Checking out a date at Asda

Hyun-Sung Khang mingles with those shopping for love at a Singles Night in a supermarket
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I am greeted with a pink carnation. This will mark me out as fair game: it's the first of the Singles Nights at Asda superstores, in Bedminster, Bristol. Unattached men and women, some from as far away as Gloucester, have been lured here by the promise of love down the shopping aisle.

Even minus their carnations, you can spot single people a mile off, according to the store manager, Eric Sortwell. "You always know a single guy. Usually, it's a packet of mince, a bag of spaghetti, a tin of tomatoes and a bottle of wine. Many of the ladies tend to be vegetarian, but again it's spaghetti, fresh fruit and vegetables - and single pots of yoghurt."

A superstore may seem an odd place to seek a partner, but there is a logic to it all. The one-stop market - the answer to every customer's prayers, where he or she can buy anything from a plastic colander to cotton socks and a tin of canned tomatoes - now gives you an opportunity to include a mate in the shopping list. Truly everything you could want from a store ... and a little bit more.

It is supermarket cruising with the official stamp of approval. And Mr Sortwell says his store can meet the needs of every stage of a relationship. He points to the red ribbons on pertinent displays. "You can come in and get your ladieswear. As the relationship develops, you could be into lingerie. Eventually, you could move on to the baby clothes."

"Romeo and Juliet" are roaming around the store tonight and a toga-clad "Cupid", brandishing a plastic bow and arrow, offers to make introductions of behalf of the shy.

Disdaining such help, I walk over to the frozen food section. It has been designated a "love spot" - one of those erogenous zones where the "singles" species is to be found. This section, along with the wine department, the delicatessen and fruit and vegetable stands, has been decked with silver-red balloons and a huge pink heart. I lurk with intent.

Minutes later, I notice, across the giant freezer, a young man doing a frighteningly good impression of Adrian Mole. His intense study of the frozen food packet is intermittently broken by quick glances at my carnation. He licks his lips nervously. Or perhaps it is just in anticipation of the chicken drumsticks.

Meanwhile, at fruit and vegetables, Rachel Clark, a striking 20-year- old redhead, has had better luck. She came to Asda specially for the Singles Night. Spotting a cherubic young man, she offered him her carnation. It turned out that 20-year-old Robin, like her, is a student at Bristol University.

"I thought it'd just be a bit of fun," she says, "but it's turned out quite well. He's just bought me flowers."

Robin says: "We're sharing our shopping and we're going to see each other tomorrow."

"People have always met at supermarkets," according to Cupid, aka the staff member Paul Slater. "It's the ideal place. Many people shop in the same store and they're bound to see each other week in, week out."

Fred Knight, 42, and Rosina Bartlett, 45, are giggling over coffee in the supermarket caf, which is lit by flickering candles and decorated with red roses. Fred had asked Rosina: "Can I carry your basket?" She replied: "You can get me a drink."

It's all a bit like Blind Date. There is no telling who will be behind the next aisle. The staff act as Cilla Black stand-ins, offering free tastings of tart, wine and cheese.

Not that even they are immune to the predatory eye. At a trial singles night on St Valentine's Day, the fishmonger was told by an interested woman: "It's not only the cod that's making eyes at you."

Tonight, a lot of women have discarded their customary reserve to proposition terrified-looking men. "I think it's a great idea," says one woman who has acquired a match. "A supermarket is well lit and you never come here intending to pick someone up."

"Picking up a man in a supermarket is safe," Mr Sortwell says. "You couldn't go up to a guy in a pub because straight away he'd get the wrong impression. Here, you can suddenly say to a guy: `Have you tried this? What does this taste like?' You can start to have a conversation."

And there is proof that the shopping aisle can lead to the church aisle. Julie, 24, met her husband, Paul Watts, at the superstore. He was trying on a jacket and asked for her opinion. Regular weekly meetings turned into dates and then to marriage. The store manager was a guest at their wedding.

So has it been a success for the students Robin and Rachel? "Ask me in a year," Robin jokes.

It is 9.30pm and the last slurpy message has been delivered over the Tannoy system. Eric Sortwell is a happy man. He estimates a 20 per cent increase on his normal takings.

Those with potential partners are happy, too. Anyway, they can always trade in their find at the next Singles Night if they are not satisfied.