Wednesday 14 April 2010

Living without Tesco - "it can be done" shocker!

I wrote the following as a standalone article back in August 2008, inspired by the leftfield-scheme-as-plot-for-book success of Danny Wallace and Dave Gorman, and with the half-hearted idea of getting it published in a local magazine. It's languished in this unedited, rough form on a USB stick ever since. I might as well do something with it, so here it is: proof that life goes on without Tesco.
A little over a month ago, I got into a tea-break conversation with a colleague about Tesco. She had mentioned, with something close to pride in her voice, that she had spent £140 shopping there the previous Sunday. I conveyed my view of this with the international sign language for sad disappointment – I sucked air in through gritted teeth, tutted and slowly shook my head. This didn't go down too well. "What's wrong with that?" she asked, "I'm on a budget and I've got a family to feed. It's much cheaper to do a big shop at Tesco, and it's convenient too." Well, you can't argue with that, can you?
Except I did. What's wrong with that is that Tesco – or the Evil Empire, as I prefer to think of them – is killing the high street, and killing competition. And, with the cost of petrol these days, is driving a 17 mile round-trip to get to the Empire's leviathan supermarket (kind of like a Death Store, if you want to stretch the Star Wars 'empire' analogy) really worth saving a couple of quid? Hardly convenient, is it? Especially when you have a largish (for a village) and well-stocked Co-op supermarket within walking distance of your house?
I put these points to my colleague. She didn't take too kindly to them. "The last two times I bought food from that Co-op I got food poisoning!" was her somewhat unlikely riposte. "And besides," she continued, "it's alright for you – you earn more than me and so can afford to shop where you like. And because you don't have a family you have time to do things like shop around." Now I could have got bolshie about this, for whilst it's true that I'm single and she has a partner and child, it doesn't follow that I "have time to do things like shop around". Quite the opposite, in fact – I work full-time, unlike her, and have to do everything myself – I don't have a partner to share the mechanics of life with. Just like her, I have a house to clean, a garden to maintain, a car to wash, shopping to buy… but unlike her, I don't have anyone to help me do all this stuff. So, I could justifiably have taken umbrage but I didn't – I merely replied that I didn't think it was quite that simple. And okay, yes, maybe I did say that in a slightly patronising tone, which would explain why my colleague got more than a bit confrontational and said, quite aggressively, "I'd like to see you go a week without a supermarket."
"Okay then," I said, not being one to shy away from a challenge. "No problem."
"Well, it wouldn't be for a week. Try it for a month."
And that's how I came to spend 31 days without the 3-for-the-price-of-2, 50%-extra-free, bonus-clubcard-points, every-little-helps world of seductive supermarket shopping.
As with every good bet (though there was nothing at stake here except pride and principle), there were ground rules. It wasn't just Tesco that was verboten – any supermarket was off limits. No Sainsbury's, no Asda, no Morrison's, no Somerfield, no M&S food hall, no One Stop's (they're owned by Tesco, by the way), no Spar… I couldn't even use my own local Co-op! I argued the case for this, on the basis that the Co-op is, unsurprisingly, a co-operative working for the benefit of members rather than in the bald pursuit of profit, and since they support local producers their food is more environmentally friendly too. But this fell on deaf ears. Co-op was on the blacklist too. There was some debate about Budgen's; since they are supposedly local franchises, rather than a chain per se, my colleague was prepared to let me shop there, but no! My dander was up – that pride and principle thing was pumping the blood a little faster in my veins and I waved away the offer of Budgen's disdainfully. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it properly – no supermarkets meant no supermarkets, not even crap ones! Besides, my nearest Budgen's was miles away.
The challenge wasn't just limited to in-store shopping: I couldn't use any supermarket petrol stations or cash machines either. Online shopping with any of the blacklist was forbidden too, not that I've ever shopped for groceries by the power of the Internet before… but, you know, just in case I got tempted that was ruled out too. My bravado was starting to wane just a little at this point - somehow the petrol and cash machine thing was worrying me more than the food-buying bit. I had to find a way to show the assembled masses (well, my table in the canteen) that I was still okay with the challenge, and that I believed it would present no problems for me.
"Okay then," I repeated. "No problem."
See? Sometimes it's easier to satisfy assembled masses than you think.
Now I was feeling pretty confident about the challenge. If I think I can do something, well, I have enough self-belief not to worry about it too much. Besides, what I knew and my loose-talking, gauntlet-throwing colleague did not is that just two days earlier I had done a "big shop" myself. Not in the Evil Empire, of course, but in the slightly less evil, Nectar-points paradise of Sainsbury's. So, I knew I had a well-stocked cupboard and freezer drawers that, whilst not quite bursting, contained more than just the usual selection of pizza, ready-meals and fish fingers. In other words, I was ready!
The next morning, as I readied myself for a trip quad-biking with friends, I revelled smugly in my newly slim wallet, having removed all supermarket loyalty cards. I say all, I only have two but, you know, a slimmer, more pocket-friendly wallet is not to be sniffed at. Unless you particularly like the smell of worn leather, of course, and even then this kind of sniffing is not something I'd recommend – at best, it'll get you funny looks. But I digress – there I was, revelling smugly. A morning's quad-biking was likely to be an expensive day… and the wallet wasn't just looking thin because of an absence of plastic. I needed cash and, since I was supposed to be meeting my friends in ten short minutes, I needed cash fast! Normally, this wouldn't be a problem – there's a cash machine in the village. But since that hole was in Tesco's wall, I would have to find somewhere else from whence to deplete my account. Think, boy, think – the next nearest cash machine was at Waitrose, so that was out. Other than that, I could drive up to the Shell garage but their machine charged me £2 to give me my own money! Another point of principle to rail against! So that only left me one option: an eight-mile round trip into a neighbouring town to plunder a cash machine there.
Arriving ten minutes late for the quad-biking rendezvous, I paused to consider a few things. I was going to have to allow more time for doing things, even mundane things, now that so many windows of convenience had been shut in my face. None of my fellow race-goers had muttered too loudly about my tardiness, and we made it to the track on time – just – so no damage was done. But I don't like being late. If only the village Post Office had been open that early in the morning, I could have withdrawn my cash and been early for the meet.
And if only every street corner had a shop! Even after my fortuitous pre-challenge "big shop", I was soon in need of some basics, or high-turnover items, as I came to think of them during the month. Milk, bread and biscuits, mainly. Still, I'm lucky in that there is an independent shop in the village – it's not quite on the corner, that privilege belongs to the undertaker's (it's a big village). But during my supermarket-free month, that's how I came to think of it – my corner shop. Mine. Yes, it was further to walk than the Tesco Express; yes, the milk from there went off faster than supermarket milk; and yes, the Happy Shopper digestives were several pence dearer than Sainsbury's. But it was my corner shop, and boy, was I going to use it. Just like the butcher's in the village became my butcher's, the chemist became my chemist, the farm shop became my farm shop and the free-range egg place down the road became, well, you get the idea by now.
Happily, there turned out to be more to my corner shop than Happy Shopper biscuits. Now I know that there are some people who always go through the same cashier's till when they go to the supermarket, and so build up a nodding acquaintance over time, but I am not one of those people and so, for me, supermarket shopping has always been a very impersonal experience. Not so in my corner shop. A very short while into my challenge, I was popping in there often enough for me to recognise whoever was behind the counter and, better yet, they were recognising me! So when we started to exchange the briefest of pleasantries, it felt a bit more genuine than the "have a nice day" doctrine that in trotted out in the Evil Empire. And the friendliness extended beyond a simple hello and a smile, so that soon a shop that came to £12.04 was being rounded down to £12. That's only a little thing, but don't forget, every little helps, right? I'm sure I've heard that somewhere…
Now there are those among you who will be thinking that's all well and good but it hardly compensates for the extra cash I must have been spending. Well, I won't lie to you – I did spend more on what I bought from my corner shop than the equivalent items would have set me back in a supermarket. There are a few important points to make about this though: firstly, I was only spending a little bit more, pence in most cases. Maybe I have simple tastes or something, but my bills really weren't rocketing upwards. Secondly, and crucially, overall I was spending less! That's right, in total my outgoings were getting smaller! How can this be, I hear you ask (I have good hearing). Simply this – I wasn't being seduced. No, I don't mean seduced in the interesting Mrs Robinson way, but seduced by offers – buy-1-get-1-free's that I wouldn't otherwise have bought and didn't actually need, 3-for-the-price-of-2's that I wouldn't normally buy any of, CD and DVD offers that often made me buy titles that I would otherwise happily have breezed through life without, the dangerously cheap sweat-shop clothes that can be worn with a small budget but not with a clear conscience… In other words, I wasn't buying things that I didn't need or didn't, in my heart of hearts, even want that supermarkets seem so good at selling. Another benefit of this is that I found I was throwing less waste food away, mainly because I wasn't buying stuff in such huge quantities in the first place. I was building up so many eco-Karma points on this, I was even starting to look forward to food shopping. On top of all this, shopping in a little corner shop (my little corner shop, don't forget) took up a lot less time than trekking through a behemoth supermarket, so there was less likelihood of being hungry by the time I finished my shop… and so there was much less chance of being tempted to buy snacky comfort foods. Not only was I spending fewer pounds, I was losing pounds at the same time – result!
The corner shop wasn't the solution to all my shopping needs though. Even with a farm shop, a chemist, a Post Office and a butcher (how I wish it had a baker and a candlestick maker too), I had soon exhausted my village's shopping opportunities, and had to look further afield. Now I'm lucky in living near Britain's largest open market, and I plundered it for all I was worth. In particular, I must mention the steak I got from the butcher there; not only was it the best quality I've had in a long time, it was at a price that should embarrass Tesco, Sainsbury's and the rest.
Better still, I found an ethical greengrocer that stocked all manner of locally sourced, organic and fair-trade products (including some excellent real ale and chocolate brownies you wouldn't believe – guess why I was so happy to keep going back?). Okay, so I baulked a bit at paying £3 for a jar of jam, but how nice it was to be offered a pre-used cardboard box to stack all my purchases in, rather than a plastic bag? And how brilliant to see a retailer offering a refill service for the Ecover ranges of cleaning products – just take your empty bottles back and they will refill them from bulk containers. Why isn't this service more widely available?
So at this point you're probably thinking, wow, this supermarket-abstinence lark is such a piece of cake (possibly a chocolate brownie) we should all be doing it. And maybe you'd be right. But in the spirit of openness and honesty, I must now reveal that my month's challenge was not without a couple of setbacks.
Firstly, two weeks into the challenge, a truly beautiful woman invited me to a barbecue, for which I volunteered to take the asparagus and parma ham along. In case you haven't had this ever, wrap each piece of asparagus in a strip of parma, lightly brush with olive oil, add a sprinkle of black pepper and then barbecue until the asparagus goes floppy – trust me, it's fantastic. But I digress – back to my BBQ shopping. I had less than two hours before I was due to arrive at my beautiful friend's, and so hurried into the nearest small market town to raid their greengrocer's. Brilliant – they had some asparagus! And, as I was finding at lots of the small independent shops I was visiting these days, the veg wasn't wrapped in plastic but loose. Hooray, less landfill too! Feeling very pleased with myself, I grabbed a handful of asparagus… and promptly dropped it straight back down again as a cloud of small midge-like flies erupted from the display rack. Closer inspection revealed that all the asparagus stems were rotten, and so drawing the attention of passing insect life. Oh dear. A sharp exit from the greengrocer's was followed by a lightning tour of all the other shops in town that might sell either of my two required ingredients, and guess what? I drew a blank on both. So it was that, with less than an hour until the lighting of the coals, I found myself heading into Waitrose where, of course, I found lovely fresh (and locally sourced) asparagus and a choice of parma ham. Feeling guilty, I headed to the till with my purchases… and that was when I got caught again. Because, you see, they had blueberries on offer, half price. Not the cheap blueberries, but the expensive ones, so even at half price they were barely cheaper than the ordinary price of the cheaper variety, but that didn't matter – I was seduced, and bought the blueberries too, and later my beautiful friend conjured them into the most amazing post-barbie dessert. But even as I ate that, I knew I had failed in my challenge – I hadn't been able to keep a clean sheet.
A week later came my second hiccup – I needed to find a copy of The Observer, to get part two of one of those freebie guides that weekend papers are so full of these days. I had left my shopping late, and my corner shop had, unbelievably, let me down – all they had left was The Stun and The Daily Wail. So it was that I found myself in the Evil Empire, buying the paper and, crucially, only the paper. And you know what? Though I had failed again, I didn't feel too bad about this one, because supermarkets don't undercut independent retailers on newspapers, they don't 3-for-2 them, or anything else like that. They sell them on a sale-or-return basis, just like everyone else, and they make the same profit or loss on them as everyone else too. I wonder if supermarkets sell things like papers solely in the hope that whilst you're in there buying your news you'll also buy other stuff too? But I didn't, so didn't feel too guilty about my transgression. But it was a transgression, nonetheless.
That was it, though. Apart from those two indiscretions, I lasted a month (35 days, actually, I just kept going) without supermarkets, not even for petrol or visits to a hole-in-the-wall. And there were undeniable benefits from doing so, most notably: I spent less on food - although what I was buying was dearer, like for like, I was buying less and not succumbing to impulse purchases of things I didn't need; secondly, I was throwing less food away - because I wasn't being seduced by the false economy of buying multipack or 3-for-2 deals, I wasn't buying more than I could use before it went off, so, less waste, less landfill, and less money going straight into the bin; and finally, I used less petrol (not to be sniffed at, these days) because a walk to the corner shop was so much greener than a drive to Sainsbury's.
So it can be done, and there are undeniable benefits to be had for us all by doing it. Yes, there will still be times when a trip to the supermarket cannot be avoided – just last week I needed to buy some After Eights, well, after eight, and the 24-hour Tesco came to my rescue, with its vast range (no wafer-thin mints in my corner shop, sad to say) and round-the-clock opening. And of course I can sympathise with those on a tight budget, who find living on supermarket own-brand basics a valid way of making the pound in their pocket go further. So what is my point, exactly? Simply this – supermarkets are gradually eroding small-town high street retail. First of all they open an out-of-town enormo-store with which the local independent shops simply cannot compete, not least because, on opening, the area is blanketed with loss-leading offers to convert the locals to shopping at the supermarket. Then, when the little town convenience stores are on their last legs, the supermarket wades back in like a faux-benevolent saviour to transform the little shop into a Tesco Express… and then there really is no escape, and far less choice too. If you don't like Tesco, what can you do then? Get in the car and drive 20 miles to the next small town's enormo-store…
Is it any wonder, then, that places like Sheringham, with its beautiful and eclectic high street, are fighting so hard to resist new supermarket builds? The campaign in Sheringham has been raging since 1996 – every time the Evil Empire is granted permission to go ahead with their development, local protesters are able to stymie their progress. But Tesco have the capacity and the clout, both financial and political, to outwait any protest, to push any plan through, eventually. So it is that other prime city centre plots that Tesco own are allowed to stand derelict until such time as the Empire is allowed to develop them as it wishes – an unsightly and unmaintained derelict plot adds weight to the development case and helps sway councillors from supporting continued protests. And so it goes on – Tesco always wins. Don't think I'm singling them out either – the others in ‘the big four', Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisson's, are almost as bad. This is happening all over the country, maybe in a high street near you. Is it too late to escape the shadow of these new Empires? Perhaps so. But one way to try, at least, is simply not to give them any more of your money than you have to. There are alternatives – use them. Take your custom elsewhere and you take away their power. And if you really do need a supermarket, there's hope there too – since I completed my challenge, Co-op bought out Somerfield, a move which turns ‘the big four' supermarket chains into ‘the big five'. And one of those five, finally, is an ethical retailer, selling many locally-sourced products, and it finally has the buying power to compete with the big boys…
So there you have it. And what's changed since August 2008? Well, I still try to avoid Tesco wherever possible, and it looked like the Evil Empire had finally lost their fight to open a store in Sheringham.... and then they won anyway. But best of all... I now live with the truly beautiful woman whose barbecue I went to. As I have said before in this piece - result!


  1. What a great post - well done on taking up the challenge and (almost) succeeding! Congrats on the happy ending too.