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Has the UK fallen out of love with the supermarket?

Updated Tuesday, 29th May 2012

As people rediscover a love for market shopping, Joanna Blythman asks if the once unstoppable rise of supermarkets has come to an end.

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Supermarkets devour the lion's share of the UK's shopping basket. By 2009, 85 per cent of Britain's food shopping passed through their checkouts, with the 'big four', Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons, accounting for two-thirds of the total spend.

Since the early 1990s, supermarkets have steadily consolidated their grip over the nation's grocery spend. Many wholesale markets closed, sidelined by the supermarkets policy of sourcing food either direct from producers, or via intermediaries dedicated to supplying large multiples. Protest in pumpkin form against Tesco expansion in Machynlleth A pumpkin protest against the expansion of Tesco in Machynlleth

Traditional retail indoor markets contracted in size and vitality as shoppers typically used them for 'top-up' shopping to supplement the weekly one-stop supermarket shop.

Indeed, until the end of 2011, when Tesco unexpectedly reported its worst sales figures for 20 years, UK supermarket chains collectively looked like an unstoppable tide, sweeping aside food markets in their wake.

But there is definitely a slight faltering in the relentless march of supermarkets. A recent editorial in The Grocer, the influential food retail magazine, posed the question 'Have we reached the historic moment in time when supermarkets start to shrink in size?'.

The overall picture in the UK is that albeit from a very strong base, supermarket expansion is slowing. Some market analysts now refer to the largest format 'hypermarkets' as white elephants. The rate of new store openings is declining, ever so slightly, with the major retailers putting more emphasis on extensions and refurbishments than grandiose new projects.

In a parallel development, there's a slight spring in the step of traditional retail markets up and down the land, many of which seem to have stepped back from the brink of annihilation and are in the process of finding new futures for themselves.

One exemplar for the rebirth of the British market is Bolton's main market on Ashburner Street, right in the heart of the town centre. This extremely popular award-winning market has complemented its lively 17,000 square feet of fresh food with a cookery demonstration kitchen that runs regular cooking events and seasonal food tastings to add to the shopping experience.

Non-traditional farmers' markets, meanwhile, are going from strength to strength, with new ones opening in both urban and rural locations, and several of the better-established ones reporting waiting lists for producers who wish to take a stall.

It looks as though Britain's desire to have a shopping experience outside the supermarket is growing. This is why Morrisons introduced its 'Market Row' concept, to give its customers the look, if not the reality, of a more exciting shopping experience.

Markets that have survived the supermarket revolution still have much to offer consumers who are registering increasing levels of ennui with the clone town ubiquity of the large multiples and the dullness of the supermarket shopping experience. There is a growing public appetite for something different.

So what is it that retail markets have that supermarkets don't? For starters, there's human interaction with stallholders and other shoppers. Whether it's barrow boy banter or the face-to-face opportunity to meet a producer, markets provide it.

By contrast, the Stepford Wives-like supermarket shopping experience leaves many people yearning for an alternative.

There's variety too. Supermarkets carry more or less the same produce 365 days of the year. Visit a traditional or farmers' market on the other hand, and there's a sense of seasonality and ever-changing variety that stimulates the urge to cook.

The fact that market food is less packaged, and more likely to be sold in its unprocessed form, is another powerful appeal. When supermarket aisles are increasingly stacked with boxes of ready meals and other heavily processed products that rely on slick photography for their appeal, it's refreshing to see real, fresh, unprocessed food in the raw.

Price is another draw. Traditional food markets in town centres typically sell comparable fruit and vegetables for considerably less than supermarkets do. Farmers' markets can sometimes beat supermarkets on price, on items such as free-range eggs, vegetables and salads.

Localism is another powerful selling point for markets of both types. More people these days feel that they want to eat more local food, yet rarely find it in the supermarket.

These days, the number of people using markets is on the up, as is witnessed by the packed crowds in thriving markets, such as London's Borough. The numbers of people using markets has steadied, and in some places increased, so lack of consumer demand is not the issue, but permanent markets in inner cities still face a number of challenges.

The desirable location of traditional town centre markets makes them attractive acquisitions for property developers. At time of writing, a battle is being fought over Leeds Kirkgate Market, one of the largest covered markets in Europe. Listed by English Heritage for its special architectural interest, and council-owned, over 200,000 people visit it every week and it makes over £1 million profit a year. But a vocal action group has formed to stop the council privatising it, pushing rents to levels unaffordable to existing traders, and turning it into an exclusive shopping mall, with almost no food, along the lines of the city's prestige Victoria Quarter, or Glasgow's Princes Square.

In many cases, 'regeneration' of existing indoor markets has become a byword for bourgeoisification and privatisation. On the other hand, long-established outdoor markets, such as that held in the market town of Boston, in Lincolnshire, are under less threat.

Many councils do recognise that both farmers' and traditional markets can drive 'footfall' in urban areas and regenerate town centres left soulless and downbeat as out-of-town shopping centres have proliferated. Food markets increasingly appear in tourist brochures as congenial places to shop and take a stroll.

But in addition to wooing people back from supermarkets, market traders find themselves in a precarious situation, grappling with everything from raised rents and sometimes over-zealous environmental health regulations to lack of investment in the market and daunting weather conditions.

There are signs that the British are beginning to fall out of love with the supermarkets, and their overbearing presence in many areas. With their often attractive prices, sense of place, seasonality and vibrancy, traditional and farmers' markets can, with the appropriate backing from enlightened councils, offer British consumers a significantly different, and some would say, more rewarding shopping experience.

Local food markets may not yet look like plausible alternatives to all that supermarkets have to offer, more of a raggle-taggle bunch of hopefuls, but they're here to stay, and their prospects look rosy.


More writing by Joanna Blythman
FARMA: The National Farmers' and Retail Markets Assocation


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