In the words of Clark (2009) the explosive growth of supermarkets in the last half- century has completely revolutionized the food sector. Whilst contemplating this idea I sit here consuming a chicken tikka ready meal from M&S, naan bread from Tesco and a strawberry smoothie from Sainsburys. Within a 1 mile radius from my house in Sheffield are no fewer than 10 supermarkets, however ask me to name the number of independent food retailers within the same distance and I would struggle to make half that.
The purpose of this blog will seek to analyse this documented rise in the popularity of corporate supermarkets, examining their benefits and limitations whilst also exploring alternative food sources such as farmers markets. As a result of this it will look to draw conclusions on the future of food consumption based on current trends.
As of May 2017 there were 13781 corporate supermarkets operating in the UK. With each family in the UK roughly spending an average of £53.20 on supermarket groceries this large supermarket presence is not surprising. Peyton et al (2015) have stated that an increase in the number of supermarkets has led to an overall improvement in food security in the UK due to lower prices and greater choice as a result of increased competition (food security relates to adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious and affordable food). Whilst this may be true corporate supermarkets have also received their fair share of criticism. Figure 1 illustrates how just 6.89% of UK grocery shopping is conducted outside of supermarkets:
Figure 1: UK grocery market shares, Kantar World Panel
In the past 10 years the number of independent retailers has fallen by nearly half, from 35,000 to 18,500. This decline has been strongly linked to the increase in corporate supermarkets, especially in areas situated outside of urban areas. Often this can lead to the creation of ‘food deserts’, areas where access to nutritious, affordable food is lacking, due to limitations stemming from the geographies of poverty (Wrigley, 2002). An example of a ‘food desert’ can be viewed within my local city of Sheffield. Located in the north eastern part of the city (as opposed to myself who lives in the more affluent west) are the wards of Burngreve and Firth Park. Recent city center developments for a new Tesco led to the closure of several local grocery shops. The main sources of food now consist of takeaways which is leading to an obesity problem within these two wards. See figure 2 below:
Figure 2: Sheffield deprivation, GIS Sheffield
There are also problems surrounding corporate supermarkets and the issue of food sovereignty (food sovereignty insists on the basic view that the main purpose of the food system is to feed the population in a way that is fair, local and sustainable). Between 1992 and 2012 Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) reported a 19% reduction in indigenous food grown in the UK from 87% to 68% with an increasing reliance on importation. According to the BBC (2017) the chicken tikka I mentioned at the start of this blog may have traveled through as many as 4 different countries, traversing thousands of miles before arriving on my plate. Lang et al (2017) believe that increased food importation by corporate supermarkets (see figure 3), not only contradicts the idea of food sovereignty but also has increased the threat of food insecurity in the UK post Brexit. The real prospect of leaving the EU common market could see importation costs on food rise up to 22% based on current prices. Supermarkets may be reluctant to subsidize due to their profit driven motivations meaning that the British consumer would ultimately become financially worse off.
Figure 3: UK food trade imports & exports, Defra 2016 in A Food Brexit: time to get real
According to Giampietri et al (2016) growing concerns surrounding the corporate supermarket in the UK has led to a rise in the use of farmers markets which have proved increasingly popular due to their sustainability and short food supply chains. Farmers markets offer the epitome of food sovereignty. Local, fresh and nutritious produce. Sheffield has several, the largest being the Moor Market. Whilst serving as a hub for supporting local retailers, farmers markets simply cannot compete with corporate supermarkets in terms of convenience and cost efficiency. This is observed by Wolf et al (2005) who claims that consumers often decided against using farmers markets due to their inconvenient opening times. They also commented on limited product choice also being a deciding factor in their use. Farmers markets also do little to help food deserts in the city of Sheffield. Their central locations and poor parking are often harder for marginalized communities to access than corporate supermarkets (Wolf et al, 2005).
Corporate supermarkets, whilst not perfect ultimately exist as a byproduct of increased consumer reliance and spending (93.11% share of UK food sales). Trends show that whilst larger superstores are decreasing, smaller convenience shops such as Tesco express and Sainsburys local are on the rise, with over 300 opening between 2016-17. UK Consumers are also making use of online delivery services currently offered by the top 6 corporate supermarkets with around 29% claiming they shopped online within the past 12 months. These figures reinforce the views displayed by Lang et al (2017) that whilst British consumers may be more receptive to the concept of sourcing food locally and supporting independent retailers, ultimately many will still choose to shop based on convenience. Gabriel (2015) builds on this argument by explaining that consumers lifestyle trends simply do not afford time to browse multiple shops or visit independent markets. The British public aren’t blind to the failings of corporate supermarkets…increased food miles, false packaging, the horse meat scandal? But the reality is people will keep going back.
Lang et al (2017) believe that until an alternative mainstream solution is found to the corporate supermarket which is able to adhere to the fast paced convenience lives which we now lead, the UK will remain on course towards food insecurity and an uncertain post Brexit future. The consumer will continue to favour time over morality and the monopoly of the food market share will remain in corporate hands.