Discus whether supermarkets are now the controllers of food choice Essay

“We go to supermarkets because they allow us to buy whatever we want and supermarkets make their money by choosing in advance exactly what it is were going to buy” (Bell and Valentine, 1997) Discus whether supermarkets are now the controllers of food choice.

Since the 1950’s supermarkets have expanded to become a large share in the retail industry. This share has led to a large domination in the market thus reducing the consumer’s choice. The top 5 supermarkets in the United Kingdom (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Safeway and Morrison’s) control 70% of the food market. Their control spans not only where we shop, but what we buy.

Supermarket’s can choose what we purchase through a variety of methods that this assignment will explore. Their control on the market means that what they choose to stock in their stores is what we will purchase. They use their power to decide when, where, how, and for how much their food is processed, packed, delivered and stored.

Many supermarkets have started to branch out into the convenience market with a rise in shops such as, Tesco Metro, Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local stores. Tesco has also recently bought out the “T&S” stores which include the “One stop” stores and “Day and Night”. This has led to the closure of many local stores. Most supermarkets operate from out of town shopping centres and these local shops are now threatening the local paper shop. The opening of local shops is a bid to increase our reliance on the large chain supermarkets.

Not only do the majority of people shop at the supermarket for their weekly shop, but local shops are designed to encourage “top up” shops selling essentials like bread, milk and newspapers as well as the luxury of pre packaged sushi and reward schemes. Local shops such as Tesco metro are also considerably more expensive than the large supermarkets, consumers pay for the convenience of having a local store.

Food retail is now only a small percentage of what supermarkets specialise in. Most supermarkets are controlling local trades such as, dry cleaning, chemists, caf�’s, opticians, childcare, photo processing, florists, hairdressers, petrol stations, banking, financial services, electrical goods, and clothing stores. When a supermarket opens, local businesses suffer and many have to close due to the competition that the supermarket offers.

“In 1985, there were over 23,000 high street butchers for example. By 2000, there were 9,721 left. Last year, small newsagents were closing at the rate of one a day. Nowadays, only 15% of consumers make use of specialist shops such as butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers.” (The Guardian 17th May 2003).

This is not a local phenomenon. WalMart’s sales for 2001 topped the league for biggest company in terms of sales, beating Exxon-Mobil. Tesco also has its sights set on distant shores, with shares in companies in Thailand, Malaysia and Turkey. Tesco has also recently purchased HIT, one of Poland’s leading hypermarkets. Globally, consumers are realising that in the not too distant future, one or two large chains will monopolise our shopping.

With all this power that the supermarket’s hold, our choice’s of where to shop are reducing rapidly. The Guardian reports that,

“Supermarkets have taken control of the UK’s shopping basket in just 50 years… Environmentalists say that supermarkets are shaping the food chain to suit the way they like to do business, telling growers what varieties to cultivate, sourcing abroad when they could source at home, rationalising the supply chain so that only a handful of big suppliers can operate and significantly contributing to global warming by transporting food over unnecessarily long distances.” (The Guardian 17th May 2003).

When we walk in through a supermarkets automatic glass doors and see our first isle, immediately a large range of devices are being used to influence our buying. The first that we may consciously notice is the smell. Most supermarkets have the smell of freshly baked bread pumping through their stores. This smell can induce hunger and can be produced from an in store bakery or out of a bottle. Companies now know that smell sells so they can produce different intensified food smells from bread to chocolate to oranges. Today, supermarkets view smells as another form of packaging that induce people to buy various products.

Music is often played in supermarkets. Most people would assume that music is there to create a mood, but this too is often used as a tool to increase selling potential. Professor Gary Davies, Manchester business school, claims that music adjusts the speed we shop, so supermarkets can keep the music slow so that our pace is slow. This way we will notice things we would not have at a quicker pace. (The persuaders, 1995).

The first isle in a supermarket is traditionally fruit and vegetables. Natural lighting is used over the fruit and vegetables to give the illusion of freshness, as if purchasing from an outdoor market. Positioning of all the stock in the supermarkets is for a reason, including the fruit and vegetables near the doorway. “The positioning of products around the supermarket is a key weapon in the battle for our cash” (The persuaders, 1995). Fruit and vegetables are positioned at the entrance to give an idea of freshness. These cheaper essentials ease the consumer into the supermarket atmosphere before more expensive purchases are made.

The last isles are alcohol and the fridges. The alcohol is placed here so that consumers are not conscious when shopping of the money yet to be spent on the most expensive items. The fridges are close to the back so that the essentials, such as milk, are furthest away. This way, consumers must walk through all the shop when they only want milk or bread, hopefully causing them to spend more than they intended.

A key positioning in a supermarket is a gondola, also known as the isle ends. These are key areas because they are the places that most people will walk past. Manufacturers have to pay for the privilege of their stock being displayed on a gondola or at eye level on a shelf. It is important for manufacturers to make sure their produce is noticed and supermarkets are cashing in on this.

Supermarket own brands are their most profitable items. To try and sell these often cheaper products supermarkets place own labels next to brand names so that we will make the comparison and choose the better value item. Safeway has two own brand lines. They have a Safeway label and a Safeway savers label. There is little or no difference between the two items except that Safeway products are more expensive than Safeway savers. Safeway savers are only available on what Safeway consider to be essentials. On a typical shelf, Safeway own label will be at eye level, next to a brand name and the Safeway savers will be on the bottom shelf. This is so that consumers will miss the savers option and go for the Safeway label, which is still cheaper than the brand name.

Last minute purchases are big sellers. This is why in most shops, a small selection of chocolate bars and chewing gum are located close to the tills. Many supermarkets also display magazines, shoe polish and batteries here. This is a highly successful tactic as people make impulse purchases while waiting inline.

It is not only supermarkets who benefit when we flock in and buy the products they wanted us to, the manufacturer also benefits. Manufacturers have started to realise the influence that a supermarkets display has on their sales. (See figure one). Pot noodles recommend six steps to improving pot noodle sales. These steps would be quite obvious to most retailers, but also includes facts to back up each point, “Pot stop hot water dispensers… grab customers’ attention and can boost sales by up to 77%” (Grocer Today 19th July 2003) Figure one, is an advertisement from Grocer Today, aimed at shop owners. The article shows the importance of positioning and how stock levels influence sales. Manufacturer’s need their stock to be prominent upon the shelves to make money.

It is not only within the store that supermarkets can control our choices. Online shopping is becoming ever more popular as many shops offer free home delivery, making shopping even more hassle free for today’s busy consumers. Tesco.com has made their online store very successful by using a variety of techniques. “Tesco online (Tesco.com) has developed a sophisticated and extended shopping experience” (Rowley, 2003, pp274). Rowley goes on to analyze the order the results are shown in.

For example, on Tesco.com when coffee is searched for, 152 items are displayed, the first being Douwe Egberts Continental Gold Coffee. A shopper in a rush would have little time to look through all 152 varieties of coffee (from freeze dried to cappuccino sachets to caramel flavoured coffee) and would pick one of the first options. Tesco show here that offering verity does not stop them from controlling our choices overall.

Another control device within Tesco online is idea lists. These work by special events, such as a party or a barbeque. The consumer, selects their desired special occasion and Tesco online tells them exactly what they will need. For a barbeque, Tesco advises everything from the purchase or the barbeque, to the charcoal, meet, drinks, ice packs and garden furniture. Tesco can control the consumer through this because they choose what is included and excluded from these lists many consumers will adhere to their recommendations.

In order to shop online with Tesco, you must first have a Clubcard with them. Clubcards are very valuable to Tesco, as are all loyalty cards to supermarkets. Loyalty cards can show supermarkets a wide range of data. “Loyalty cards… identify and record all our purchases while giving us discounts and freebies” (Bell and Valentine, 1997, pp. 137). When registering for a loyalty card we provide details such as, sex, address, and date of birth. By using the loyalty cards we provide the shops with information on where we shop, how often, what we purchased, our diet, our preferences, our tastes. This data mining is important for the supermarkets so they know who their stores should be appealing to.

Loyalty cards also work as an incentive for the consumer to be loyal to that shop. Other incentives that shops are introducing include, home delivery, bag packing, convenience, free parking and car loading facilities. The battle for the customers means that they are constantly thinking up new ways to make shopping as enjoyable as possible.

One shop in America has gone the extra mile to try and make shopping more enjoyable. Stew Leonard’s in Connecticut, USA, has taken a whole new light to the supermarket experience. Within 15 miles of the Stew Leonard’s, there are 93 other stores selling the same or similar produce, (The persuaders, 1995). To make themselves different they have attempted to combine the supermarket with a theme park. Stew Leonard’s has its own milk processing plant, costumed characters, scheduled entertainment, petting zoo and animatronics throughout the stores.

The store is very children friendly, this encourages parents to come and bring their children because it makes shopping an enjoyable experience. Stew Leonard’s has now entered the Guinness book of world records for a stores highest turn over per square foot. This goes to prove that niche marketing within supermarkets can prove to be very profitable.

Supermarkets are a huge market in today’s economy, and they are among Britain’s biggest companies. They employ thousands both locally and further a field in packaging and picking factories. Many have started to worry about the effect supermarkets are having on our economy as they lure thousands more through their doors every day. “Every now and then, exposes of the science of supermarkets reveal how controlled the shopping environment really is, in spite of all its illusions of consumer democracy” (Bell and Valentine, 1997, pp. 137).

The fact is that our shopping environment is becoming more and more controlled as the supermarkets expand. Safeway is currently up for sale and if one of the other large chains buy Safeway, which is highly likely, a glimpse of the future may be possible. Eventually shoppers will have very little choice as where they wish to shop because the shops will all be inter owned.

“But without government intervention to curb the supermarkets’ stranglehold on food retailing and the rapid concentration of that market, it’s perfectly possible that in another 50 years time, independent specialist food retailers will have entirely disappeared and consumers will be left with the “choice” of shopping in only one or two mammoth chains, possibly foreign-owned, who effectively dictate what we eat.” (The Guardian 17th May 2003).

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