Supermarkets - they're all the same, but different

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The Independent Online

Yesterday I was going on about all the farmers' markets we have near where I live, and how they offer better and cheaper stuff than any supermarket, and I was mildly questioning the myth that supermarkets are so efficient and so geared to a mass market that they can effortlessly undercut the small operator, whereas any farmer in any market I have ever been to was able to undercut Sainsbury's by at least 25 per cent...

(Readers in London must have been sighing and tapping their fingers impatiently, and saying: "Yes, it's all very well for you going on like this if you're surrounded by farmers' markets, but what about us in the big city who haven't got that sort of available choice? What's this got to do with us?" Well, now you know what it feels like for out-of-London readers when newspapers goes on and on about restaurants in London and new plays in London and the best trendy shops in bloody London and the bloody River Café. You might think that London readers were the majority instead of actually being a pampered minority...)

Anyway, I'll just mention that you can get a half pound of fresh farm butter at a market for 70p, and I wonder what they're charging in your local supermarket for the same amount of pale stuff from heaven knows where, and then I'll move on to a challenging remark my wife made the other day. We had just come out of the Sainsbury's at Frome, and she said, "I so much more enjoy shopping here than at the Sainsbury's in Bath." This certainly challenged my belief that all branches of the same supermarket are indistinguishable. We may have been brainwashed into believing that supermarkets are cheaper, when they clearly aren't, but at the same time we have also been brainwashed into believing that they are all drearily identical, like the grimly predictable interiors of McDonald's or WH Smith. Is that untrue too?

So I interrogated her strictly. Was it the ease of parking? (You have to wait for ages for a parking space at Bath.) Was it the scenery? (It's a nice drive to Frome.) Was it shorter queues at the check-out? (They are.) No, she said; all that helped, but the main reason was simply that there were lots of things you could get at Frome that you couldn't get in Bath. Tins of Illy coffee beans, for instance, which is her favourite blend. You don't often see them in Bath. Dubbin was another thing. She had recently looked for dubbin shoe gunge at Bath, but couldn't find it. Found it at Frome. Cranberry-and-raspberry juice was another thing. They had the Ocean Spray brand at Bath, but not the Sainsbury's own-brand variety, which was about 20p cheaper, just as good, and available at Frome. Etc, etc.

"You make it sound as if Frome has got the more sophisticated choice of things," I said. "Now, I don't want to be guilty of townism, but Bath is generally reckoned to be a touch more sophisticated than Frome. All that heritage and history and Georgian good taste. I mean, you'll find more antique shops on one street in Bath than in the whole of Frome. So you'd expect Bath Sainsbury's to reflect that pretentiousness. I mean, good taste."

"Well, Bath has got a university as well, which Frome hasn't," she said, "and I get the feeling that a lot of Sainsbury's is geared to student wants. As soon as you get inside the store, you find yourself in a section devoted to instant meals, convenience foods, prepacked suppers, all that kind of stuff, which is useless to me but well geared to student life. None of that in Frome. And," she added, "the people are much friendlier here in Frome. Oh, and you borrow trolleys free in Frome, but have to pay £1 deposit in Bath. And there was much better air conditioning in Frome in the hot summer. And..."

Enough, already! But is it really possible that something as faceless and as homogeneous as a supermarket can sprout local variations? Can there even be a McDonald's or a WH Smith somewhere that is managed by a man or woman who wants to try something new? I knew a man once who ran a local branch of Victoria Wine, and who started selling a nice little red wine that he had imported himself from France, bottled and labelled by himself. You couldn't get it in any other branch of Victoria Wine. When head office found out, he was fired. Mark you, whether he took initiative so far as to pocket the proceeds as well, I don't know, but I applaud the principle. So, if any reader has an instance to report where a big corporate name is actually doing something interestingly small-scale or off-beat, locally, let me know.