Peter York: Waitrose, that apogee of nice, adds price to its middle-class attractions
Sunday 03 August 2008
You have to admit it's been nice. The past 10 years have been nice as anything. You might say it's been a bit bland, with people urging us to be Corporately Socially Responsible, Politically Correct, to think about the environment (I've really tried). The usual suspects muttered about "nanny state" and "PC gone mad" but felt impotent for ages.
The prospectus for the last Labour decade was brilliantly set out and, for many of us, it delivered. There was the embarrassment that our increasing social polarisation, started under Thatcher, got no better. Actually it got worse. But you could talk your way round that in, say, 2005-06, remarking that the quality of life was moving up for almost everyone above a modest social plimsoll mark. There was 9/11 and the Iraq War of course, but the real story of the decade was that positive surge of niceness.
Nice – Non-Inflationary-Constant-Expansion – was the economists' word for it when they celebrated 10 years of Bank of England independence in May 2007. Gorgeous stability and the impression of limitless money for absolutely everything – buying houses, opening lovely new shops, raising our game at an extraordinary rate and buying into bling.
If maddeningly bland was one criticism, then the other, from residual moralising lefties, was about bling. Celebrity culture, the show-offs and the Petrus Playboys. And Big London's completely shameless foreign rich, who bought up the big houses and everything else – the art, the girls, the parties. All this annoyed people to left and right.
But still the big story remained the relentless niceness – the warm, wet, everybody wins world of telethons, freelance caring and the New Language. There were people and companies who said they were "passionate" about all kinds of things, big and small. Odeon – not an organisation that had mustered much madness before – said it was "fanatical about film". And – a side effect of political correctness – fast-gentrifying areas with very diverse populations were always described as "vibrant", as if they were constantly quivering. All these words were meant to catch the mood.
Nothing in this world is nicer than Waitrose, the consensus brand of the concerned middle classes, the food incarnation of the John Lewis Partnership. Waitrose is owned by its employees, Waitrose sells nice things to nice people, Waitrose was an organic and a Fairtrade pioneer and it sells a disproportionate share of those niceness foods. And the shops, especially in their 2007 refits, are almost impossibly nice.
But the summer 2008 Waitrose commercials face both ways. In one, the long mood-setting armchair treatment, Waitrose seems to be laying on the biggest picnic in the world. Hundreds of nice people and their gambolling children go out somewhere lovely and tear up nice bread to eat with nice cheese and fruit, like they do on the solid- planked Conran kitchen table at home. And the music is that darlingly nice old hippie thing, Canned Heat's 'Going Up Country' with its nostalgic kazoo-ey sound. And they all seem to be on those nostalgic pinky-bluey blankets that cost a ton. The new strapline – and how caring is this? – is something about everybody.
But in the short commercials that flank this ultra-nice production number, the message is more basic, more 2008-crunchy. Across a range of pleasant summer things – berries, say, or thick-cut ham – Waitrose, for the first time I can remember, is saying half-price, adding Price to Nice.
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