They used to be places where you went to buy food, but now they are vast, sparkling commercial centres. And there's much more to come, says Ann Treneman; Open 24 hours Cloned meats Leisure drugs All-night alcohol Doctor's surgery Pharmacy Creche Bank Gym Travel agent Vet Singles' nights Free taxis
Friday 28 February 1997
Place: A supermarket, though it is now called a Consumer Community Centre.
Scene: A man wearing a community enhancement monitor badge stops a customer as she looks over the Great British (nee Brussels) sprouts. "I hope we can count on your vote?" he says. "Oh yes, I always vote Sainsbury's - always have since you took over managing that other lot," she says and starts testing the sprouts for genetic defects.
This may sound like science fiction but don't bet your Brussels sprouts on it. Supermarkets are on a roll and no one knows where they are going to end up. Only a few years ago they were merely purveyors - and not very efficient ones at that - of boring old British food. Gravy granules were about as exciting as it got and the only thing that came free was the grimace at the check-out.
Nowadays one cannot see the gravy for the guacamole and soon it will be smiles all round as you nip down aisle 10 to find an extra-special mortgage deal.
Hardly a week passes without some big supermarket news. Today sees the launch of Tesco's 24-hour shopping experiment. Last week Sainsbury's Bank made its debut in selected stores, putting savings accounts and credit cards up there on the shelf with own-brand baked beans.
And don't forget the "first-ever" direct baby catalogue and Internet home shopping and self-scanning trolleys. Everything is "new", "unprecedented", "unique" and offers - of course - "Unbeatable Value".
Confused? Join the club - or perhaps you already have. After all you can now get 5 per cent gross interest on some "club card" credit balances. "This means that customers can save as they spend," says one supermarket press release, "and when there is a special occasion to spend a bit more, they can apply for a credit limit and won't have to worry." This is fine if you also believe that pigs can fly - "See Aisle Six for our Air-Reared Pork" - and that the green cheese made by that nice Mr Moon is going to be on sale soon.
Any time anyone other than a close relative offers anxiety-free credit we should get worried. But we won't. For starters, the new supermarket banks are offering rather good deals - for now - and they have an incentive to continue to do so for a little time yet. A Gallup poll shows that almost half of all shoppers carry loyalty cards and supermarkets are hell-bent on increasing that figure.
"But have you seen the prices lately?" asks a friend who has just changed from Sainsbury's to Somerfield in search of a lower shopping bill. But many supermarkets seem to have switched from cutting prices to providing "extra value".
There's a lesson here and it is much like the one preached by John Travolta's angel in the new film Michael. The story, as he tells it, involves a discussion between the sun and wind, with the latter bragging about his great powers. "See that man down there in that coat?" the wind asks the sun. "Just watch while I make him take it off." And so the wind huffs and puffs and blows and blows. But the man only wraps up tighter. "Let me try," says the sun and starts to beam. In a minute the man takes off his coat, no sweat.
The loyalty card has several solar-powered features. We feel good as the points add up. We feel as if we are "earning" something. We only feel a little embarrassed as we stand in front of an industrial-sized jar of mayonnaise wondering if we should get three for the price of two and "earn" 100 bonus points. It is now one of my personal goals in life to "earn" enough bonus points to pay for an entire week's shopping. My friends say this is sad but they are just jealous because they keep cashing in their reward points to pay for the odd bit of dry-cleaning. My loyalty has been bought, no sweat.
Besides offering Unbeatable Value, supermarkets are working hard to liven up what used to be your basic hunter-gatherer slog around a store.
Shop Till You Drop - the new Channel 4 series on the "anthropology of the aisles" - notes that it is normal for shoppers to go into a trance- like state while manoeuvring their trolleys. During this time, the eye blink rate goes down to 14 per minute but when we see something interesting it immediately goes back to a normal 32 per minute. All of those snazzy arrows, signs and bold packaging are put there with the goal of increasing your blink rate.
Supermarkets now aim to be "fun" and "exciting" - and they will even let you go to the lavatory without having to compete for the Bafta for best acting performance in pursuit of a public convenience. There are cafes and newsstands and non-dispensing pharmacies. The battle is on to allow real drugs for sale here, but who needs Prozac when you are surrounded by retail therapy?
Extended hours have provided what they call new "opportunities" for shopping. "Sunday opening has changed many households' complete way of life," says consumer psychologist Sue Keane. "The whole family may go shopping and perhaps have lunch. It's a family outing. It's an event."
That event at Tesco's superstore near Gatwick airport seems to be a carnival. Even the trolleys lined up at the entrance look dressed to kill in their various guises and colour schemes. Just outside the door a Budgie the Helicopter children's ride acts as a sort of gyrating welcoming committee. The store stocks 18,000 different products and has 800 car parking spaces. It sells clothing and petrol and has a cafe that does takeaway Indian tandoori and Chinese meals.
Just inside the door is a character who seems to have escaped from Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree. "This is our Bouncing Clock," says store general manager Paul Smythe, introducing a blow-up watchface. You know it is human because of the arms, legs and voice telling you it is hot in there.
Mr Smythe explains: "He has to bounce to keep the air circulating." Good for the calf muscles and for getting the message across: no one can resist going up to him and taking a "Shop Around the Clock" leaflet.
"We were open 24 hours just before Christmas and it was a huge success," says Mr Smythe. The store took the same in one night as it did during a normal day and the customers loved it. "We even had a couple who came straight from a gala ball to do their shopping in ballgown and black tie. Another came in nightgown and pyjamas."
The 24-hour experiment is for one night a week - Fridays - at four stores around England. In addition to the pyjama crowd, Mr Smythe is expecting lots of normal types. There are the shift-workers from Gatwick and also the workaholics who toil away until after 10pm or so anyway.
"We also had lots of mums who came without the children either late at night or early in the morning," he says, "and some older people, too, who just wake up real early."
It sounds logical but you do not have to think back so very far to realise this constitutes something of a revolution. "When I started with Tesco's some 20 years ago there was a half-day closing on Wednesday and a half- day on Saturday," says Mr Smythe.
"I remember when we opened all day Saturday, people said it would never work. Then we opened on Wednesdays and then until 8 one night a week and on and on."
Where will it all end? In the short term, the frenetic pace seems set to continue. There will be more 24-hour experiments, more loyalty card deals, more services and take-away tandooris. In the long term, think even bigger.
"Ten years from now it will be possible to go to Sainsbury's, say, and do all your food shopping, do your post office transactions, do your banking, have a meal, go next door to the SavaCentre and buy your household things and come out and fill up with petrol," says Sue Keane.
"Perhaps on the way you might stop to arrange a loan for your holiday and by then you can probably also book that there as well."
Of course, one might need someone to go on holiday with and they could stop by the supermarket dating agency. After all it is not only Armistead Maupin in his Tales of the City who claims that the aisles are the perfect place for cruising. In America, bookshops are holding singles' nights. It cannot be long before some supermarkets here do, too.
Not all supermarkets, of course. Some seem to have remembered that they exist to sell food and one of these is Asda. "No we are not going to be a bank. We are trying to be a shop," says Archie Norman, the 42-year-old chairman.
"We see the future as being about food - fresh, pre-prepared and ready- to-eat - and things that go with that, like health care and clothing for all the family. That's our chosen agenda. We see the future about offering better value and offering more excitement rather than getting into very complicated services which are the province of other large industries."
Mr Norman would like to see such things as health clinics in his supermarkets and it is these kinds of services that could stop us from becoming a nation of couch potatoes who order our spuds and everything else via the Internet.
Jill Rawlins of Somerfield predicts that in 10 years it may be normal to order "standard supplies" via the Internet but believes we will continue to shop in person for meals, fresh fruit and vegetables and for social (not to mention health) reasons.
And what of politics? There does seem to be a connection, though hardly on the same level as the mangetout buyer who was feted by farm workers in Zimbabwe recently as the "King of Tesco". But we have had some politics from the Sainsburys - both Tim and David - and Archie Norman is standing as a Tory candidate in Tunbridge Wells.
"I've been absolutely explicit that our business is not a political business in any sense of the word," says Mr Norman. "There are no circumstances in which Asda will be involved with politics."
Sue Keane laughs at the very idea but then thinks aloud: "I must say that supermarkets have more influence on the normal side of our lives than politicians have. Maybe the day will come when the market researchers will come round and knock on your door and say: `Are you voting Sainsbury or Asda?' I can see no reason why they wouldn't. Gosh, I think they'd get a lot of votes."
See, no sweat.
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