No Supermarket: Air Miles and Bursting Aisles

I went to my local Sainsbury’s on Tuesday – no, don’t panic, I didn’t buy anything. I went there to do a little research. I wanted to know a couple of things:

  1. Where in the world does Sainsbury’s food come from?
  2. How much choice is there at supermarkets?

And here is what I found.

Where is Sainsbury’s Food From?

Answer: Spain.

I only looked at the Fruit and Vegetable section because that seemed a reasonable sample size: 119 products. Astonishingly, these products came from a total of 36 countries. The top five were:

  1. Spain (20 products)
  2. UK (19)
  3. Israel (9)
  4. Morocco (6)
  5. South Africa (6)

I was surprised to see Israel at number three I have to admit. We get tomatoes, peppers, herbs and exotic fruit like kumquats and Sharon fruit from there. The West Bank did also appear on the list with two products, the herbs dill and sage.

I guess one big reason for the reliance on overseas fruit and vegetables is the time of year. Traditional English Summer produce like cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach have to be shipped in from Spain or elsewhere.

More concerning, however, was the number of products that ARE in season in the UK, and yet it was still possible to buy them from abroad. For example: apples, pears, beetroot and mushrooms, as well as packaged herbs. It seemed that if you wanted herbs in a pot, then they had to be British, presumably because of the care required for potted plants, but packaged herbs came from abroad, presumably because they are cheaper there.

The full list of countries supplying Sainsbury’s New Cross Gate (in order of products supplied): Spain, UK, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Italy, France, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, USA, Brazil, Chile, China, Holland, India, Portugal, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, West Bank, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Canary Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia.

How Much Choice Is There?

Answer: Too much.

To focus my research, I examined just one type of product from Sainsbury’s 30+ aisles: soup. Here’s what I found.

There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of soup product on sale at Sainsbury’s: tinned, potted, fresh and dried soup mix. Tinned represent the overwhelming majority of the market.

There are, in all, sixteen different brand labels on sale, including eight for Sainsbury’s alone: Be Good To Yourself, Sainsbury’s, Chunky, Basics, Microwave, Simmer Soups, SO Organic and Taste the Difference. Prices range from £0.17 for Sainsbury’s Basic tomato soup to £2.29 for some of the posh fresh soups.

This meant that there were, in total, on sale at Sainsbury’s… Wait for it – 138 different types of soup.

That, my friends, is ridiculous. Contrast my local shop, where I can purchase one brand in about six different flavours. Fine, considering I only ever buy cream of tomato! Prices there range from £0.89 to £0.89.

Is Choice a Good Thing?

Supermarkets rely on the idea that more choice makes us happier. But is this actually the case?

Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for supermarket-style choice in a TED video from 2006. He recounts a story of the psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz:

Vlasic Pickles came to him, and they said, “Doctor Moskowitz, we want to make the perfect pickle.” And he said, “There is no perfect pickle, there are only perfect pickles.” And he came back to them and he said, “You don’t just need to improve your regular, you need to create zesty.”

From this idea, pickles, spaghetti sauces, soups – everything – proliferated, all in the cause of making us happy.

You can see the full video here:

But Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, warns:

Beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures.

“In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis. And in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”

In other words: choice, generally-speaking, is good, but too much choice is toxic.

At my local shop I have the choice of about six different flavours of soup. That’s a reasonable selection, given that I could make my own soup if I wanted something a little more customised. But faced with an aisle of 138 soups?

I wouldn’t know where to start.

What do you think?