Jayne Dowle: Big is no longer beautiful for shoppers

I HAVE just visited the biggest, scariest supermarket in the world – the new Sainsbury’s in Blackpool.

As I stood on the moving walkway and gazed down on aisle after aisle of food and household goods and clothes, it struck me that this new £19m flagship store represented everything that has gone wrong with retail in this country. Too big. Too intimidating. In the wrong place. And far too empty. It was late afternoon and the place was almost deserted.

Just down the road, the discount frozen food shop was thronged. The pound shop was busy. So was the store selling toiletries at knock-down prices. The lady working behind the counter in one of the numerous charity shops which pepper this part of town said she couldn’t see the point of it at all: “Why will people bother going there when there’s a Lidl up the road?”

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Is it any surprise then supermarket heads are rolling? The latest to go is Tesco chairman Richard Broadbent. The official reason is “accounting errors”. An independent investigation found that Tesco has overstated its profits by £263m. Put this in the context of the fact that Tesco profits have fallen by more than 90 per cent in a year and you begin to see what is really happening to the nation’s shopping habits.

The writing has been on the wall for the big supermarkets for a while now. Earlier this year, the “big four” – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – all posted nosediving returns. This is not just lack of spending per head. Customers are clearly picking up their shopping bags and going elsewhere.

It’s easy to blame the recession for falling profits. People have less money, so less money is spent. However, I think the recession has gone deeper than that. We are finding different ways to shop. It might not be lining the pockets of Mr Broadbent, but it’s good news for consumers. For too long we’ve been held in the hegemony of the supermarket giants.

I stopped doing a big weekly food shop a couple of years ago, because frankly the sight of £100-plus racked up at the till after an hour toiling through the aisles terrified me. I also felt a strange kind of resentment, handing over my hard-earned cash in one lump sum to an organisation which seemed bent on ripping me off at every turn, bamboozling me with BOGOFs and coercing me into buying much more food than I needed.

I still spend the same, but I prefer to choose who I give my money to more carefully. This means a daily trip to the shops, buying meat and vegetables from the market, and potatoes and eggs from the market garden.

My mother, still wedded to her regular weekly Asda excursion, thinks this is quaint. She says it’s a throwback to when her own mother would set out with her basket and her purse every day.

We all need to think about where we buy our food. Not just to save money, and to seek out quality, but to help our children grow up appreciating where every meal comes from. When the fridge is full to bursting after the orgy of a big supermarket binge, it’s tempting to think that food just drops out of the sky.

No wonder so much gets wasted. According to the awareness campaign, Love Food, Hate Waste, the average UK family with children throws away £700-worth of stuff every year. How can we justify that level of excess when an ever-growing number of families have to rely on food banks just to survive? It brings about a certain kind of queasiness, and not just the sort you get when you finally eat the yoghurt which has been festering in the back of the fridge for a fortnight.

And let’s be honest. Most of us don’t have the luxury of leaving the kids at home when we go out to stock up on provisions. What would be more satisfying though? An exhausting trawl around a mega-store, followed by a fractious car journey home? Or a quick trip to a small local supermarket, where the cashier knows your face and says hello? And what about an hour or so on a Saturday wandering around the market sizing up the produce, learning about the different cuts of meat and marvelling at the size of the dead fish on the slabs?

Of course, there is a huge irony to the hastening decline of the supermarket. For so long, its massive embrace was blamed for pulling shoppers away from the High Street into out-of-town locations, leaving behind a trail of broken dreams and boarded-up shops. Could it be that the tide is turning without a penny being spent on focus groups, retail experts and government commissions?