Diversity and supermarket shelves

big supermarket 2

courtesy of wikimedia.org

Has anyone else noticed how little true diversity there is in our supermarkets?

We have a staggering amount of food for sale, but most of it comes from the same, few manufacturers. And the bigger the supermarket chain, the fewer the actual brands they carry.

Now I understand that supermarkets are businesses, and to succeed they have to give customers the products they want, but why do we have to have half a mile of breakfast cereal all starting with a ‘K’? Or soups all starting with… nevermind.

Now contrast that first photo with this one :

Courtesy of teachandtravelblogspot.com

Courtesy of teachandtravelblogspot.com

This is a supermarket in Iringa, Africa. The thing that struck me was the lack of blinding patterns on the shelves. Yes, it is a very, very small supermarket, and you or I would probably not find what we wanted on those shelves, but you must admit the produce has variety!

I personally do most of my shopping at the smaller supermarkets, like IGA, [Independent Grocers Association] because :

a. The fresh produce, including meat, is fresher, and so I waste less food [and money],

b. The smaller supermarkets actually have far more choice in terms of grocery products. For example I can buy Jalna sour cream at IGA. I can’t buy it ‘S…way’.

c. If I ask my local IGA to bring in a product for me, 9/10 they will.

The times when I do go to the Big Two supermarkets it’s usually to stock up on cheap items like toilet paper, or a particular brand of cat food.

So what’s going on? Are the Big Two supermarkets doing what bookstores do, and selling premium shelf space to the highest bidder? [You did know bookstores did that, right? That’s why bestsellers are shown with the cover out, or on tables, or in the front window. Or maybe that’s how they become bestsellers – by being so visible].

Anyway, my point is that those miles and miles of one brand items do more than just restrict the choices available to consumers, they restrict competition as well. And competition is the cornerstone of Capitalism.  The instant you allow a few players to monopolize supply and demand, you are undermining the whole capitalist system.

We can see the effects all over the world as capitalism mutates into corporatism. However, nowhere is it more in your face than with food. Food, like air, is a basic commodity that no one can do without, yet if you look at the supply chain you will see that a few ginormous multinational companies control most of the seeds used in agriculture. That translates into food production.

That raw food is then taken, and manufactured by a few more multinationals, who then sell it to other corporations who control food distribution – i.e. supermarkets. And the end result is lots of ‘stuff’ that is all basically the same.

If you walk down the aisles of your local supermarket you will see a Who’s Who of the biggest companies on earth. And we put them there.

We could change this status quo by not buying certain brands, but how realistic is that when we have so little real choice about what to buy?

In many ways, this lack of choice is the direct result of killing off the small deli’s, the small greengrocers, and the small butcher shops of yesteryear. Those small businesses epitomized what Capitalism was meant to be. But of course, whenever you have competition there is the expectation that someone will ‘win’, and the corporates have won.

R.I.P. consumer choice. 😦


About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

24 responses to “Diversity and supermarket shelves

  • Cairn Rodrigues

    I’ve long described myself as a “professional grocery shopper”. Being a former chef, I’ve shopped for groceries large and small, wholesale and retail. It used to be great fun to go to the grocery store, now it’s agonizingly dull. And expensive, I’m tired of paying higher prices so the supermarket can have mood lighting and an olive bar.

    The sameness of large chain markets is another huge turn off. I rarely shop at the big chains anymore, no soul. There’s one, Safeway, that I have sworn never to patronize again.

    Small ethnic grocers get most of my money these days.


    • acflory

      Many years ago I used to live near Vic Market in Melbourne and I’d regularly buy fresh food from there. Price, quality and a fantastic sensual experience all rolled into one. Supermarkets are just plain boring. We pay the price for convenience and a 24/7 lifestyle. 😦


  • geooorge

    The goods manufacturers actually do pay a premium for the shelf space,
    or the really big ones say “If you don’t give me front row space at the height of the average human, i’ll take my stuff elsewhere”


  • lorddavidprosser

    What doesn’t improve the situation are the stories we hear about GM crops. Monsanto appears, according to stories, to be prepared to bully and threaten their way into supplying seeds globally and forcing farmers to use their product. If they get away with this, eventually all the products we buy that require grains will be from GM crops with their attendant risks.
    With Monsanto also supplying Roundup, the weedkiller that has been spoken off as causing massive poisoning to land and water supplies, no-one knows how much of that they’ll be eating when all the food is GM. In order to control the market it seems we’re to allow Monsanto to put our health at risk. If the stories coming out if the US are true there’s a huge move underway to stop laws being passed about product labelling that would ensure we knew what were GM based foods.
    We could end up with our staple food being supplied by ONE huge conglomerate World Wide who has no scruples about reaching that point.


    • acflory

      Sadly you are very right, and we are already getting close to that point. All our eggs, rotten or otherwise, will be in one basket, and if anything goes wrong an awful lot of people will die while technology tries to find a solution.

      If Monsanto has its way and can do away with heirloom seeds as well, then our insurance policy will be up in smoke as well.


    • josh

      Yeah those stories are true. It’s scary. They’re basically saying “You don’t need to know where your food came from or what it really is. Trust us, it’s fine!” And don’t even get me started on the lack of real underlying diversity. Here most processed food is made from corn. Monsanto has completed disrupted the traditional way crops are grown. Farmers can’t plant the seeds that come from their own plants, as nature intended. They have to buy new seeds, every year, from Monsato. And M actually has people out trying to catch the farmers who “cheat”. If you haven’t done so, read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. I’m not sure how much of it applies outside the U.S., but if it makes money you can bet it will find its way overseas.


      • acflory

        Gah… Monsanto is the anti-christ as far as I’m concerned. And I’ve heard of the Omnivore’s Dilemma. I think I looked for it once and got distracted with something else. I’ll give it another try.


  • EllaDee

    Great post. One of the more disappointing aspects of globalistion, slowly implemented so as to be barely noticeable until now. The G.O. & I were discussing similar recently, as I’ve noticed it too, and it varies also from store to store. One of the NSW equivalents to Vic’s S-way I go to stocks a good variety and offering of the eco brand household items I like, another a few kms away stocks very little, and has a HUGE freezer section of prepared meals, icecream, desserts etc. The opposition, where I used to shop, I noticed last time I was there stocks predominantly their own brands. I keep a stash of my favourites, so I’m not forced out of necessity to buy a substitute. I agree with Candy, shop for as much as you can at the farmers market, and with Metan – DIY is the way to go. For myself, I spread my patronage around so the smaller shops and supermarkets within walking distance are supported also.


  • Tasha Turner

    Within kosher brands you have even less choices. There is one overseeing agency (certifies food as kosher) that I’d prefer to avoid but the certify something like 50%+ of the raw ingredients and coloring and flavorings used. I couldn’t avoid their products unless I gave up sugar, most grains, rice, eggs, etc. With produce and a few “basic” ingredients I can shop local/farm market but move into anything processed (and under kosher rules that might mean canned or packaged because of what else is packaged on the equipment) you are limited to a couple specific Jewish brands or a couple of the large food manufacturers. Although organic & food for the allergic consumer is showing up more and more as kosher certified.

    Umm so that would be yes I notice the problem in big supermarkets as well as little kosher markets. LOL


    • acflory

      Oh, I never even thought about Kosher and Halal food. 😦 Your choices really are limited.

      I try to stay away from processed foods as much as possible because The Daughter has some food issues, and I worry that any GM might exacerbate things. But even so you still have to buy flour and rice and pasta etc etc.

      They have us over a barrel and they know it. 😦


  • metan

    This brand monopolization is getting ridculous isn’t it. Our local supermarket shelves are lined with the same old brands, mostly their own Select one which I actually try to avoid. Sadly that particular label has infested the shelves to the point that it is hard to get anything else. To make matters worse, the biggest IGA nearby (in Seville) is in the unfortunate situation of having the old servo site across the road about to turn into a S-way too. Hopefully the locals stand by the IGA and avoid the new multinational. 😦

    Our local big name supermarket (and the only one in town so we are at their mercy) has a secret super power. If you mention out loud a product that you really like it will be gone the next time you go looking for it. We aren’t the only ones who have noticed this either. Now I have to drive to Warburton to get shortcrust pastry, green Tabasco, and chilli pickled onions (for the Man) to name a few because I made the mistake of saying I liked them while shopping. Of course, not one of the products we prefer is their own brand and the ones removed are never replaced by an equivalent.

    All this is even more reason to expand the veg garden and learn how to preserve my own produce I think…


    • acflory

      Wait… so they stopped stocking the things you like, and replaced them with… home brand ones? That is a monopoly digging its own grave. 😦

      I tell you what, if your tea plants work out I’ll buy tea from you!


      • metan

        No, not even home brand ones, just nothing! Their brand takes up more and more shelf space and the other related things slowly disappear. Generic is the order of the day. It amazes me as for a small town it is quite a large shop, surely they could fit something for everyone…. I know a lot of people who only shop there in emergencies and take the drive down the line to do their weekly shop.


        • acflory

          Bloody hell that’s ridiculous. :/ I’ve read about generic brands becoming more prevalent coz they can make more money out of them but they must think consumers are complete idiots.

          You know all this talk about buying food is bringing back memories of when I was a kid. The friendly greengrocer would serve you and pack your stuff in brown paper bags. At the butcher shop you could ask for special cuts of meat and they’d be wrapped in clean white paper. And you’d buy bread and milk from the local milk bar. And everyone would know you, or at least they all knew my Mum. 🙂 I think shopping was a social outing for her.

          We’ve lost a hell of a lot. 😦


          • metan

            I doubt there are many of us who are ok with this one brand supermarket model but what on earth can we do about it! We can shop in the small shops but the multinationals make it so hard for the smaller shops to be competitive don’t they?

            Our town still has that everyone knows everyone feel though. The baker puts my preferred loaf on the counter when they see me coming and the butcher will cut whatever you want and probably says g’day a thousand times a day with all the customers passing by his counter.

            Gone are the days when small specialty shops were the order of the day, mores the pity. Hopefully people start waking up and try to avoid those generic store brands.


          • acflory

            Yeah, I know, nostalgia for the past is all it is but I wish everything didn’t boil down to the almighty dollar all the time.


          • metan

            When it comes down to a choice of doing the right thing or having those extra few bucks to help pay the bills people go for the discounts available at the large chains.
            We’ve done it to ourselves. If people chose quality or taste and didn’t go for the cheapest brand of everything I guess the supermarkets wouldn’t have thought to corner that particular part of the market. 😦


          • acflory

            Yeah, I’m not immune to bargains either, and I guess that’s how the big chains undercut the small shops in the first place. Then add to that the fact that prices just keep going up for no real reason that I can see, and it’s damn hard to be blase about the dollars.

            Still, as consumers we have made some big changes. Free range eggs and chickens are slowly edging out the horrible factory farm ones so that’s something we consumers have achieved.


  • Candy Korman

    This is one of the reasons I do a great deal of my food shopping at the farmer’s market. This time of the year (summer) I can buy fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs, even wine, honey, and herbs, all from farms within a relatively short drive of my inner city home. it is not always cheap, but it is truly seasonal, fresh and local. The farmer’s market is two blocks from my home and it’s one of the oldest in the city (4x a week) there are others all over that operate once or twice a week in various locations.

    If we make a conscious effort to support food diversity — to buy and eat what is local and seasonal — the supermarkets will follow our tastes. I’ve seen that happen in the stores in NYC. The take note of what sells in the farmer’s markets and want a “piece of the action.” They will stock what we’re buying — including local natural (small & ripe) berries & heirloom tomatoes!

    As for the small, specialized stores… when they offer quality products, foodie cities like New York support them. And I do, too.


    • acflory

      We have farmer’s markets here too but usually only once a month. There used to be one in St Andrews but I don’t know whether its still going after Black Saturday.

      The local IGA is like those supermarkets you talk about – they listen to what customers say and do bring in local produce when they can. There’s also a local butcher. He has beautiful meat but it is… expensive.

      Last summer I didn’t have to buy either lettuce or tomatoes at all because the pots on my deck supplied all we needed. I’m going to double what I grow this coming summer just for the flavour, and lack of pesticides and other nasties!

      When I look at Cuba, and what they’ve done there, I really wish we could do the same.


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