Supermarkets and sweeping generalisations

I tweeted a complaint that I have to make repeated supermarket trips to get fruit because supermarkets run out. I received a patronising reply warning against demanding out of season items. As I didn’t even specify what fruit I couldn’t get, it pissed me off and then made me decide to blog my complaint about supermarkets more fully and here we are.

Firstly, if you want to argue we should only eat locally sourced fruit and veg in season, that’s your right. I’m not going to argue that sourcing from overseas doesn’t involve additional fuel consumption etc. However, it’s your right for a reason. You have a choice. I have a choice. It’s not 1950. It’s not even 1980. Supermarkets can and do source fruit and veg from abroad all year round so if you tell me it’s unrealistic to expect them to do so I’ll say, “look sunshine. When I couldn’t get grapes because Egypt was having a revolution, I accepted it without criticising the supermarkets because I am (a) well aware of where the food I buy actually comes from (b) aware of what events are happening in those places (c) able to add (a) and (b) together. I’m not a total numpty. I even remember the time when you couldn’t get peppers for love nor money because the crops simply failed. I didn’t blame the supermarkets then either.” However, here’s where I draw the line:-

1. Supermarkets who put items I regularly buy on offer and then don’t buy in sufficient stock. Mr Patronising, supermarkets have access to highly complex models which tell them customer purchasing patterns. They know what will happen if they half the price of an item or put it in a bogof. I expect them to utilise that information in an effective manner to control their stock to take account not just of the offers they are running but the time of year, holidays and likely weather conditions. The supermarket supply chain is fast paced and high tech and I expect them to use the information they have to do more than send out vouchers.

2. Supermarkets who don’t re-stock. Now, if you live in 1950-1980 and think out of season fruit and veg is the highest form of frippery, you may also be unaware of the concept of late night shopping. If a shop is open 24 hours, it should re-stock. Take yesterday, when I went in a 6pm there was almost no stock left but the store was going to be open for another six hours. Would masses of empty space be acceptable to shoppers at 10am on a Sunday? In both cases the shop will be open for six hours. I don’t say they have to shelve as much stock at 6pm but one tray of each fruit and veg item and some bread would be a bloody good start.

I regularly shop around that time. There are always plenty of customers and, although some are only buying booze, many are trying to buy food. For that matter, Mr Patronising, I often see pensioners looking around for bargain sticker items at that time of day so the use of supermarkets outside the traditional hours is not uncommon. It’s not solely the preserve of “spoiled” Generation X’ers, Y’ers and Millenials. The supermarkets are the ones who chose to set their opening hours. As with the importation of goods, I am merely availing myself of the opportunity they have offered me. I expect their offer to be made in good faith.

Now, Mr Patronising may think it can’t be helped if the supermarket runs out of stock. I refer him back to 1. Sophisticated software tracking buying patterns means proper stock control is feasible.

I’m reminded of seasonal stories. It’s nearly Easter. Who hasn’t left it late at Easter? Now, I suspect people like Mr Patronising might say you’ve only got yourself to blame if you don’t buy your Easter eggs until Easter Saturday. I used to assume that was right. Not so, in my experience. They don’t do Easter like they used to. I was staring at the eggs on Easter Saturday earwigging on the slaughter of the Easter bunny. A mum stood by me holding a KitKat egg and declaring to her son he’d have to like it because they didn’t have anything nicer left. What the fuck? When did people start towing their kids along to buy their eggs? Anyway, I saw an egg I wanted to buy but it was the last one and it was broken. Being a better daughter than KitKat woman is a mother, I looked around me and grabbed a staff member. “I know I’ve probably left it too late but I don’t suppose you’ve got more eggs out back?” He looked at the shelves and got pretty pissed off, but not at me. He’d only just come on duty and said someone hadn’t been restocking and there were loads of eggs out back. He came back with a cage full of them.

If you subject my tweets to really intense scrutiny, you might have noticed I have a teeny little Malteaster Bunny obsession. After Easter, I went up to the checkout of Tesco with loads of them. The girl behind the till grinned. “I can’t help myself,” I explained (nb Mr Patronising,  I do accept not being able to get Malteaster Bunnies eight months of the year). She told me she couldn’t wait to finish work because they always have loads of leftover eggs, enough for every member of staff to put on weight.

3. Supermarkets who try and palm rotting fruit and veg off on customers at full price. If I walk in and see a sea of manky tomatoes or grapes or whatever, it’s going to piss me off. There you are. If they’re heavily discounted, I might buy expecting to throw a lot away but there’s little less frustrating than standing in front of food which is not necessarily always inedible but sure as hell isn’t worth the money. “Oh. You young people. You’re too precious,” I imagine Mr Patronising tweeting. Yes, I know I’m not young at 35 but when being patronising it’s always important to suggest that the other person doesn’t understand the ways of the world and/or is a brat. Well, here’s the thing Mr Patronising. I’m not being precious. I resent paying over the odds. I resent supermarkets trying to rip me off. Selling rotten food (especially inside a pack) is the horse meat of the fruit and veg world. Sometimes it’s blatant: the supermarkets proudly declaring they can make you buy anything and other times it’s sneaky. It also has an impact on the sale of other items. If the fruit people normally buy looks like it should be put out of its misery and a different fruit is on offer, you end up with half an aisle of empty trays and half an aisle of trays that look like they fell badly over a hurdle at the National.

This is also about the frustration I feel at witnessing poor supply chain management. You see Mr Patronising, there is a little thing called quality control. If suppliers routinely sell the supermarkets poor stock, I expect the supermarkets’ contracts with them to include suitable provisions to ensure it doesn’t happen again. If necessary, I expect them to find new suppliers. Again, food procurement is sophisticated and I expect them to be controlling the situation. Next, they should ensure careful shipping from abroad and on their own lorries, followed by careful storage in store until produce is sold. I expect produce to be kept at appropriate temperatures at each stage. These aren’t little chaps messing around on their allotments. They’re enormous companies with the power to police their suppliers and their own stores and as a commercial contracts solicitor, the possibility that their contracts aren’t up to the job makes me grind my teeth.

4. Supermarkets who don’t restock frozen fruit. Yes. Frozen. Do I really have to quote Birds Eye on the freezing process and benefits of frozen fruit and veg as an out of season standby (because it’s cheaper, in my case) Mr Patronising? Yes? Tough.

I know loads of dedicated staff at my local Sainsbury and I’m not knocking them or people like them. I know they want to do their jobs well and get frustrated when they can’t or when decisions taken above their heads result in a poor customer experience. Mind you last week, in Tesco, I was bewildered to come across half a dozen management types, all in a row, patting the long life fruit juice cartons. They weren’t stacking the shelves. They weren’t moving the cartons. They weren’t re-labelling the prices. They were patting them in a faintly creepy manner which made me think of the weirdest alien invasion ever. Funnily enough, because I hadn’t been able to get what I went for and there were long queues at the checkouts, I thought this looked like a monumental waste of resources.

Supermarkets operate in a highly competitive market, albeit one without many other competitors. They are able to manage their prices to such a degree that there’s a bacon rind of difference between them. What’s left to compete on? Well, I’d say that stock control and the quality of produce would be a major factor Mr Patronising. I do expect better. Because this is 2013. Because supermarkets have made promises and usually have it within their power to keep them. Because, frankly, I expect them to not run their businesses as if it’s 1980.

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