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There's a black hole round the corner

Boz magazine, 55: 9, November1998.

Brian J Ford

There is an insidious threat to our way of life: the black hole. Black holes suck everything into a great gravitational vortex and you never see it again. No, a black hole is not a supernova; it’s a supermarket, and there’s one behind you right now. A supermarket is run by a skeleton staff, who are typically paid rates that a future administration will make unlawful. Most are there to take money from people who stand in line, patiently waiting up for the privilege. There’s a funnel under each till, where the money is sucked in like a huge vacuum cleaner. It goes straight to banks in London (or Frankfurt, or wherever), and the billions of pounds that collect are shared out among the senior staff and the shareholders.

Supermarkets are designed to overcome one of the conspicuous results of contemporary education - an inability to communicate. There’s no need to communicate with anybody. Because you act as the shop assistant (unpaid, at that) the supermarket arranges that the flow of money from your pocket into their vaults is not impeded by the need to articulate anything to anybody at any time. It is the ultimate answer to dumbing down. It is the shareholders, not you, who are the customers. Supermarkets are designed to take your money and give it to shareholders and senior management, while their task is to drive down the price of everything they buy. They go to suppliers and offer them a steady outlet for their produce. To the farmer it seems like a godsend. The insecurity of the market-place is avoided at a stroke - all they have to do is supply a single outlet and the future is secure. It may be secure, but it isn’t very profitable for long. Once the supplier is locked into the system, the supermarket drives down the price they pay until the suppliers are at their wits end. This is not to keep the shop prices low. Quite the contrary, for (although prices go screaming upwards the moment there’s the hint of an increase in wholesale cost) they are much more reticent about coming down when a supplier’s price is cut. Beef farmers are now receiving half what they were prior to the BSE crisis, though the price of meat to the public has remained pretty static.

In any event, the prices charged by supermarkets are not as low as you think. Everywhere you go there are signs reassuring you of the generosity of the supermarkets. They allow you to keep change in your pockets; they have your low prices uppermost in mind; they do whatever they can to help make life more convenient. That’s what they claim. They are much less likely to tell you how they are screwing down the supplier’s costs, and then screw you. We shop differently. When we go shopping I stop the car right by the counter. A helpful specialist tells us about the fruit and vegetables, and packs it up. If there’s a lot to carry, they’ll put it into the car. That’s because we shop in a highly futuristic environment called a shop.

There are several aspects of a shop that make it different from a supermarket. They are friendly, warm and welcoming. The prices are reasonable, and there are people on hand to advise you. What’s more, there is no interminable queue at the till, and your money actually goes to someone in your community who is very likely to spend it locally. Mind you, for many items we don’t need to go out at all, for the shop comes to the house. As I was writing this article, my good friend Peter called with his ex-Post Office green-grocery van. He’s here every Friday. Just to be fair, I noted his prices and then called to three nearby supermarkets to see how they compared. The Rainbow and Tesco stores both had signs up offering super low prices on bananas. Peter’s were better, and cheaper too. His peppers are 80p a pound, whereas they are over 1 in the supermarkets. Size One eggs are 1.59 in Tesco, and 1.49 in Somerfield. Peter’s eggs are too big to count as Size One, but they come from a local poultry farm and cost 1.50.

Last year British supermarkets made pre-tax profits totalling over 2 billion. They sucked more than 45 billion out of your pockets. If you want to control their greed and exploitation, start using local shops. There’s no greater pleasure than handing over money to a local supplier who helps make life easier. Now that capitalism is close to collapse it would make sense to support local businesses. The supermarkets may be the black holes in the firmament of commerce - but it’s the local shops who are the stars.

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