#12: Supermarket choice is terrible!

My local Sainsbury’s has more than thirty aisles; my greengrocer has just two. There is, without a doubt, a heck of a lot more choice at a supermarket than at a corner shop, but I wanted to know exactly how much more choice.

So I went to Sainsbury’s, clipboard once again in hand to do a choice case study on just one foodstuff: soup.

There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of soup product on sale at Sainsbury’s: tinned, potted, fresh and dried. Across these four varieties, there are sixteen different brand labels on sale, including eight for Sainsbury’s alone:

  1. Be Good To Yourself
  2. Sainsbury’s
  3. Chunky
  4. Basics
  5. Microwave
  6. Simmer Soups
  7. SO Organic
  8. Taste the Difference

Prices range from £0.17 for Sainsbury’s Basic tomato soup to £2.29 for some of the fancier fresh soups. This meant that on sale at Sainsbury’s there were in total – wait for it – 138 different kinds of soup. If you do your shopping online, then good luck: you’ve got 314 to sift through.

That, my friends, is ridiculous.

Contrast this plethora of choice with my local shop, where I can purchase one brand (Heinz) at one reasonable price point (£0.89) in only six different flavours. This is absolutely fine by me, considering I only ever buy cream of tomato.

Choice isn’t Always Good

There was a time when I would have thought having a choice between 138 different kinds of soup was awesome, and the traditional supermarket model depends on the idea that more choice makes us happier. But is this actually the case?

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, warns us that:

“choice overload can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures.”

This can lead to decision-making paralysis, where too many options means you can never bring yourself to choose anything. You fear that there could always have been a better soup.

In the long term, Barry says, this can lead to clinical depression, a product of a culture that tells us “there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless”.

Choice, generally-speaking, is good, but too much choice is toxic. My local shop’s six flavours of soup seems like a reasonable level of choice, given that I could (and probably should) make my own soup if I wanted something a little more customised.

Frankly, I find it astonishing that anyone, faced with an aisle army of 138 soups, actually manages to leave with anything at all.

Good Choice Doesn’t Mean Good Choices

Okay, you might disagree with me and think that the immensity of supermarket choice is wonderful, but would that even matter if none of them were particularly good choices?

Most mornings, I eat porridge. I like to sweeten this most Scottish of repasts with dates. Supermarkets tend to stock two or three varieties of date: deglat nour, medjool, and perhaps halawi as well. There’s one major problem with supermarket dates: quite apart from the fact that they are criminally expensive, they’re also not particularly good.

British people don’t make a habit of eating dates, so simply don’t know better. Turkish-Cypriots, however, do eat dates and my greengrocer is Turkish-Cypriot. He only carries one kind of date, not three like the supermarkets. However, not only does he charge a quarter of the price at Tesco, but his dates are, in his words, “the greatest dates in the whole of the world”. And I’m not one to argue.

Mazafati dates are grown at an oasis near the Iranian city of Bam (the same beautiful medieval town that suffered a dreadful earthquake in 2003). They’re almost impossible to cut with a knife, melting under pressure like caramel. They’re full of healthy fibre, vitamins and come with a jitterbugging kick of natural sugars. (Plus my greengrocer reckons they’ll cure constipation, hangovers, heart problems and blindness – not too sure about that.)

I don’t know why supermarkets don’t stock Mazafati dates, but I do know that supermarket produce must meet very precise standards that include, not only taste, but also size, shape and colour. The product must be available for stores across the entire UK, in all regions. This means that it must store and travel well. It also needs to be instantly familiar to the highest possible number of people and appeal to the broadest range of tastes. This means that it must also be grown or produced in huge, almost unimaginable quantities.

None of these criteria are necessarily compatible with optimum yumminess: there are too many other variables to balance. Perhaps Mazafati dates don’t have a long enough shelf life, are more expensive to transport, aren’t grown in the industrial quantities required, or simply come in too poor quality packaging for a premium supermarket price point.

It should be obvious, but somehow it had eluded me until now: supermarkets make decisions for their benefit, not ours.

However, in the same way that there’s more to price than pounds and pence, there is more to good choice than good taste. Stringent supermarket standards are one reason why Norfolk’s orchards alone have lost at least forty varieties of apple, including the Transparent Codlin, Norfolk Paradise and Monstrous London Pippin. In fact, the National Fruit Collection records 1,423 different varieties of dessert apple, but your supermarket will only ever stock half a dozen. There simply isn’t the space to cultivate many more varieties of apple in the UK to cope with the supermarket demand for standardisation, and so we have lost important diversity in our ecology.

I’m a hard man to please, aren’t I? 138 soups is too much choice, and yet I’d be happy with 1,423 types of apple! But there’s a big difference between soup and apples, which I shall demonstrate with a story about bananas.

Every year in the UK we eat five billion bananas, almost all of which are genetically from the same cultivar, the Cavendish. Diversity could not be much lower: 47% of bananas grown worldwide are of the Cavendish variety. What’s the problem? Since 1992, 10,000 hectares of Cavendish bananas have been wiped out by a mutation of the fungal Panama disease, and the devastation of crops is spreading across the world. The race is on to save our beloved banana, but Dr Gert Kema from the Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands says: “We have nothing to replace the Cavendish right now.”

Too many varieties of ready made soup might be bad for us psychologically, but too few varieties of fruit and vegetables is potentially catastrophic for our food supply. To return to apples: over a quarter sold in the UK are of the Gala variety, a worrying dependence, driven by supermarkets sales.

The Irony of Supermarket Dependence: Less Choice

Over the last twenty years, the number of independent butchers has dropped from 30,000 to just 6,000 – and it’s not because we’ve stopped eating meat; in fact we’re eating more. Our loss of independent butchers is just one example of the impact on our choices of rising supermarket dependence.

I call this ironic because we generally believe that supermarkets represent greater choice, when we actually have less choice today of where we buy our meat: it’s a supermarket or nowhere. According to the Office of National Statistics, we do 86% of our food shopping at large supermarkets. That’s up from 66% in 1986. Inevitably, as with butchers, so too with independent fishmongers, bakeries, greengrocers, street markets – even hardware stores and bookshops.

The decline of independent shopkeepers has led to the rise of so-called Tesco Towns like Bicester, a small market (ha!) town in Oxfordshire where there was once no less than six Tesco supermarkets. The dominance of Tesco has diminished since this moniker was first applied: Bicester lost one of their Tescos in 2015, but this tiny gap in the market was quickly filled by Sainsbury’s, Cooperative Food, Iceland, and finally both Aldi and Lidl. Yowzas.

I’m very lucky to live somewhere that hasn’t yet lost all its independent food sellers. I’ve got Deptford market on my doorstep and the greengrocer only two minutes away. I’m terrified that one day all of these places will disappear and we’ll be left stranded in a food desert, with nowhere to shop except at a giant supermarket chain. This has already almost happened in the village where I grew up in Oxfordshire.

When my parents moved to Cholsey in 1980, there was a greengrocers, two butchers, two mini markets, and a bakery. Now there is one Tesco Express and a lone surviving butcher (where my parents still buy all their fresh meat because, predictably, it’s of superior quality). To find good fresh food beyond the supermarket chains you have to travel twenty miles to the Wednesday market in Oxford.

My dad remembers when he was a boy growing up in the fifties, walking around the shops with his mum. “We’d visit at least half a dozen shops,” he says, “including both Church’s Butchers and Church’s Pork Butchers, the International Stores for dairy and dry goods, as well as the huge market on a Monday.” He also remembers the arrival of the first supermarket when he was a teenager. “It was called Fine Fare,” he says. “We walked round it in amazement, but couldn’t see the point.” Now, meat and some fresh fruit aside, he does the main weekly shop at the out-of-town Tesco, topping up at Tesco Express in the village or at a local Waitrose.

This tendency towards an “oligopoly” of a few big players, such as we see in the grocery market, is characteristic of mature markets. But where there are fewer options, there is greater dependency, and where there is greater dependency there is increased vulnerability to price and product fluctuations, and exploitation.

Supermarkets aren’t convenient or cheap and their choice isn’t good. I reckon it’s time to give No Supermarkets a whirl – if you still can.

Further Reading

Schwartz, Barry. “The paradox of choice: Why less is more.” New York: Ecco (2004).

‘National Fruit Collection’ for the data on apple varieties.

Leatherdale, Duncan. ‘The Imminent Death of the Cavendish Banana and Why It Affects Us All’. BBC News, 24 January 2016. See also: ‘Panama Disease’.

‘Why You Should Get to Know the Butcher’. The Independent, 28 February 2013.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, meat (I’ve restricted it to just beef, pork and poultry) consumption per person in the UK rose from 69.9kg in 2000 to 75.44kg in 2010. You can do your own calculations with their nifty data sheets.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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