BBC Good Food Magazine
Our columnist sends a message to supermarkets: two or three well-sourced options will do fine
Why our columnist wants supermarkets to opt for quality over quantity
Is it just me being indecisive, or is there too much food choice these days? Take the supermarket yogurt section: all these tubs of white stuff make my head spin. Should I pick up zero-fat or 10 per cent fat? Or, there’s high-protein, set, Greekstyle, true Greek, French, German, organic, light, free, thick and creamy, super-thick, bio, live (as opposed to dead, I presume) and that’s before you even get to the flavoured yogurts and skyr.
Just a minute’s lapse in concentration, and I’ll get home only to find I’ve bought the wrong thing. It’s worse than buying light bulbs. Or, I’ll pick up the yogurt I always buy because I’m baffled and it’s familiar, then wonder if I missed out on more interesting alternatives just because I couldn’t be bothered evaluating them properly. Why do I have to go through this rigmarole, when all I want is a nice, straightforward natural yogurt for breakfast?
The typical big supermarket sells 45,000 different product lines, or ‘stock-keeping units’, and it’s not just the white stuff that’s got out of hand. The aisles that sell breakfast cereals, biscuits, crisps, soups, dips, eggs and flour are similarly labyrinthine. One reason why I rarely shop in supermarkets is that I struggle to find what I’m after when I’m there. And that’s the great irony: supermarkets offer us a quantitative choice, not a qualitative one.
Scrape the surface of most supermarket selections in any given category, and although they might look superficially different, behind the astute marketing, they’re often surprisingly similar.
It reminds me of Barbie dolls. There’s Beach Barbie, Ski Barbie, Princess Barbie, and many more of that ilk, but at the end of the day, they’re all the same plastic doll with lots of hair, slim hips, and impossibly long legs. And, our supermarkets are adept at refreshing the basic model to keep us buying when we become bored. When sales of one gloopy sweet yogurt dip, they’ll bring on another yogurt with a new name to refresh the ‘choice’ until we belatedly figure out that the new one is much the same as the old. In supermarket parlance, these are ‘line extensions’, not innovations.
You can fool the people some of the time, but not all of the time. Part of the success and appeal of German discount chains, Aldi and Lidl, is that they simplify and speed up shopping trips by restricting the lines offered. They offer far fewer than bigger chains. Lidl, for instance, sells around 3,500 products, and many people, jaded with what retail analysts call ‘option overload’, are perfectly happy with that.
These days, the mid-market supermarket chains are in a curious position. They can’t compete with specialist food outlets that do offer a genuinely rich and diverse choice within any given food category, be that artisan cheese and sourdough bread or local vegetables and game. At the same time, compared to the discount chains, their offering comes over as confusing and relatively pricy to price-centric consumers.
One way to handle the blizzard of choice would be to compare products in a decidedly nerdy way – analysing ingredients lists, checking the price per kilo, and applying similar objective criteria – but I’m not up for that. So, I spread my food shopping around between independent shops and markets that offer me a small but well-curated selection. I need neither a contrived nor a utilitarian choice – two or three well-sourced options will do me fine. When it comes to stocking up with good food, I have long since reached the conclusion that less is most definitely more.
Scrape the surface of most shop selections, and though they look different, they’re often similar