{04/04/2012}   Supermarkets v local shops

A few years ago for Lent, my boyfriend and I decided to give up supermarkets.  We started out embarrassingly smug and, thanks to a local fishmonger, greengrocer and butcher, we started off eating very well.  Then things like laundry powder, wine, clingfilm, tinned tomatoes and flour began to run out.  Our only easilly accessible non-chain was a minimart.  Realising this was the most obvious supermarket replacement dampened my smugness and is where flaws emerged for reasons of budget, quality and choice.

A lot of people I have spoken to about local shops have largely said they love the idea of shopping at a butcher, fishmonger, baker, etc but they don’t have the time to go from shop to shop (there are not many people who have all these shops in one small area), parking can be a big problem and that it’s not as easy to take young children with them (smaller shops, more queues).  A lot of people were also convinced it would cost more.

At the time I was living in Nunhead, southeast London.  We have an excellent fishmonger.  I would say the quality/freshness of the fish was superior to that of a supermarket.  The prices were also comparable, some fish a bit less, some a bit more.  The selection was much greater at the fishmonger and the staff are always willing and able to give fish advice, cooking suggestions and fancy fish preparation for an array of fish recipes I experimented with in those fish eating weeks.  A favourite was their suggestion to butterfly mackerel, soak it in warm heavilly (really, a lot more than you would consider ok) salted and sugared water for a few hours then BBQ it.

As for the butcher, it actually made me buy a wider range of meat.  Sometimes something would catch my attention and I’d buy that instead of what I’d intended to get.  Likewise, the butcher occasionally got out or especially prepared meat I’d wanted but which was not on display.  There may not have been buy-two-get-one-free packs of bacon, for example, but I only bought what I could envisage using and I didn’t think it was more expensive than supermarket meat, particularly as it is easier to get the right portion.  I do appreciate there are butchers at supermarket counters, but their range is limited and they have never had more meat out back from which to butcher a particular cut.  So, like the fishmonger, the butcher won me over.

The greengrocer we used is quite cheap, but again, no buy-in-bulk offers.  But, again I rarely want 5kg of carrots and I probably never manage to consume that amount of vegetable before it goes limp.  I notice greengrocers seem to sell relatively local seasonal vegetables cheaper than supermarkets but other things usually a bit more expensive.  But not always.  The verdict on greengrocer shopping was that there were fewer opportunities to buy unusual fruit and veg (I was frowned at when I asked if they sold papaya so I could make my beloved papaya and mango salsa) but if you chose wisely and were prepared to deviate from what you had in mind to buy, I think you would pay about the same.  I have a greengrocer near me now that has a fantastic selection of fruit and veg, far better than most supermarkets.

There is also a baker in Nunhead, everything baked on the premises.  They have a lovely selection of breads and cakes.  But they are expensive compared to a supermarket.  I ventured in there for the odd pudding/cake but if I didn’t so religiously use my bread maker for bread, I would have spent a lot more on bread.  Better bread, but at a price.

That is pretty much where the local shopping experiment ended in terms of quality and budget.  Shortly before Easter, I used the last of the cat litter.  The local shop didn’t sell the wood pellett stuff she has.  We had a very serious discussion about whether it would be ok to go to Tesco, the provider of the favoured brand of cat litter.  We decided we would go straight into Tesco, get the litter and exit the store.  So, feeling treacherous, we went into the first supermarket in over a month.  I had not expected to be so overawed!  There were offers everywhere, it was busy, noisy, bright, window-less, soul-less … but so (seemingly) cheap.  It felt like we’d been living in an almost pastoral idyll and had suddenly entered the future.  Very unexpected.  We got the cat litter, hovered over half price wine, distressingly cheap –  we’d been paying a lot more, albeit for different wines, on our trips to a particularly lovely independent wine merchant   – and gazed longingly at cheap good quality chocolate by the till.  We dared not speak to each other!

We continued buying fish, meat and vegetables locally and bought pretty much everything else from supermarkets again after Easter, actually a few weeks after Easter; we extended our abstention.  Having a butcher, greengrocer and fishmonger a ten minute walk away made it a lot easier though, and as it isn’t a posh area the prices make it viable.  Now, I have to pass one mini supermarket to get to a butcher, two supermarkets to get to a greengrocer and three supermarkets to get to a fishmonger (and I live by the sea).  I usually go to the supermarket.  Very disappointing.


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