News last week that Sainsbury?s has lost a whole percentage point of market share to 19% in the first three months of 1999, helped by that ghastly hectoring ad campaign by dear old John Cleese occurs amid the current Government investigations into claims that supermarkets? margins are too high. Unless we happen to be shareholders, most of us I suspect will be rather pleased that Sainsburys?, such a symbol of eighties Thatcherite excess, is suffering. For it has become somehow fashionable to knock supermarkets as if we suspect they both manipulate and exploit us. Such ingratitude and inconsistency ! Our wallets are filled with their loyalty cards and our cupboards groan unnecessarily with their 2 for 1 special offers and as we can avoid anything but temptation, we are bound to them body and soul. But like the Church in Victorian times they seem all-powerful, inescapable institutions and so even though our faith in them is absolute, we love to kick out against them.
I have in fact long suspected that supermarkets are our new religion. Look at those pointy spires on supermarket buildings, and the people streaming in each Sunday, while real churches struggle for good attendance figures. What a winning creed supermarkets offer! No wonder the Church of Scotland periodically rails against such competition. And though we aisle fodder are now wise to supermarkets? little tricks such as the ersatz incense of baking bread, their triple points offered on things we don?t need, and that most blatant symbol of conversion, loyalty cards delivering a promised land of ISAs and the Internet, yet we remain in thrall. For we believe they save us time and money, commodities more precious these days than our souls. And like all effective church services, they provide an experience which appeals to all the senses and makes us feel loved.
Asda is particularly good at this. On a visit to their Edinburgh A1 branch before Christmas, I detected a positive charismatically evangelical cunnning about their choice of music playing over the loudspeakers. That old James Bond number ?Nobody Does it better? sang out amid the joyless throng of exhausted thirty and forty somethings wheeling late life toddlers down the aisles. The song obviously rekindled memories of past romance, of smooching at parties in student flats. A musak hymn to that sweet bird of youth, long since swallowed up by fish fingers. I then witnessed a positive stampede to the sparkling wine as the target market decided that, sod it, there was still life in her yet. Nice one Asda. Bigger margins there than on the kiddy meals.
Allan Breese of Taylor Nelson Sofres Superpanel Unit which tracks 10,000 households tells me that the average supermarket shopper is nowadays not merely buying what is on a shopping list but is searching for ?meal solutions?. How spiritual. "The housewife goes in knowing she must feed her family five times and therefore looks for solutions she can easily prepare. Hence the huge rise in ethnic pre-prepared meals." Interestingly he finds that this huge rise in the popularity of ready meals mirrors our soaring fascination for cookery programmes, as if we are now becoming a nations of cooks in theory. Gardening too is the other marvelous theoretical activity supermarkets offer. My local Safeway currently has such fun terra-cotta pots spewed all over their entrance. You could buy a dozen with some ready-made ?gardening solutions?, shrubs to you and me, and forget about the garden together. Hallelujah!
Clive Vaughan, Head of Consulting at Retail Intelligence remains however one of the true faith. For the leading supermarkets he suggests have some of the best management teams in the UK, and Sainsburys will regroup and bounce back. Not to mention that other leading British sect M&S. I ask him about the Government?s inquisition on overpricing and he stoutly defends the sector. American margins are too low, and European retailers are mostly privately owned and do not reveal the figures. Plus did I know that it costs ?15 - 20m to develop a site? "The return on capital in the UK is less than their European counterpart. "He is scornful of the suggestion that home delivery and buying over the Internet will ever catch on to any large extent. If customers are too busy to shop, they will hardly be around for ?delivery windows? (I love the jargon). No, the future is bigger stores, with a greater selections of merchandise. Supermarket cathedrals in fact.
Confession Time. I am a heretic. For in the past few months I have almost stopped shopping in supermarkets altogether. I save probably ?100 a month on food bills for I am tempted no more by impulse buys, remaining wickedly in control of both senses and emotions. Just as the spiritual Japanese warehouse components, I am now a disciple of the new creed of JIT. Just In Time. Loo rolls and baked beans no longer eat up my cashflow or personal space for I only buy what I need each day. Less is more. I am a supermarket excommunicado, cast into the outer darkness of my local high street shops. I can barely describe the feeling of relief. For now let me tell you, my brothers and sisters, I have found a Heaven on earth. There is life after Tesco. Join me!
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