Upmarket and downmarket – why the modern consumer loves a bit of both

The arrival of Aldi and Lidl have attracted value-conscious shoppers away from their traditional choice of supermarket

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Something strange, but not entirely inexplicable, seems to be happening to the British consumer: polarisation. Everywhere you look the middle-ranking brands in any given market are being relentless squeezed. Squeezed, that is, between budget outfits at the bottom end of their respective markets, and by more prestigious and, yes, snobby firms at the top end.

Let’s take groceries. Leaving aside the special, and self-induced, agonies that the Co-op is going through, we find Tesco this week announcing British sales slipping back. Sainsbury’s too has gone into reverse, after nine years of solid growth. All the analysts agree; the arrival of Aldi and Lidl have attracted value-conscious shoppers away from their traditional choice of supermarket. And so have Waitrose and Marks & Spencer food stores at the top end.

And what about the hatchback we drive to the supermarket? A few days ago Peugeot Citroën announced some radical changes to their business. They, along with the likes of Renault, Ford and Vauxhall, are also stuck in the middle. Value for money makes such as Dacia (actually a subsidiary of Renault, so some compensation for them there), Skoda, Kia and Hyundai are taking record armlet shares and often displaying rapid growth.

At the same time existing posh cars are extending ever more steadily into mainstream territory. So a few years ago there was no such thing as a “small” BMW or Audi, and now they produce cars that compete head-on with what we used to think of as mass-market brands.

Similar things are happening elsewhere. The same M&S that is enjoying a boom in its food stores is struggling with its womenswear – a classic squeeze between Primark and TK Maxx on the one side, and the likes of Reiss and Jigsaw. In air travel, easyJet and Ryanair are still climbing into the sky, while the end of the recession has seen a quiet recovery in private charters and the airlines that seem to have an unlimited capacity for inventing new ways of pampering high-rolling business flyers; “standard class” seems to be becoming less standard.

So what is going on? Partly it must be a reflection of a more unequal society – a very long-term trend. If we really were all in this together, and austerity was being experienced across the income scale, then I very much doubt that Waitrose and BMW would have been doing as well as they have lately. One way or another, the upper-middle classes may have managed to preserve their standards better than we might have thought. Those in the middle and at the bottom, meanwhile, have been shoved, firmly, into the aisles of Lidl.

Of course, consumers have different tastes and priorities. Those people for whom a smart car is the priority might economise on clothes, or vice versa. If I can’t stand going on Ryanair (and I can’t) and need to make room in my budget for a BA ticket, I will make do with a Skoda (which I do). Maybe I will go to Aldi or Lidl to buy some of their champagne, but still buy my bread from an artisan bakery, to keep within budget. Perhaps more of us are making these sorts of intricate choices.

Perhaps, too, we are simply more sophisticated consumers than we once were. There are still plenty of people, of course, who will take the default, middle market option, just as they always have. But a growing minority are growing more aware and discriminating in the choices they make. They will think a little longer about what their preferences say about them to the world. More of us just don’t care about being seen with an Aldi carrier bag or behind the wheel of a Dacia Sandero (£5,995) if it means we can wear a nice suit or frock. As someone once sang, “clowns to the left of you, jokers to the right”. Who’d want to be stuck in the middle?

No night out is complete without a kebab

Is the lamb kebab the most maligned meal in history? I think so. This week we learned that some are “adulterated” with beef and chicken, which I think maybe misses the point. The point about a kebab is not culinary but cultural. And I do mean here the doner kebab, the one where a big lump of meat rotates on a skillet as if from some strange shaped mythical beast. The one  that we have all eaten after too many beers. The one with a familiar liturgy: “Salad?” “Extra Chillies?” “Chilli sauce?” Amen  to all that.

Amen too, to the traditional challenge of consuming the overfilled contents before the pitta bread, hopelessly inadequate to the task, gives way and your doner is a goner. All from the kebab shop that usually sees a fight in the street outside, and a lone white stiletto bears witness to some unimaginable personal trauma.

“Zorbas” on Granby Street, Leicester, was my favourite kebabbery; you will have yours. Demonised by the health fascist, despised by the food snobs, but there is no more tasty an end to a great British night out than a kebab. Extra chillies, please.

s.ogrady@independent.co.uk

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