History

How We Buy Food (And How We Used To)

We’ve all been to one of those old-fashioned candy shops, haven’t we? You walk up to a large, heavy wooden desk, chat to the shopkeeper and tell them what sweets you’d like, and how much of each. They (or their assistant) then take the sweets from their storage jars, weigh them out, bag them for you and you pay. It’s slow, low volume, and high labour intensity trading. Imagine if we did all our shopping this way?

Well, we used to, all the way up to the middle of the twentieth century. For many, shopping was seen as a social occasion and it would often take all day: after all, you had to go to a different shop to get your meat, fish, vegetables, dry goods, and the other bits and pieces you had to replace. Each time, you’d stay and chat a while with the shopkeeper as your goods were weighed out, and no doubt you’d spend a long time queueing, too.

Self-service, where you take the objects from the shelf yourself and bring them to the counter when you’re done, is a much more cost-effective way to do it. But for the longest time, it made people uncomfortable. Experiments with self-service shops began in the US as early as the 1910s, but people enjoyed their shopping experience as it was, and it didn’t catch on.

Then the Great Depression hit America.

Suddenly, households were struggling just to feed themselves. Consumers became hyper aware of price, and more and more started using the new supermarkets: the first that we’d recognise as a supermarket today opened in 1930, and many more opened across the country in the lead-up to the second world war.

The UK, though, was less affected by the economic crash, and they didn’t take off. By 1947, there were only ten or so self-service shops across the country. What changed it all was the opening of the London Co-operative Society’s first supermarket in London, 1948.

http://media.gettyimages.com/photos/couple-outside-a-london-cooperative-store-february-1973-picture-id102625376
(Source: gettyimages.com)

British customers, notoriously awkward even then, felt very uncomfortable taking things from the shelves without permission – they felt as though they were stealing. At first, it was used solely by those who needed food as cheap as it came, people who cared more about cost than having a comfortable shopping experience. Even so, it took a long time for the idea to become mainstream, and it was only in the 60s that supermarkets really appeared in every major town.

Now, things are changing again. It’s more cost-effective for companies to maintain warehouses and simply deliver items to customers as they need it, because it cuts out the massive costs of maintaining a store. Already, companies like Amazon and Ocado are using this model, and things will probably move this way in the future.

I don’t think supermarkets will go entirely, though. Just like how you can still find those old-fashioned shops today (however rare), there will always be people who enjoy that in-person shopping experience, making a day out of buying the groceries. Supermarkets are adapting to accommodate these people, too: last year, Sainsbury’s in the UK trialled its first supermarkets without checkouts: instead, customers scanned and paid for items using an app on their phone. That, along with self-scan checkouts, will probably make up the supermarkets of the future.

1 thought on “How We Buy Food (And How We Used To)”

  1. Now how is the retail business going to change post 2020, is really a food for thought. Perhaps there’s a need to rethink on how to reduce and minimize the length of supply lines from the produce to the factories to the distribution points to the consumer.

    In India, the supplies got disrupted for a considerable amount of time as states closed down their borders to all outsiders during the Covid19 triggered nationwide lockdown. This is a fascinating article on our buying habits, and how they have transformed. Maybe this pandemic will prove to be a watershed.

    Liked by 1 person

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