Oh, how I miss the good old British aisles

For a nation where shopping is religion, US supermarkets are still in the dark ages. But ex-pat prayers have been answered: Sainsbury's is to launch in America.
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The Independent Culture
DRIVING TO the office this week, along roads which were empty due to Thanksgiving, I caught one of the most cheering news reports I had heard for a long time. Sainsbury's - your real, genuine, British Sainsbury's - was buying the Star Markets chain of foodshops in New England. This was joyous news indeed. It suggested that despite selling its misfired stake in the Giant supermarket chain and despite speculation to the contrary, Sainsbury's was hanging on in the United States.

But why, you ask, should the small expansion of a British supermarket be so welcome in the land where shopping has been elevated to a culture? Surely, American supermarkets are the cheapest, most efficient and best stocked in the developed world? Well, you may once have been right. But now, if there is one aspect of life in which America trails Europe, and one thing for which we British and European expatriates pine, it is our supermarkets.

And even if Sainsbury's is concentrating its efforts on a manageable corner of this country and never reaches New York or Washington, we can but hope that its influence spreads. America's tired supermarket chains, like Wal-Mart, Safeway and Food Lion, could benefit from some new ideas.

To clarify: when we ex-pats long for a Sainsbury's or Tesco or Auchan or Carrefour, we are not after Typhoo Tea and Marmite, or their native equivalent. What is wrong with America's supermarkets is not what they do not sell, but what they do sell, and how they go about it.

Although the stores are invariably vast, as vast in many cases as a French hypermarche, the aisles are narrow and endlessly cluttered with all manner of showbiz displays and promotions. It takes just two trolleys in one aisle to make a traffic jam. The design of the stores is chaotic. Large hanging placards above aisles give only the barest information of what is shelved beneath. And anyway, American supermarkets seem to be in a perpetual refurbishment (tax deductible), while remaining strangely old- fashioned when the builders have gone. Despite the army of assistants wielding mops and brooms all day, they always look less than clean.

Then there are the goods. You'd imagine, this being America, that there would be an exciting cornucopia to choose from. But a close look reveals a disappointing uniformity. Each supermarket has the same brands of pre- packaged everything - meats, pizzas, mayonnaise, baked goods, teas - as every other supermarket. There is no real difference between a Safeway and a Giant in terms of choice.

Nor is that choice as wide as it appears. The majority of shelf-space is occupied by sweet products - cakes, puddings, "candy", soft drinks. The range of savoury and fresh goods is relatively tiny.

Within the brands, there are minute variations that require a close examination of almost unreadable labels. Useful details like sell-by dates are obscured by the ubiquitous "lo-fat", "no-fat" claims (but no corresponding admission of the jacked-up sugar and calorie content). And, of course, none of the labels contains information that would in any way damage the all-powerful food lobbies: nothing about hormones in meat, genetically modified vegetables, or added water.

As for fruit and vegetables, the range and quality in many American supermarkets is disgraceful. Some of the stuff on display would be branded mouldy in Britain and taken off the shelves. Washed and bagged potatoes are not the supermarket staple they are in Europe. Here, you have to scrub them yourself. Whatever the recent criticism of food prices at British supermarkets, it is a myth that American food is cheap. American junk food is cheap; the rest is not. My grocery bills at Safeway (equivalent to a mainstream British supermarket) are around 30 per cent higher than they would be at Sainsbury's or Tesco. That is because the amount of fruit, vegetables and savouries in my trolley - standard American fare, I hasten to add, not recherche imported produce - is higher than many Americans would buy. Fruit and vegetables are not cheap; nor is orange juice, nor meat.

If you buy giant packs of cereal, sliced bread, peanut butter and mayonnaise, factory-produced cheese, hamburgers and soft drinks, you can eat cheaply. But beware: the size of the packaging compared to the contents is misleading.

Fruit and vegetables are tasteless, because they have been harvested and packed for long-distance distribution before they were ripe. And what look like giant pieces of meat, fruit and vegetables often cook down to a fraction of their size. You have to buy bigger quantities in the US to obtain the portions you would get in Britain.

The doubts about quality and the tastelessness of much mass-produced American food have propelled many higher-income Americans to try the new clutch of smaller, specialised supermarkets that sell ecologically sound produce (and charge correspondingly higher prices). The result is that there are increasingly two classes of Americans: those who can afford good food and those who cannot.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the British supermarket, however, is the choice of convenience foods. The convenience food industry in the United States is at a primitive stage of development. There are canned and frozen meals, TV dinners and the like, but portions are paltry, the taste is negligible, and the actual contents often indiscernible.

It is small wonder, then, that so many Americans resort to fast food or take-outs. The lower cost of labour in the US, which often makes take- out food cheaper than anything you could cook yourself, may be one reason why prepared food lags so far behind British (or even Canadian) standards. Even the fad for salad bars, which produce a handsome profit for supermarkets because of the mark-up, has passed because of concern about hygiene.

For all these reasons any British supermarket should theoretically be able to find a niche in the US. But the history of British retailers' attempts to enter or expand in the US has not been glorious. American consultants offer several explanations: the companies are too small, the distribution chain is too long, tastes are different. They say the British choose their sites poorly and do not understand the American shoppers' need to believe (through discounting) that they are getting a bargain.

Perhaps now is the time for a British breakthrough. But American shoppers - the richer ones - seem ready to pay more for better produce and a more congenial experience in the supermarket. Perhaps the Sainsbury's American venture will succeed. Every visit to an American supermarket makes me hope so.

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