Supermarket 2007

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

Date: Two weeks before the general election in the year 2007.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links