Shopped by Joanna Blythman

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Shopped by Joanna Blythman

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: This is scary stuff. Shopped is a shocking indictment of just how little choice supermarket consumers really have and a very frightening analysis of the cost of that lack of choice. This should be required reading for all British consumers. Read it and weep. Still better, read it and do something about it.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2005
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 0007158041

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"Buy Joanna Blythman's new book, Shopped," said my friend Sue, "it'll feed all your prejudices, and then some."

She knows me too well!

Blythman's book is the result of two year's research on supermarkets. It makes for scary reading. During the 1970s, around 10% of our food spending went to the supermarkets. Today, it is over 80%. Not content with this, the major chains are conducting a full frontal assault on market share in countless other sectors. Their targets include clothing, household good, electronics, insurance, internet access. The list is endless. You might think this is a good thing. You might think that supermarkets are convenient for today's busy lifestyle. You might think that their enormous buying power results in cheaper prices for you at the checkout. However, have you ever considered the cost - and there is always a cost - of supermarket dominance? Blythman's book considers the cost.

Are you aware, for example, that...

- Far from creating employment, each superstore that opens results in a net loss of 276 jobs from the local community. Two hundred and seventy six jobs are a lot of jobs, are they not?

- Supermarkets do not operate national pricing policies and pitch their prices according to local competition. If you live in an area with a Tesco and a Sainsbury competing, for example, you will pay between 4% and 7% less at the checkout than if your town has only one of them.

- You may have seen the statistics on farmers and suicide. Farmers have one of the highest suicide rates by occupation. Is it any wonder when checkout prices were up by 21% in the five years to 2002, but farmers' prices were up by only 2%?

- Over 50% of supermarket fruit and vegetables contain pesticide residues. So much for that healthy eating initiative including the "five portions per day" that you were about to start, eh?

And oh, the list goes on... and on... and on...

Shopped is tremendously readable, despite the facts, figures and statistics. There is a good index, extensive notes for sources and a reasonable amount of space given to the supermarkets response to its criticisms. It is partisan but then, in my book, that is a good thing. I like polemic and I like a writer to nail their flag to the mast. Who wants to read something without any soul? However, Shopped is refreshingly free from hysterical rabble-rousing - the book's style is measured, calm and clear. Blythman is a successful journalist and she knows how to write simply, directly and for maximum impact. The supermarkets, on the other hand, are exceedingly skilled in corporate gobbledegook! Shopped is divided into seven main sections, each dealing with a major area for criticism. Each section contains bite-sized chapters and the mass of information is indeed very easy to take in.

The first section - Supermarket Space - talks about the effect of out of town superstores on town centres and their businesses. Think of all those ghost towns, filled with charity shops and gambling arcades and you cease to wonder why the only people who want to go there are disaffected teenagers. The second section - Supermarket Food - mourns the loss of our taste buds really, as it explains the supermarkets' need for food hegemony, all year seasons and shelf life at the cost of flavour and nutrition in the food we eat. Scariest of all is the way they direct us all towards "added value" products. They do not want us to buy bags of potatoes; they want us to buy over-priced, microwaveable potato "dishes" - complete with additives, preservatives and colourings. The third - Supermarket Workers - talks about the dehumanised, undervalued shop floor workers. Blythman worked for both Asda and Tesco during her research and I really do not think she was prepared for quite how awful it would be!

The fourth section - Supermarket Suppliers - is perhaps the most shocking. It talks about the bullyboy ways with which supermarkets treat their suppliers. The suppliers pay for those BOGOF offers you see, you know, never the supermarkets. Superstores demand retrospective discounts, cancel orders without notice and generally just behave as they see fit. Although I was aware of some of these issues, I found this section frightening. The next two sections Supermarket World and Supermarket Culture - concern market share and to what lengths supermarket chains will go to achieve it. It is rather scary to see in black and white exactly how the supermarkets manipulate their customers. From loyalty cards tracking our every move to "lifestyle options", I felt like a Stepford Shopper as I read. Finally, Supermarket Future talks about what lies in store for us, unless we get up and do something about it. To me, the future looks bleak. Even the right-on Co-op emerges less than ethically from Blythman's analysis, although it comes in for less criticism than Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury. What hope is there, when government enquiries and resulting codes of conduct end up toothless? Well, I guess that is up to all of us.

Do you want to be a hypertensive, poorly nourished, yet obese person? Do you want to bring up hypertensive, poorly nourished, yet obese children? Do you enjoy the fact that your town centre looks more like an industrial wasteland every day? Do you want to be part of a food culture that sucks, that is the laughing stock of other countries? Do you want your culinary skills to extend only as far as putting nutritionally poor, over processed, added value and overpriced crapola into your microwave and waiting for the beep as it finishes the incineration of your "food"? Are you content to allow three or four global corporations to dictate your lifestyle and your diet to you, at your expense but to the good of their share price?

I don't, and I'm not!

Much of Blythman's book was - for me - preaching to the converted. I would not give houseroom to a ready meal. However, Shopped was, even for someone like me, a salutary lesson, presenting the whole picture at once as it does. I do like a book that makes me want to get up and do something, and Shopped made me want to get up and do something. I want to be well nourished, I want to eat good food, and I want to live in an area with a vibrant town centre, brimming with community and choice. I want people to have jobs. I want farmers to stop killing themselves. I want banana plantation workers to get more than a penny in the pound of the checkout price of the fruit they grow. Nobody - even Blythman, even me - is suggesting that supermarkets do not have their place, that they are not a valuable addition to consumer choice. However, unfettered as they are, their cost is heavy and our choice is less. And worst of all, half the time, they are not even cheaper.

Government seems unwilling to do a great deal about it. It really is up to you to let the supermarkets have their place, but know it too.

What are you waiting for?

Booklists.jpg Shopped by Joanna Blythman is in the Top Ten Green Books for Eco-Warriors.

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Susan Jane Murry said:

Thank you for a sharp, crisp review on Blytham. I really enjoy Jill Murphy's reviews featured on the site.

A recommendation to nourish and fortify her foodie foray; Kitchen Con by Trevor White. An expose of restaurants. Next on her list to review.

I look forward to reading it.

With every good wish,

Susan J

Jill replied:

Oh, hooray!