In the UK today, there are a large amount of supermarkets and other shops, often out of town, in which we are able to buy all that we could possibly need. This has led to shopping becoming a leisure activity for many people; something to be enjoyed in your spare time. This activity has led to social scientists to believe, we now live in a consumer society. (Hetherington, 2009) states ‘Shopping is a part of what social scientists call consumption and many social scientists suggest we now live in a consumer society.’ A large proportion of shopping now occurs in one of the four big supermarkets (Tesco’s Sainsburys, Asda and Morrisons), with many of us shopping weekly in these places. (Bevan, 2006) says ‘ ... Tesco’s, Sainsburys’s, Asda and Morrisons – take nearly three out of every four pounds that are spent on food and groceries in the UK’. Their increasing size has given the big supermarkets huge amounts of market and buying power. This means that they have considerable influence over market conditions in the UK and can negotiate favourably for themselves and their consumers. The growth and power of the supermarkets is a controversial subject with those pro supermarkets heralding the growth as favourable by creating jobs, regenerating run down areas and bringing affluence to an area. The anti-supermarkets groups disagree stating a loss of smaller, individual shops, the emptiness of high streets and reduced choice for the consumer. There are benefits and losses to society by the growth of the supermarkets and some of these, can be more clearly seen than others.
When a new supermarket is built there are many advantages for the local community. This is particularly true if unemployment is high and the neighbourhood is generally run down. A new store will create jobs for people living in the area and skills development. (Evidence in the social sciences, 2009, track 1) Dodd states, ‘When supermarkets open in areas when they bring the sort of retail skill and the expertise they have in running those businesses, then of course, one thing they do is they generate jobs.’ More employment in an area also means greater affluence as there is more disposable income. Jobs are also created overseas, as the large supermarkets buy their supplies from areas like Bangladesh and there are the Europeans working in the supermarket pack houses and food-processing plants. This is called a positive-sum game by social scientists. All the parties involved have more gains than losses.
The arrival of large supermarkets also brings more choice to the consumer. Older style, smaller ‘corner shops’ are only able to stock a limited amount of goods. The prices of the products in these shops are often expensive. This leaves their consumers that have a small budget, limited in the products that they could afford to purchase. Due to their financial situation they would suffer inequality. The large supermarkets have enabled them to live more equally to their peers, due to the cheaper prices of their products.
However, there are many people who do not gain from the arrival of the big supermarkets. The smaller, independent retailers have struggled to compete with the offers and low prices that are offered by the large shops. The big stores can negotiate good discounts from their suppliers, due to their ability to buy in bulk and they are able to pass this discount on to their consumers by their lower prices. The smaller shops are not able to offer the range of products that the big supermarkets can. At the large stores consumers are able to buy most of what they need and it is all in one place. As most people now own and use their cars to travel, there is the convenience of driving and parking (usually free) at the supermarket, getting your shopping done and packing it in your car and then taking it home. A result of this is that many independent retailers have been forced to close. (Evidence in the social sciences, 2009, track 1) Rimmer argues, ‘ ..... as we’ve seen a move towards more out-of-town, car-dependent stores with large-format retail dominating, it’s driven trade away from town centres which has clearly had an impact on the small shops that are there, and we see approximately fifty small shops, independent shops, closing every week due to the impact of the supermarkets on high streets and on town centres.’
The consumer and local community loses out too as there is a loss of local, more individual shops. There is likely a cosier, friendlier service offered from the independent shop as the customer, if they are a regular visitor, is likely to know the staff well. There can also be a huge impact to a neighbourhood due to a loss of local shops. A large, out of town supermarket opening, can cause local shops to have to close. The ‘hole’ left by the closure of the shops can leave the area feeling like a ‘ghost town’. This can lead to locals feeling that the area that they live in is run down. The people in the area with money may choose to move away as it does not feel like a very pleasant neighbourhood to live in. This then takes the affluence away from the area and less money in an area could lead to an increase in crime. This is known by social scientists as a zero-sum game. The opening and success of a new, out of town superstore has matched the loss of the local shops.
Finally, the suppliers to the supermarkets can often find themselves being squeezed financially by these corporate giants as they demand ever lower prices. The suppliers are forced to sell their products to the big supermarkets at a rate that leaves them struggling to make any money. So the suppliers can then end up passing this down to their workers and so they are not paid a decent living wage. (Allen, 2009) states, ‘The relentless pressure on the factory owners to keep costs down or risk losing the clothing contract was said to leave them no room for manoeuvre. The true cost of the cheap jeans and trousers, as well as the bargain-priced shoes, which line Asda’s and Tesco’s aisles, War on Want claim, is the absence of a living wage for workers in their supply chains.’
The big supermarkets, due to their continued growth, now hold much of the power in the food and grocery market in the UK today; with this now extending for example into clothing, music and electrical goods. This growth has enabled the supermarkets to bring many opportunities for people and communities that did not exist before. They have created jobs and skills for the unemployed; they have regenerated areas that were previously rundown and they have made food, clothing and other items more affordable thus, creating a more equal society. Conversely, as some have gained, others have lost. The smaller shops have been unable to compete with the big supermarkets and as a consequence, have been forced to close. The community has seen smaller shops close resulting in boarded up, empty premises. This looks unsightly and can often encourage criminal activities in the area. The suppliers are often being ‘squeezed’ by the big supermarkets to offer big discounts that they can not carry. They then pass these down the chain which mean, their workers are not able to earn a decent living wage. In conclusion, we can see there benefits and losses to society by the growth of the supermarkets. What is needed is for the supermarkets to take some responsibility for those that lose by their gains.
• Hetherington, K. (2009, P. 13) ‘Consumer society? Shopping, consumption, and social science’ in Taylor, S., Hinchcliffe, S., Clarke, J. And Bromley, S. (eds) Making Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
• ‘Evidences in the social sciences’ (2009) Making social lives, (Audio CD 1), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
• Allen, J. (2009, P. 85) ‘One-stop shopping: the power of supermarkets’ in Taylor, S., Hinchcliffe, S., Clarke, J. And Bromley, S. (eds) Making Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
What i found interesting.
I enjoyed learning about the impact of the big supermarkets in the UK and abroad. I now look at these companies under a ‘new light’.
What i found difficult.
The title – who had the power? Once i discovered that, bringing together in an assignment, all the knowledge i had learnt and applying it.