In the UK most people visit their local supermarket to do their household food shop. When arriving we are filled with an abundant choice. It can often be a daunting to know which the best quality brands are or what products are giving you the best value for money. Too many decisions can cause stress and anxiety. Supermarkets have cottoned onto to this; Tesco reduced their product range from 90,000 to 30,000 after seeing consumers preferred the fewer choices they had at Aldi and Lidl. To improve the shopping experience, supermarkets monitor how people shop by tracking their movements on CCTV. They found most customers don’t use every single aisle when shopping; instead they use the outside aisles to find the ones they need. Supermarkets responded by making the outside aisles bigger to accommodate for the extra flow of traffic and they put appealing sale products on the end of aisles to reduce the amount of decisions made.
Supermarkets do respond to their customer’s needs, however they have a bigger priorities to accommodate: their profits. They coerce customers into buying products they don’t necessarily want or need. Products on the end of aisles aren’t only to reduce decisions but to also encourage impulse buys. They change shopping habits by moving products around. This increases the chances of customers buying more while in search of the thing they want. Loyalty cards too are tactic to find out what people are buying and to encourage them to buy products they don’t need by giving discount vouchers.
Sometimes customers do have the upper hand over what products are on the shelves by using boycotting methods or petitioning for those they’re against (e.g. free range egg sales have doubled since 2006). But the fact is most customers don’t have the organisation or dedication to do this. The majority are easily manipulated and depend on supermarkets to provide the products they need. Ultimately supermarkets have power over consumers. Notably there are just four supermarkets in the UK who have the biggest proportion of the national food market (see table below). This narrows down the influence even further as these four have the buying power over millions of consumers as well as thousands of suppliers.
Supermarkets reduce the opportunities of smaller businesses getting their products onto the shelves by favouring their own stock. They have own branded products which are cheaper to produce and give a greater return in profit; in the UK as many as 50% of supermarket products are their own brands.
But it’s not only supermarkets that are reaping the profits. The rest of the products on the shelves are likely to be owned by just ten major corporations (see below) who are making billions in revenue every year. Nestle alone made over £68 billion in 2016.
The choices we make are in the hands of just a few. Supposedly the wealth at the top has a ‘trickle down’ effect, where the profits filter down to those at the bottom. But this is difficult to see when the workers at the bottom are on minimum wage and the ones at the top are getting huge salaries. You can see this from the image below which shows how the profits of a pineapple are distributed.
This unequal distribution of power means that a few are able to make decisions on what the masses can buy, how they buy it and when they can buy it. But what happens if your nearest supermarket is miles away? Perhaps you don’t have access to a car and there isn’t a direct bus route to get there. Or you can’t afford the bus ticket as well as your food shop. You may be forced to go to your local shop instead which has higher prices and fewer options. That’s if you’re lucky enough to live in a neighbourhood where the grocers, butchers and so on even exist. Supermarkets and corporations have driven many local businesses to shut down.
This makes vulnerable people food insecure as they have fewer options of not only where they can shop, but also what products they can buy. Any remaining small stores tend to have higher prices and fewer options available. Unhealthy processed foods are cheaper to buy than fresh fruit and vegetables so many of the poor are getting health problems such as obesity. Processed foods store on the shelf for longer periods of time which makes them more attractive to shop owners when deciding on what stock to buy. They are more likely to sell a box of crisps that expire in a years’ time compared to a crate of bananas that goes off within a week. Anything not sold within the expiration date has to be thrown away. This causes a loss in profits and when small businesses are struggling to get by you hardly blame them for not wanting to stock many fresh healthy options.
Supermarkets and corporations are abusing their position in society by having a greater focus on profit than people’s right to food. Everyone has a right to access affordable healthy food. The current system excludes vulnerable people from being able to purchase the food they need and it removes the opportunity for small businesses to sell their produce. There needs to be a drastic change in how food is grown, distributed, sold and bought to ensure a greater distribution of wealth and to provide the most vulnerable with healthy affordable options. Various food justice movements across the world are making an attempt to ensure all people have access to local, healthy, affordable food. They are organising from the bottom up rather than relying on the people at the top to save them. Perhaps it’s time we take a closer look into how we can change our communities to ensure everyone is being fed.