Wednesday, July 1, 2009

To market, to market

Last week there was an article in the newspaper which talked about the changes supermarkets were making to attract more customers. Apparently only 60 percent of Australian consumers shop in supermarkets. This statistic came as something of a surprise. Where do the other 40 per cent buy their toilet paper?
It appears that the marketing genii at the major supermarket headquarters have decided that shoppers like the market atmosphere and so they are setting about creating that atmosphere in the local shopping centre. To do this the supermarket is being transformed – wider and shorter isles, better displays, even bringing butchers and fishmongers back into the stores.
Who do they think they are going to fool?

As it happens my local supermarket is one of those flag ship stores where these changes are being introduced. Having changed the layout of the store every week for a month or more the customers now wander the albeit wider isles in a daze unable to locate anything much. Thankfully the aisles are also full of uniformed helpers who are unfailing cheerful and do indeed seem to know where to find things. When I asked for polenta I was told various brands were located in no fewer than four separate convenient locations. Yesterday shoppers were greeted by a very happy chappy in the meat section extolling the virtues of the sausages he was cooking alongside a sign which proclaimed that butchers would be back in-store from next week.
I have to admit to being old enough to remember the last time butchers were in-store at supermarkets. Behind the meat counter you could see the ‘butchers’ cutting the meat and laying it out on the little black trays and then wrapping it in plastic. On the meat display there was a bell you could ring and a real person would come out of the preparation room to talk to you. The big advantage of this set up was that if you only wanted two chops and all the pre-packaged trays held eight chops you could get someone to pack up what you wanted. And let’s face it the reason most people shop at the butcher is not just the personal service but because they desire to buy what they want in the amounts they require.

Apparently the aim of the supermarket management is not just to recreate the market atmosphere but also to re-invent the conversation that buyers have with the stall holders in the market place. Is being able to talk to the man who wraps the meat in plastic the same as talking to the man who raised the lambs, slaughtered them and then drove the meat to the market to sell it to you? Surely talking to the man who unpacks the boxes of tomatoes and arranges them on the display is not the same as talking to the man who grew them. What chance that my conversation with the in-store butcher will be stimulating enough to sustain me through the wait at the checkout?

And could any supermarket hope to re-create the atmosphere of a market? In so many ways the supermarket is the antithesis of the open market and was surely created to be just that. Food markets are noisy and crowded, sometimes a bit smelly, often very messy. The market changes from day to day and week to week – the stall holders change, the weather changes, new products appear and disappear, seasonality is everything and many items are often available in limited amounts. Markets offer the opportunity to compare quality and prices, to taste products, to chat to growers and to meet friends, share a coffee, be entertained by real people rather than mesmerised by piped music and bombarded with incomprehensible announcements. There is a sense of fun and entertainment and surprise associated with shopping for fresh food at the market in direct contrast to the predicability and uniformity of the supermarket.

When I go to buy my toilet paper and toothpaste I do want them to be on the same shelf and in the same place especially given that I can buy all the toilet paper and toothpaste I need for a month in one visit to the supermarket. I’m choosing and buying food almost everyday. Hunting and gathering takes up a lot of my time. I don’t see why it should be reduced to a chore when I could be enjoying the experience.
I can’t say that I am anticipating the return of the butcher to the supermarket with the same excitement as my trip to the market this weekend.

All these photographs were taken in the Campo dei Fiori, Rome.

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