Now, most of you probably shop in organic health boutiques, but I use a local supermarket, a popular one here in the UK called Tesco, because it’s cheap. Apparently it accounts for around one-eight of all high street spending, and I’ve always wondered if you could build a picture of society by looking at the things on the shelf. I remember a few years ago, out of nowhere, smoothies appeared; and for a few years they were symbolic of the economic boom. No doubt bought in huge quantities by people working in The Media. I picture these well-off high-earners chugging down smoothies at their desks before popping out to Starbucks for lunch, spending £20 or more every single day on snack food without accounting for actual food-food, which mounts up.
Innocent eventually sold a large stake of their business to Coca-Cola (two years after partnering with McDonalds). Now they sell smaller bottles, cheaper (on an absolute level) but more expensive proportionately. A few years earlier High Juice - a kind of premium orange squash - appeared, although of late that seems to have died off a bit. But in general there seemed to be a push to expensive luxury foods over the last decade or so, even in a supermarket aimed at the working class. On one level this could just be British society modernising and falling in line with US norms, but on another level it’s a searing insight into the insane state of the British economy, pumped up on cheap money and stupidity and fruit juice.
The trend seems to be (a) higher prices (b) smaller portions. And I’ve noticed this with bread. The traditional British loaf is an 800gm block which would have been white twenty years ago, but over the last fifteen years or so posh bread took off, and now it’s just as likely to be brown, with seeds in. And there always a tiny section of smaller, half-sized, 400gm loaves for… I dunno, health food people? The unemployed? Single people?
But the smaller loaves now seem to be growing in number. The thing that struck me earlier today, standing in Tesco, pondering the lack of any actual speciality bread - they just have these sick-looking pre-baked things you have to bake again in the oven - is that they’ve changed. They used to be the same as 800gm loaves, but with half as many slices. Now they resemble full-sized loaves, but smaller. And with a smaller price tag that’s roughly the same as an 800gm loaf from a couple of years ago. It’s as if the supermarket wants people to accept cheap, 400gm loaves as The New Normal.
I’m ambivalent about this. I don’t like to waste stuff, and I don’t eat all that much bread, so 400gm is just right. But it seems like an obvious attempt to get people to pay the same for less (because you know they’re going to raise the price).
The other thing I track is the Packet of Microwave Rice Index. For years, in supermarkets across Britain you could get three packets of microwaveable rice for three pounds. One pound a packet. Now it’s four pounds fifty. I assume it has something to do with this; and of course slightly increased rice prices in a supermarket in the UK is nothing compared to the hardships faced by people across the world. They suffer and die; we pay slightly more. There’s an insulating buffer that numbs us.
If I was writing this as an editorial piece for The Guardian, for example, I would now wrap it up with quotes from some analysts and a plea for you to vote Labour next time. Which would be better that just petering out, which is what I’m doing. 'cause it’s nothing new to observe that economic, meteorological, political changes on a global scale have an effect on supermarket goods. But what’s it like in the US? Is there a staple that you buy in Wal-Mart or one of your American so-called “grocery stores” that has suddenly gone up in price? You have bagels, right?