted, and he / she got if off shelving behind the counter.

The new supermarkets used an open plan arrangement, which allowed customers to browse along shelving to select goods for themselves

Today, most supermarkets are run by national or multi-national retail chains like Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Waitrose. They carry a wide range of competitively priced "own brand" as well as branded goods.

There are other supermarkets run by voluntary chains like Alliance and Spar. These also started life in the late fifties when several independent grocery shops realised that they couldn't compete with the big supermarket chains. They organised themselves into groups and used their collective power to bulk buy at a discount from wholesalers. They were then able to pass on the discount to their customers. Although these shops use the name of the group's chain (Spar etc) and sell "own brand" goods they are not owned by the chain. They are privately owned businesses that choose to be part of a collective chain. They do this because if they tried to survive on their own, the costs would be too high for them to compete with larger supermarkets and they would go out of business.


Supermarkets - Good or Bad?
Supermarkets are good because ...
Supermarkets are bad because ...
Bulk transportation of goods is the most economical way of moving items. A single ship load of bananas is less expensive to move than using a dozen smaller ships. We see this all around us. Oil and gas comes to the UK in vast ships and is distributed in large road tankers and huge pipelines - and in the early 1900's London used to get milk brought all the way from Devon and Cornwall by trains belching out thick black coal smoke. Customers want products from around the world (how else do you get fresh fruit and vegetables in December? ) and food can't move all by itself! Shopping at supermarkets pollutes the environment and damages human health because the biggest single cause of global warming is vehicle pollution. The average item of food purchased from a supermarket travels over 1000 miles; by lorry/plane from the producer to the store and then by car from the store to the consumer. As well as causing severe environmental damage, the pollution caused by supermarket-generated traffic is a major contributor to rising levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Supermarkets have to work with suppliers who are local as well as far away. The need to supply good quality products at low prices means that they can't do business with farmers who don't produce good quality products in large quantities. Their research shows that customers want good looking food, not apples covered in scabs and bruises, so they don't stock food that looks bad. In the modern world there are other ways for small farms to sell their produce, like farmers markets and farm shops. Shopping at supermarkets is destroying British agriculture and ruining the countryside. 60-70% of all food now passes through four companies; Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway and Asda. This control over the food chain allows supermarkets to determine the price they pay to farmers, with farmers forced to take that price due to there being no other buyer left in the market place.Big farmers are getting bigger to survive while small farmers are going bust, leading to farming monoculture and unemployment.
Supermarkets work only with suppliers who can provide good quality products in large quantities. Because supermarkets can only sell things that customers want, they listen very carefully to customers views. Supermarkets have used their power to make sure that animals farmed for their products have good, healthy lives. They joined in calls for Britain to have some of the best animal welfare laws in the world, and usually carry organic and 'farm fresh' product lines. Shopping at supermarkets supports factory farming, poor animal welfare and the spread of disease. Due to public pressure, the UK now has some of the highest farm animal welfare standards in the world. Maintaining standards costs money, and this makes home grown produce like pigs, chickens and sheep more expensive to rear here than in countries with lower standards and lower costs. Supermarkets now source large amounts of the meat they sell from abroad. It is perfectly legal for them to disguise foreign products by using 'Union Jack' or 'Produce of the UK' stickers that indicate that the products have been processed/packed here. Processing and packing does not mean lived, reared and died !
Supermarkets can bring huge benefits to local communities. Their restaurant areas prove good meeting places for shoppers, and their large car parks make shopping easier and more convenient. They often invest in the local areas as part of the agreement when they build a new shop. Typically, supermarkets provide local sports centres, parks, play areas and better roads. Shopping at supermarkets damages local communities and undermines local economies
People only buy a set quantity of food, so if they buy it in a supermarket, they won't buy it in local shops as well. That puts village shops and high street stores out of business. Every supermarket that opens results in a net loss of 200-300 jobs, as a whole network of local shops and their suppliers is destroyed.
Supermarkets employ many local people and often employ from disadvantaged groups too. Tesco have made a point of employing long term unemployed people and giving free training to improve their future employability. Money goes to share holders and suppliers too, but if you sell products that can't be made locally, you have to pay people who aren't local! You don't stop buying petrol because it's not extracted and refined locally, and you don't complain about your TV licence fee paying for imported USA TV. Supermarkets are owned by people who don't live locally, or even in the same country. The money you spend there does not go back into the local economy, whereas money spent in independent shops tends to stay in the local economy. Because the supermarket HQ and bosses live elsewhere, the money goes elsewhere, into the bank accounts of distant shareholders. Even the plastic bags are made en masse at central locations, sometimes in totally different countries.

Well packaged products last longer, are safer to eat and look better. No body complains about eggs being in egg boxes to protect them, so why complain about oranges being in a bag to keep them together, or bread being wrapped in plastic to keep germs and dirty fingers off it.

Products do travel long distances, but if consumers want foreign foods (and they do!) we have to package them well to make sure they reach the UK in good condition. We are only providing what you, the customers, want.

Shopping at supermarkets results in totally unnecessary, environmentally polluting and costly packaging.
Due to the vast distances that supermarket food travels, the time it takes to make that journey, and the need for the product to be stacked on a shelf, and fitted with a barcode, supermarket food is encased in far more packaging than is used by local production and distribution networks. Food 'looks' have to be preserved so products are coated in plastic, packed in airtight covers, stuck to large cardboard sheets to make handling easier, or promoted by being given bright packaging.
If supermarkets didn't buy from developing countries such places wouldn't have such large farms or produce as many crops. To say that the land would be used for local crops and feeding local people isn't always true because to produce the quantities of food that supermarket farmers do requires high technology, irrigation and specialised packing and shipping. Most developing countries couldn't afford to do that and still sell the food at prices local people could afford. Shopping at supermarkets exploits both the people and the land of developing countries
To keep costs low and to maximise profits, supermarkets buy the food they sell from the developing world where wages are low, working conditions poor and pollution laws less strict or non existent. This leads to countries starting to depend on foreign buyers for cash and devoting more land to export crops. People who can barely feed themselves see their best agricultural land producing food for UK supermarkets at rock bottom prices.
Supermarkets have opened up huge markets for developing countries to export their foods. You can't grow mangos, avocados, oranges, bananas and similar fruits in the UK so they have to be imported. To get a good selection of quality fruits, supermarkets pick the best types available and concentrate on providing perfect examples of the best products. After all, how many different types of apple can you name, and would you notice the difference anyway? Shopping at supermarkets reduces both bio diversity in the countryside and choice for the consumer. There are 2,300 apple varieties and 550 pear varieties in the National Fruit Collection, but you can only choose from a small handful of each in the supermarket. To make the best profit on a national scale, supermarkets tell farmers to grow two or three varieties in large enough quantities to supply all their stores.
Shopping at supermarkets turns meals into exciting and convenient experiences. Traditional shopping using several different shops in order to prepare a single meal meant that shoppers had to spend much longer finding ingredients. The ingredients they found could vary in quality from day to day and shoppers were unlikely to be exposed to new ingredients or ready cooked meals. Time taken in gathering ingredients and making basic foods was wasted time. Buying a pre-made meal of known quality can raise the eating experience of a family. Shopping at supermarkets reduces meals from being an important and enjoyable part of life to a refueling exercise
The continual priority given to shelf life and uniformity of size/colour/shape over taste has resulted in supermarket produce being a bland imitation of what food can and should taste like. How many top chefs shop at supermarkets other than in the adverts?
Supermarkets give customers exactly what they want - quality and low prices. If they didn't, they wouldn't be responsible for 70 to 80% of the UK food sales would they? Supermarkets only have a high market share because their low prices drive other local shops out of business. If there were more local shops and they weren't deliberately undercut in price by supermarkets, people would support local businesses instead.
Modern shoppers have busy lives. They want to shop at convenient locations and at convenient times. Shops that close just as you leave work are no use to working people, and more and more couples now both work. Most meals are easy to cook and you don't need help or advice, especially if the supermarket has already prepared the ingredients for you. You can just select a meal, take it home and eat it. Perfect! Modern shoppers aren't much different to shoppers of years ago. They want to buy good products from a range of well priced items. They don't mind visiting specialist shops where shop keepers really know their products. They like going to a butcher who can offer advice on meat, a fishmonger who can fillet the fish for you, and a greengrocer who can suggest ways to cook new vegetables. Home cooking is a family bonding experience and can also result in healthier meals for the whole family.

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