The providers of cheap goods, the convenience demagogues, the prophets of accessibility and the grim reaper of family owned business. Since the 1950s, supermarkets have held our high streets and wallets to ransom by a thin veneer of vinyl signage professing low prices and big deals to distract from the sterilisation of regional culture on our streets.
A long way from agriculture of days gone by, the nostalgic imagery of the homestead, a dutch-inspired red barn overlooking acres of tendered crop amidst animals grazing the wide open spaces, still depicted on fresh produce labels is a far cry from the realities of the food industry today. A more honest representation of the agricultural industry would be more like automotive factories, assembled of automated lines, conveyor belts and cost cutting measures. Extracting ethics in favour of profits, supermarkets have transformed the authenticity of local produce into complex supply chains. In the business model of the supermarket, crops long out of season are available year round, the price of milk costs half of what it did in the middle of the last century, and the vast majority of product ingredients are illegible.
The brand-name takeover has demoted huge swathes of cultural diversity into homogenised clones of one another throughout the nation. Independent businesses have fallen in their wake, spawning financial vacuums which syphon economic wealth out of communities and into global head offices. Social glue has been dissolved, the friendly faces of the local butcher, green grocer and candle stick maker have been replaced with the apathetic stare of workers beholden to a company motto and employee handbooks. The disorderly masses have been reclassified into orderly categorised targets for advertising, new parents, young professionals, six-person households and retirees, for brands to tap into. High street variety has been replaced with shelf variety, assaulting consumers with choice between hundreds of embossed brand logos with the same headquarters address. Unmissable deals offered to us on a sleek brand-coloured card in exchange for a home address and details of our shopping habits.
The idea of the open market, capitalist competition intended to provide consumers with an option has evolved into an overweight monopoly of the eight behemoths, soon to become seven on the news of an imminent merger between Sainsburys and Asda, slinging price comparisons at one another from the TV screen. No longer content with ransacking the household retail sector, supermarket branded phone contracts, appliances and insurance are now available to threaten the rest of the dwindling high street. The oligarchies of household retail run like a cartel as their dominance of the market holds suppliers to ransom, their financial persuasion blocking other providers from entering the supply chain. Farmers are being priced out at home, and abroad suppliers are hiring child labour in order to provide supermarkets with a competitive edge. In a world ravaged by the capitalist ideal of greed and profit, it seems good morals are a too high price to pay.
But could our most recent economic downturn be turning the tables on the behemoths that once did the same to the family run businesses of days gone by? With stock shares plummeting and even the poster boy of monopolistic retail culture, Tesco, reporting unprecedented drops in sales, it seems their captive customers are now looking for something more than just low prices.