Nothing escapes academic scrutiny – including the supermarket. I know this might be a bit geeky, but I was reading an article in Economic Sociology called Culture and Consumption or Bourdieu Goes Grocery Shopping. It confirmed something I’ve long suspected that what appears on the supermarket shelves depends heavily on local cultural habits.
I started looking a while ago for confirmation after I got a comment on one of my early posts (Proust Pickles) about how sad it was that the same products could now be found in supermarkets both here in Britain and in the States – a sort of global homogenizing process, doing away with the uniqueness of shopping in different countries. Yes, more American products such as Oreo cookies (a you can see above) are now readily available here in England and vice versa with British products such as Marmite available in American supermarkets. But, I’d like to think that this does not change the way people shop. It simply offers more choice – and choice is the key.
That Economic Sociology article examined the failure of a large Belgian supermarket chain to establish itself in Germany. To cut a long story short, the conclusions stated that preferences in shopping were connected to deeply held patterns of consumption (that is, food selection, preparation and dining traditions). The author also indicated that these food preferences – markers of personal and communal identity – were very slow to change unlike changes in things like clothing fashion and technology. The moral of this story is that Germans do not have the same food preferences as Belgians and this is something the Belgian supermarket chain failed to recognize. Recently in the news, the same failure to recognize cultural differences resulted in the large British chain, Tesco, withdrawing its supermarkets from China.
From my own experience shopping in various countries, I’ve noticed preferences in food are very culturally determined. In a Göteborg (Sweden) inner-city supermarket I saw an entire frozen food section stocked with nothing but berries – raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and berries less common to me that grow in the Arctic tundra like the lingonberry (similar to the cranberry) and hjortron as the Swedes call it, known in English as the cloudberry. The small supermarket in San Gimignano, Tuscany (Italy) – as you might expect – had an aisle dedicated to pasta in every variety of shape, including my favorite Tuscan hand rolled rustic pici, but some I’d never seen before. Just outside Heraklion on the island of Crete (Greece) on the shelves of a local supermarket the spoon sweets – fruits preserved in syrup served as a form of Greek hospitality – outnumbered the jam selection, and most of the latter were imported brands. I mention these instances because they struck me as different from what I am used to here in Britain or even what I was once used to in the US.
Shopping preferences are regional as well. In that Heraklion supermarket, there was a specific section set aside for Cretan specialities – thick thyme-scented honey, jars of pickled onion-like bulbs from the wild hyacinth, locally picked vine shoots in brine, smoked and vinegar-cured pork and sausages (only available in winter) and cheeses from the mountain regions of the island. In my local supermarket, Yorkshire products – like pork pies, Swaledale cheeses and Henderson’s Relish (a Sheffield alternative to Worcestershire Sauce) – sell exceedingly well.
Remember those Oreo cookies I mentioned? They are available on my supermarket’s shelves, sold in tubes like British biscuits (cookies) as you can see in the photo above. They are a novelty, appearing now and again on the shelves – not a regularly stocked item. They are not likely to displace the British biscuit – Jammie Dodgers, Jaffa Cakes, Chocolate Digestives, Hob Nobs and the like. I have no doubt that successful supermarkets world-wide carry regional and national products geared to local food choices – in fact, an anti-homogenizing effect. I wouldn’t worry, the uniqueness is still there.
- VIDEO: Why Tesco struggled to crack China (bbc.co.uk)
- Grocery Shopping In The Fatherland (geekmadel.com)
- A Trip to the Supermarket! (jodeeinlondon.wordpress.com)