As the pandemic gains traction one of the most fascinating aspects of society’s response has revolved around our attitude towards our supermarkets or, rather, to our use of them. I’m old enough now to remember when such places were a bit of a novelty – the idea that you selected what you wanted yourself was once entirely foreign to us and has been interestingly shown in the current BBC programme Back In Time For The Corner Shop. From limited occasional use supermarkets now totally dominate shopping and have largely spelled the death knell of the individual specialist shop. When I first moved into the area in which I live we had two greengrocers, a butcher, a fishmonger, two bakers and a couple of corner shops. Now we have Waitrose and just about everything else has gone – replaced by endless hairdressers, tanning salons and nail bars.
The problem at present is that when the supply chains break down there are few alternatives… and broken down they certainly have. The whole business of hoarding/panic buying first struck me when about three weeks ago I saw a branch of Sainsburys completely devoid of toilet paper. At the time it seemed like a bit of a British “Carry On” style joke – we don’t want to be caught with our trousers down type thing. I stood and watched as a shelf filler wheeled out a pallet of loo rolls only to see every single one disappear into a trolley in under ten minutes – indeed he didn’t get as far as putting them on the shelves. While it was all done without an actual fight breaking out there was a grim determination about the way elbows were deployed and teeth were gritted in a rictus of FOMO*. As the polite scramble intensified, I could hear some people declaring loudly that it wasn’t for themselves but that they were getting them for a third party. Indeed, TV interviewers invariably discover that is a standard response when they challenge someone they suspect of hoarding. I’m put in mind of a wonderful old black and white clip of a reporter asking someone in a bookshop queue (“one copy per person”) to purchase the newly released Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be told that the customer is getting one “for a friend”.
Of course, since “Toiletpapergate” things have gone considerably downhill. Last Sunday I witnessed what can only be described as odious scenes as frustrated shoppers started to lose it with each other and openly accuse each other of hoarding. Vehemently denied of course but apparently the purchase of freezers has gone through the roof (a 200% rise was reported in early March) and they won’t have been purchased as items of decoration. Perhaps most disheartening of all was the middle-aged man with a trolley load of “swag” taking and sending out a selfie promoting his own perceived success.
Taking my mother shopping in the middle of last week was also instructive. I found myself getting anxious on her behalf – all I could think of was if I went down sick then I wouldn’t be able to take her anymore and as the whole concept of online shopping has passed her by I didn’t want to think she might be left without. I really had to steal myself to stop filling her trolley; she, of course, remembers rationing and seemed quite content to purchase just the amount she always does (there are further thoughts on this expedition here).
By the weekend the local supermarket seemed to have hit rock bottom in terms of supplies and I mournfully tweeted
I couldn’t also help observing that there were plentiful supplies of sushi and Easter Eggs. Not that by clearing these luxuries out of the way there would have been any necessities to replace them with, but the juxtaposition did rather jar.
Just so it’s not all criticism, here’s some positive suggestions about things which I think supermarkets might do in order to enhance current experience
- “Golden hour” shopping opportunities for the elderly, vulnerable and health workers are excellent initiatives and to be applauded. The issue is that all supermarkets are taking individual decisions about what day(s) of the week this applies to. So, with some it is every day and with others it is specific days. I think it would be helpful if this was regularised.
- There are inconsistent variations currently in place about how many of a specific item may be purchased. Again, individual chains (and even individual stores) seem to be making it up as they go along. I’m not suggesting actual rationing but clarity about how much of something can be purchased might help with planning.
- Is it not time that we dropped the Sunday trading restrictions altogether? One of the original reasons for reduced hours opening was that otherwise Church attendance might suffer. That’s hardly the case anyway these days but it is particularly so currently as congregating together is verboten. Alternatively, we could return to a time where shops do not open on a Sunday at all. This would allow for restocking and deep cleaning to take place, give front line shop workers a regular day off and give the rest of us some respite from the madness created by hoarders and panic buyers who now have nothing better to do with their time
Surely ditching individual approaches and co-ordinating makes sense. At the moment it’s like getting through security when travelling by air where each country and airport seems to have its own set of requirements about what goes in the tray, whether shoes can be worn or not or whether belts must be on or off. I despair of international co-operation and approach on that one, but I can’t see anything to stop our domestic supermarkets from working together consistently.
We keep being assured that there is plenty to go around – the problem with this is that the evidence of shoppers’ own eyes is that this is not the case and the hard wiring that promotes self-preservation kicks in. We’ve spent years now being bombarded with BOGOFs** and TWOfers*** encouraging purchase of unnecessary items which might even have gone to waste – as ye sow, so shall ye reap! Possibly matters have also been exacerbated as boredom with being at home sets in and sunny weather encourages people to go out for a walk and then just pop into the shop to pick something up. After all, visiting the supermarket is now one of the only things we can still legitimately and justifiably do. Let’s hope that can remain the case and that all those stockpiling on the strength of their credit cards don’t come to regret it.