8 April 2014 – Social capital: supermarket v traditional food market shopping

The UKs Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said that people shopping in Waitrose (one of the UKs more ‘high-end’ supermarkets) are more ‘talkative and engaged’ than in other supermarkets. Some have taken issue with this as Lynsey Hanley in The Guardian (5 April) typifies. She suggests that David Cameron should visit a local Asda – not as the monied middle-class, but as someone who has very little money. She notes how the opening of an Asda near her mother’s home in 2009 meant closure for local shops, including the butcher and greengrocer, where local people may have ‘engaged’ in conversation with fellow shoppers. As she puts it, this Asda is ‘the size of an aircraft hangar, with all the intimacy of one, and much of what it offers is distinguished by a ‘£1’ sticker’. She not only goes on to compare pricing between the two ends of the supermarket hierarchy, pointing out that the processed food (heavily promoted in Asda) is not that much cheaper than fresh food (perceived as much more expensive in Waitrose), but also notes that those living in a Waitrose catchment area tend to have less stress in their lives, more time to shop and thus may stop for a quick chat with others.

 This got me thinking about traditional food markets and their contemporary role in the social capital stakes. Many regard the conviviality (and pricing) of food markets as what makes them a different place to shop, and this has very little to do with social class – traditionally it has always been those with more limited income who shop here. Although of course, the growth of farmers’ markets is associated with more ‘up-market’ market shopping they are also thought of as a leisure activity by many – so also high in the social capital rankings.

 So, should we compare farmers’ markets with Waitrose and traditional food markets with Asda? I don’t think so – traditional food markets still offer good value, fresh food to everyone and market banter remains part of the experience (the antithesis to Asda) and whilst framers’ markets may be perceived as beyond the pocket of many, this is not necessarily the case. As noted before on this blog, there is a case to be made for traditional food markets and farmers’ markets working more closely together in the UK – markets should be places where everyone wants to shop. Unlike supermarkets, they are often in public places and we need more opportunities to be more ‘talkative and engaged’.

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