Supermarket Sociology

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.

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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.

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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.

foreign_productsSomehow, unique products from foreign supermarkets always seem to end up in our suitcases coming home!

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.

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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.

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14 comments

  1. I love visiting local supermarkets when I travel! They are amazingly alike here in Australia, no matter where you go! We lived in London for 5 months of 2011. We found shopping in Waitrose comparatively cheap, but the thing we missed was Asian ingredients. We also noticed a distinct lack of small specialty butchers, greengrocers and delicatessens, in the High Sts, places where you could talk to the retailers about their products and order specialty items, where nothing was pre packaged. Starbucks tried to establish itself in Melbourne and failed as did Borders booksellers. We are very loyal to our small qlocal businesses!

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    • Waitrose is my supermarket of choice – so easy when there is one within walking distance from my house! We are also lucky to have any number of smaller “ethnic” shops – Turkish, Greek, Italian, Thai, Polish, Caribbean (to name just a few) – but they are not generally found in “high street” locations. Yes, exploring local supermarkets as well as more traditional style markets in foreign countries really can tell you something about the culture. It is one of my hobbies as well!

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  2. Really interesting piece. Would be interesting to reflect upon the popularity of Lidl and Aldi in the UK in light of all this… I reckon there’s a global -tastes element that’s happening in regions that’s part of a new cultural identity as well.

    As an American I’ve been watching the recent fast influx of American products– also the small change in branding to Cadbury’s things since Kraft bought that company– I’ve noticed a kind of Britisher than British thing happening– it’s very clevery marketing indeed. Not sure what I think of it. Am always trying my hardest to say no to my nagging kids, to whom of course all of that appealS…

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    • Over the years, I’ve also noticed the influx of American products as well as the big-business takeover of British food brands. However, your mention of “taste” made me wonder if those products still have the same taste (i.e. made to the same “recipe”) since many of the products are still manufactured in Britain (although now under license to the main corporation). American made products – of the same brand – might, in fact, be made slightly differently with American tastes in mind. Something to ponder…

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  3. Thanks for a good read. I would like to think, as you do, that it is an increase of choice. We ocassionally get American products here in Finland, but they are considered novelty items. We also have an aisle of frozen berries in our supermarket 🙂 .I have sometimes wondered how much of an affect blogging or the internet has regarding the products made available to consumers?

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    • This berry thing in Scandinavia is really interesting to me. I suppose they are easily grown in cooler climates, particularly the Arctic varieties. A Danish friend of ours who works in Sweden remarked once that although many words in Scandinavian languages (except Finish!) was mutually understandable with common roots, the words for berries were entirely different in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Being archaeologists, naturally we jokingly speculated on a mesolithic origin for these words since berries were an important part of mesolithic diet in northern Europe. 🙂
      I think that internet blogging as well as travel have opened up people’s eyes to different foods, different was of presenting food, different food (and holiday) traditions. I know that my supermarket does a roaring trade in Spanish and Italian products in the Autumn. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this is when people are returning from holidays abroad.

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  4. Very interesting, thank you, and all makes complete sense when I think of what our local supermarkets sell – and don’t sell!! I love visiting the supermarkets in Abu Dhabi when I visit my mum, here full of sacks and sacks of fresh nuts and spices and whole counters dedicated to baklava and Arabic sweets, it’s heaven!!!

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    • One of my goals in writing this post is to get people to think about what they see (or don’t see!) in their local supermarkets and also when travelling/shopping abroad. It is very interesting what you say about grocery shopping in Abu Dhabi. Local produce, local tastes… Tells you something about the culture.

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      • Completely! We have a large Asian community locally which shows in our local tesco. We also possibly don’t have the most ‘discerning’ community locally so when they try out superfoods or healthier more unknown foodstuffs they are often the things which end up not being sold and discounted as end of ranges – and then I buy them!!!!

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  5. Well the supermarkets here in Italy have changed slightly since I was here 8 years ago. There is now an Asian section, however, I would never buy from it as the quality is poor and the items random…I feel sorry for Italians who want to experiment, they don’t even get good ingredients to experiment with. I have also noticed in my International travels that vegemite is very hard to find and I think I am happy about that.

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    • I know what you mean – in the past few years Asian food has made a bit hit in Cretan markets as well. Things like soy sauce and sesame oil are to be found on the shelves of their supermarkets – something unheard of years ago! However, I think it must go hand-in-hand with the growing immigrant population to the country. I expect it is a similar situation in Italy. A generation ago, from what I’ve gleaned from the older folks and from sources like Elizabeth David’s books, Mediterranean ingredients – including pasta – were not common here in Britain. We move with the times…and now British markets treat products and produce from the Med as common, everyday staples.

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      • I agree, we are all eating very differently to what our parents grew up with food wise and immigrant populations must be dictating needs too. I guess the big supermarket chains are cashing in on it too. Can you believe Britain without pasta?! 🙂

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  6. What an interesting post… As a foodie who love to try foreign food, to know more about the culture of a foreign country even through food and recipes i love the chance to find and buy rare ingredients over here too! …and it’s not always easy…. I wish we could have in italy more ethnic food shops as i saw in the Uk! …luckily there is the web to help find something rare! 😉
    Anyway on the other side… As a lover of italian food and traditions i hope globalisation will never be so huge to cancel local ingredients and traditions… Cos they are so important to preserve and pass on to future generations our history! …as you said it’s so nice to visit another country and its local shops and supermarkets and discover new ingredients… I love this… And the “ohhhh” and “wowow” i say when like a child I discover something new! 😉
    …btw… Oreo landed in Italy as well 😉

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    • I think that regional and traditional foods will always be available in local shops, but it is inevitable that things change as society changes. Although that article I mentioned indicated that changes in food preferences are slow to change. Glad you liked the post!

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