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There’s no easy way to put food on the table….

Doing the weekly grocery shop online is a lifesaver for busy people.  My local supermarket is a mere 10 minute drive from the house, but even so  I never make it home in under two hours.  Given that I write during the school day, let’s call that half a day wasted (including recovery time).

Doing it online spares me having to examine 27 new brands of shampoo before choosing the one I always buy.  It cuts the risk of a disc hernia caused by a trolley that appears perfectly functional at the door but only reveals its untameable stallion alter ego halfway round. And in theory, it prevents impulse-buying.  The online substitute for impulse buying is mistakes.  But more of that in a minute.

The local supermarket is not my favourite anyway.  Go to the posh one, people say,  it’s actually fun wandering around the empty aisles choosing all those tempting  goodies. Well, yes, in the sense that
paying through the nose for stuff you don’t need usually is fun.  But I have clothes shopping for that.  I’ve tried the posh one online a few times  and when they realise I’m not hooked they embarrass themselves like a desperate ex, mailing me huge discounts, half of which they then claw back with delivery charges.  They don’t just think I’m rich  (I’m not), they think I’m stupid.

So, I go with the mid-range store.  They’ve been delivering our gargantuan  quantities of groceries for several years now.  I know the names of the drivers even without their  badges.  We always have a chat.  I know about their families.  (I’m not just lonely, I’m nosey.  I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake).  Last week the new guy did go too far.   He called me ‘my dear’ about 20 times  despite being young enough to be my son (sounds better that way round, doesn’t  it?) which got my back up sufficiently not to want to tell him my life story on demand.

But now for the pitfalls.  Doing the order at the comfort of your desk,  at 3am, naked, or however you want to do it, doesn’t alter the fact that it is  mind-numbingly dull.  I’m a keen cook but  unless I’ve given it some advance thought, I seem to be incapable of getting in  the right ingredients.  I’ll get half of  them for several dishes and end up concocting.  Things are often missing because I’ve input different items
on the same page too quickly and the website can’t keep up.  And then of course there’s the surprises –when I’ve mixed up items and weight and ended up with a single courgette, or  been charged nearly £2 for an aubergine the size of a large plum.  I once sent back 20 bottles of laundry detergent having wanted 2.

Sometimes the hardest bit is remembering to finish the order at all.
I just stick a few things in my virtual basket at first to secure a delivery slot.  I recently came within 6
minutes of being presented with a raw chicken, a hand of bananas and a £6 delivery charge at the doorstep.  My driver friends wouldn’t have let me forget that in a hurry.

Must go.
Need to get petrol.  From the  supermarket garage, obviously.  Haven’t  they thought of that?

Got any good supermarket tales of your  own?  Spill the beans below.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


6 thoughts on “There’s no easy way to put food on the table….

  1. Was the delivery guy Northern? Ooop ‘ere it’s always ‘my love’, love, ‘my lovely’ no matter what age the interlocutors.

    Posted by Jo Walton | September 28, 2011, 12:31
    • No, he wasn’t actually, and it probably wouldn’t have annoyed me as much if he had been. When I come to see you, it doesn’t strike me as odd at all. Also ‘my dear’ is so dreary. Think I’d rather be called ‘mate’ if it came down to it…!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | September 28, 2011, 18:13
  2. Yes, I love online shopping too (well, I don’t ‘love’ it exactly, I just hate going to the supermarket. I mean really, really hate it with a passion.) I wouldn’t actually mind if I could afford to go to the posh one, but I can’t, so I use the mid-range one too. Delivery can be as little as £2.50, so by the time you’ve calculated petrol costs and the savings you make on impulse buys, it’s probably cheaper. Trouble is, the easier life becomes, the easier we want it, so instead of moaining abuot the two-hour supermarket trip, I now moan that I have to so spend half an hour online, shouting downstairs, ‘how are we off for teabags?’ Oh well!

    Posted by susan elliot wright | September 28, 2011, 16:36
  3. If we look at this from first principles we should recognise that each household having its own kitchen and procuring and preparing individually its food is rational in rural settings where households are geographically isolated. In urban settings, however, this situation is obviously incredibly wasteful in terms of housing space, energy consumption, the finite resources used to make appliances, transport and human time. It may, generally speaking, also not be very good for public health because it encourages the consumption of highly processed but time saving convenience foods of inferior nutritional quality. (The efficiency argument similarly applies to laundries or launderettes versus home washing)

    Isabel’s problem just disappears if, for example, meals were as a rule taken in 24 hour local communal canteens (public sector managed for nutritional standards and affordability and also catering for shift workers and workers of unsocial hours) or, alternatively in the far eastern urban custom of not cooking at home but buying private sector street food, as in places like Bankok. Domestic cooking, and its associated shopping, could then be seen as an optional creative past time for people who like to indulge in this as a hobby. I have always liked canteen cooking (in my national service, in NHS hospitals, works canteens, etc), and value the convenience as well as the sociability of such a situation but some people may have objections of a somewhat ideological kind against such systems. Let’s therefore step back a little from true rationality and start at the point where households do their own shopping.

    The supermarket model of shopping has never been taken to its logical conclusion. Think of the household as a smaller scale supermarket which in turn buys stuff “wholesale” at the supermarket and “retails” the stuff to its members of the household who consume it. For a household-supermarket operator it is, therefore, worthwhile to see how the household’s wholesale supplier (e.g. Tesco, or whatever) sources its merchandise in turn. Tesco clearly does not waste its time making endless mini-transactions as households currently do, but has bulk supply contracts with defined quality standards, specified delivery intervals and (indicative) quantities. Such contracts are easily tendered for the lowest price.

    Many, if not most, household consumables are standard and are consumed at predictable rates in stable households. There are perhaps about 60 of such product lines in a given household. In my own household typical examples would be Ecover washing up liquid, Whole Earth crunchy peanut butter, Fairy non-bio washing powder, Tesco’s £2.99 Bulgarian Merlot (sorry, I know it’s barbaric), potatoes, onions, mature cheddar cheese, sunflower cooking oil (sunflower) etc. I buy all this kind of basic stuff you would buy anyway already in bulk when it is significantly reduced on special offer and – if not perishable – store sometimes as much as six months’ supply and recently even more in the case of a particularly good deal in washing powder. (I have a basement with storage space). Obviously, you NEVER buy a special offer of anything which you would normally not buy anyway. It is really important that you look at the special offer prices on a £/unit product level (e.g. price per 100g net product) and not at the level of the whole packaged product – the latter way you can be easily deceived and often are.

    Since I do not drive but use a shopping trolley, and available storage space is generous but finite, I also base my special offer bulk purchasing decisions on the volume/value ratio of products. (e.g. Whole Earth peanut butter, extra virgin olive oil and cheese score high in this ratio and Tesco’s own brand tins of tomatoes, basic vinegar, paper kitchen roll and WC paper score low). You should not waste transport capacity and storage space on high volume – low value stuff.

    By the way, since price inflation for basic necessities is currently higher than the rates of interest paid on savings accounts, buying such goods in bulk on reduced price special offers incurs on average a negative discount rate (i.e. you get a better return than by putting your money in the bank – especially if you use a credit card which you pay off in full every month). But that’s enough about my own very sad bulk shopping habits.

    The logical next step at household level would be to predict the annual quantities of the basics, define the required rates of delivery or of collection by you (depends on shelf life and available storage space) and the minimum quality standards (can for example be done by brand as a minimum product standard reference); add any environmental and ethical requirements you may have (organic, fair trade, etc), list it all and write a tender specification for your household supplies contract for a year. Add clauses to provide a degree of flexibility if the quantities of some items need to be reduced or increased during the contract period. Add a schedule of rates to the tender specification for fairly predictable but irregularly consumed items. Add a schedule of the terms of payment (e.g. monthly, ort whatever). Add penalty clauses for poor performance or other defaults by the supermarket-contractor. Add the basic legal stuff (can be pirated from related forms of contract). You are now ready to invite competitive tender submissions with prices for your household’s consumable supplies contract. Typical contract values could be in the region of, say £5,000 to £25,000 per year, and the saving in transactions time by both parties would be very substantial indeed.

    The supermarkets already understand this way of doing business for that is how they themselves buy their stuff. Obviously, it would make even more sense, for both the householders and the supermarkets, if such forms of tender for household consumables were to become a nationally standardised form of contract so that as a householder you only need to fill in the items, quantities, and delivery rates and the supermarkets can in turn conveniently submit tenders for such standardised contract terms and specifications.

    As a digression, I suggest that such a standardised purchasing model through competitive tendering by households would also be particularly useful for utilities such as gas and electricity and would introduce genuine competition in this sector (as distinct from the existing fake-competition which is in fact a competition-prevention technique though deliberately impenetrable and incompatible tariff structures designed by the suppliers – even trained accountants are known to be unable to make price comparisons between suppliers).

    Anyway, for fresh produce and the sort of stuff which is interesting to buy, I prefer Croydon’s street market (tends to sell basically supermarkets’ rejects at lower prices; a farmers’ market it definitely isn’t, but supermarkets reject good stuff for silly reasons or simply because they have over-ordered and just fake some rejection pretext) and go to West Croydon’s concentration of no-bullshit Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean shops (This the dodgy area where the rioters burned down all those houses). I recommend, for example, the Turkish Food Centre (TFC for short) which has branches all over London for a better shopping experience.

    Posted by Tom Voute | September 29, 2011, 10:35
    • Blimey, Tom, I think you should write a thesis on this. Thanks for making my blog post look incredibly shallow (only joking!)

      Posted by Isabel Costello | September 29, 2011, 16:24
    • Tom that is such a great post! I hate supermarket shopping too and tend to go every six weeks or so to stock up in bulk of things like loo roll and baked beans and other non-perishables – if people were to look in my trolley they’d think I don’t buy any fruit, veg, meat or fish and just live on baked beans and tinned tomatoes! I’m fortunate to live almost smack bang in the centre of a small market town and have a great relationship with the local traders. If I don’t have quite enough money they tell me to pay next time (can’t imagine that in Tesco or any other supermarket) or keep something by for me or order it. They look after me and I look after them with loyalty.

      Posted by Jo Walton | September 30, 2011, 19:40

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