Of supermarkets and chocolate

There’s an interesting piece in the Guardian this morning by Peter Wilby, which is headlined “Supermarkets kill free markets, as well as communities”.  Despite the title, however, this is more than Guardian box-ticking, and a couple of sentences in the middle caught my eye:

The central issue, however, is whether “what the consumer wants” should close down the argument.  What people want as consumers may not be what they want as householders, community members, producers, employees or entrepreneurs.

This is important, because it highlights the schizophrenia that consumers – the public – ourselves – demonstrate every day, and it also crisply addresses the problem that Tesco’s new Group Chief Executive, Phil Clarke, has recognised: that the retailer has to listen, respond and engage to a greater extent than it did in the Leahy years.  (First action: eject local council recycling bins.  Hmm.)

It would be a mistake, however, to think that supermarkets just need to explain their case a little better, and all will be sweetness and light.  The retailer’s dichotomy is that there is a conflict between what we want as consumers – low prices, convenience, reliability; and our preferred, idealised Miss Marple community of butchers and bakers.  Using a supermarket – and the four major chains account for 76% of all food sold – may not feel like a choice if you’re in a Tesco town, but the choice has essentially already been made.  You, and the consumers who came before you, made that choice progressively over the past 50 years.

Diversity of outlets and outlet types cannot be achieved without losing the low prices and the all-under-one-roof offer that the supermarkets have created.  And, as Sathnam Sanghera pointed out behind The Times paywall a few days ago, a Tesco convenience store might be a good flashpoint for rioting thugs in Bristol, but in Wolverhampton the arrival of a new Tesco is being welcomed by consumers, media and local government, regenerating a Grade 2 listed building and injecting new life and choice into a depressed community.

Supermarkets are here to stay.  Ed Milliband, conjuring up policy on the hoof, says that Labour sees Tesco-isation as an issue to look at, but supermarkets are a bit like motorways – no one likes them, everybody uses them, and society depends on them.

Meanwhile… Thornton’s has published another set of grim results, and once again, the weather hasn’t been quite right for the chocolatier.  Sales in freestanding shops are heavily down, so are franchise sales, so are direct sales.  But sales of Thornton’s chocolate at supermarkets are up, up, up – the company’s wholesale turnover has increased by 25%.  As Retail Week editor Tim Danaher tweeted yesterday, is it time for Thornton’s to bite the bullet, accept that their shops aren’t adding perceived value for the consumer, and just become a wholesaler?

And there you have consumer behviour in a nutshell.  Take your clipboard out on to the high street.

Researcher:  “Would you like to see specialist confectioners in the high street closed and boarded up, replaced by a broader range in your local supermarket?”

Consumer:  “Of course we wouldn’t.  But by our buying behaviour, we will make it happen, as it suits us more than not.”

Researcher:  “And would you accept higher prices, shorter opening hours and reduced convenience in order to create a more interesting high street?”

Consumer:  “Are you looking for another riot?”