As traumatic and depressing experiences go, I suppose I’d have to concede that a visit to an Asda supermarket doesn’t really rank up there with divorce, bereavement or supporting the England football team. But nonetheless, had it not been for the fact that a perfectly blue Manchester sky greeted my emergence from one of the city’s Asda emporia, lifting my spirits and filling me with the joys of, well, Harpurhey, then I seriously think I might have sunk into a prolonged decline. I felt almost dirty, and that by dint of the mere fact that I’d spent 15 minutes in the shop’s dark, windowless interior, my health had probably been compromised for good.
A snobbish over-reaction I hear you fulminate, and you are of course perfectly correct. But reactions, even snobbish and exaggerated ones, have to have something to react to. There can be no doubt, it seems to me, that British supermarkets (or, more accurately, supermarkets that operate in Britain, since Asda is an American-owned enterprise these days) have deliberately and with great precision aligned themselves to different segments of the market, segments that are unashamedly driven by Britain’s continuing obsession with class.
Class in Britain is like one of those squidgy toys that, when you push them in at one point, simply and immediately respond by protruding at another. No matter how hard you try, every effort to undermine and get rid of our class consciousness merely succeeds in creating new and ever more nuanced class distinctions. Whereas middle-class used to mean that you at least knew what balsamic vinegar was, it now requires one to be able to distinguish between cheap and cheerful brands that even Asda might sell on the one hand, and £50 a bottle sticky confections made by Italian artisans on the other. Olive oil was once something for all classes to shove in wax-blocked ears, but now it shoots off into the stratosphere of single estate, stone-squashed, unfiltered vintages every bit as obscure and over-priced as any Bordeaux grand cru classé you might care to imagine, and to which heights only the seriously middle-class can follow.
If you thought that it was only food that differentiated the class-stratified supermarkets, you’d be very wrong indeed. Food does perhaps lead the way – sadly I was unable to purchase the matured Manchego cheese I was looking for in Asda, which seemed to be more interested in offering me garish processed “Cheddar” called, improbably enough, Mexicana, which appeared to consist of a kind of orange rubber speckled with brightly coloured fragments of peppers and chillies that were redder and greener than any pepper had the slightest right to be. But it by no means stops there. I think there’s a PhD to be had for the bright scholar who maps out a correlation between the acreage of window that a supermarket sports, and the class of its clientèle. Asda had no windows at all, and instead it was lit by a greenish and wan fluorescent glow that perhaps was designed to mask the sallow complexions of the literally benighted customers. By contrast, Waitrose shops all seem to have access to daylight, whilst Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s settle for an uneasy compromise in which the deeper one penetrates towards the in-store (how I hate that expression!) bakery the further one leaves the daylight behind.
Then there’s colour scheme. Asda goes for a perky and slightly phosphorescent green that contrives to clash with all its customers’ clothes simultaneously. Morrison’s adopts green and yellow, but at least it’s a yellow and a green that look as if something in nature might also be that yellow or that green. Sainsbury’s plumps for a strenuous orange, only partially compensated by its more sombre blue bed-fellow. Tesco has a faintly patriotic blue and red approach which is simply strident rather than symbolic. Waitrose, by contrast, has no dominant colour scheme, but flits stylishly between earthy hues which change with the food departments themselves.
Perhaps even more telling is the arrangement of the store. Waitrose, Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s seem united in the idea of putting the fresh fruit and vegetables near the entrance. It seems to give the optimistic message that if you’ve popped in just for a moment and in a great hurry to obtain something to deal with your peckishness, it might be that you’re looking for an apple. Not Asda. No, their hurried but peckish clients are clearly after a packet of Monster Munch. If you want fresh vegetables in Asda, you’ll need to have brought your hiking boots, and have a leisurely half hour to spend actually finding the stuff. As for Tesco, I can never find anything in their shops anyway.
But what is chicken, and what egg? I don’t ask this from a strictly poultry perspective, but more from a philosophical one. Are these class distinctions, so carefully defined and maintained by the supermarkets, creating and deepening the existing stratifications of our society, or are they merely reflecting and following the distinctions we’ve all made anyway? I suspect that it’s all a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship in which neither is following the other, but in which neither leads, either. Although price is important, I don’t think it’s really determining. So much of our food now is comoditised, and supermarkets compete so fiercely that even Waitrose, that paragon of the middle-class extravagant shopper, is now obliged to reassure me constantly that Tesco is no cheaper. And indeed, Tesco is a bit different. I said a moment ago that I can never orient myself in their shops, and I think this is a consequence of their variability. Rather than aim for one single social stratum, Tesco seems to try and blend in with its stores’ particular class backdrops. In posh places, Tesco seems like Waitrose. In less posh ones, it seems like Asda. And of course, more than any other supermarket, it’s everywhere.
Other countries don’t seem to echo this class-based supermarket self-definition. In France, whether it’s Carrefour, Leclerc or Intermarché, the experience seems broadly the same. The same as each other, I hasten to add. Not the same as in Britain. That’s quite easy to explain though. By and large, French supermarkets still sell food. Like, stuff you not only can, but might even want, to eat. And that’s very different from all of the above.