Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Give us this day our daily bread...

Small item that caught my ear (and I have no idea why this was on the radio news) the other night concerns one Dr Raj Patel and the "theories" behind supermarkets.

Rather than just link through to all that he has written, let me put this in my own words...

Patel starts with the idea that "Supermarkets sell those products that are the cheapest and highest margin." Nothing wrong with that the Capitalists would sy, and I agree. "Therefore the range of products on sale is determined by their relative profitability and not by the needs or desires of the customer." Returning to Patel, he contends that we humans are wired to desire foods containing sugar, fat and salt - HFSS's as he terms them.

How does this work?

Take a small family business I worked for some years back. It no longer exists. The boss sold out I believe but he might also have gone to Florida seeking eternal redemption with the Scientologists. Anyhoo we sold "bulk food" to the supermarkets. These are products intended for the customer to weigh out and pack for themselves as much as they require instead of having to buy 500gm, or 6 x 30 gram packs... Top of the company's range by volume - out of some 85 available - was blanched roast salted peanuts. Probably one of the more "unhealthy" of the products we sold. High oil content (we used canola oil), high fat content (from the peanuts as well), and very high salt content. The supermarkets used this as a loss leader (one of them) for about four weeks every three months. There was no debate on our price, we were told - not asked. On one occasion, in one of his more shitty moods, the boss refused to supply at the markets price and got his answer about ten minutes later - "take your fittings out by tomorrow night, we will make arrangements for a new supplier". It took about three months to get that market back into our order books.

But the point behind that little tale is the fact that we were a "health(y) food" company. Because of the nature and business of our customers, one of the highest volume lines was also one of the most unhealthy.

OK, now for a personal observation. It came to my notice during my 14 weeks off work. In all, that resulted in at least ten major shopping trips to the supermarket with the CofE (Chancellor of the Exchequer). Now I am the first to give credit; apart from the odd small item like a bar of chocolate or suchlike the CofE is not given to impulse purchasing. She carries a very detailed list, fully costed, and prices get checked at the time she is selecting what she wants. She really is very good at it. (I hope that Lucy would approve). There were a couple times where I went on my own with this very important task but that is a different story.

What is an interesting way of passing the time in the supermarket is through observation. Take note of anyone that goes past; their trolley contents, age, sex, children if any, but try to get a feel for the relationship between purchases and people.

What I noted -

Younger mothers, with kids under ten buy the most. The ratio of convenience foods (frozen pre-prepared, pre-cooked etc) to fresh produce is fairly high.

Young people, say the under-30s are usually small shoppers. I suspect this is one of perhaps three or four trips to the market this week.

Middle aged - those with no kids about indicating probably teenagers at home - seem to buy the most convenience foods and least fresh produce.

Late middle age and elderly seem to be the ones who buy least convenience foods and most fresh produce. Is this the result of tradition and culture or a matter of economic necessity? In our case it is preference, probably driven by family tradition.

The presence of children with the shopping expedition seems to result in a much higher purchase of the junk food lines - crisps and chips, sweets and soft drinks. The worst of the HFSS's.

Worst of the lot? Obvious grandparents with grandchildren in tow.

On a wider scale, the statistics that appear from time to time in the news hereabouts (and I have no reason to doubt that is the same the whole world over) indicates that lower income people are more likely to purchase more HFSS's than fresh produce.

One of the more interesting ones in recent times gave the average travel distances home to nearest takeaway outlet for various suburbs in Auckland. Furthest (greatest distance from home to a takeaway) were in the more affluent suburbs. One can argue that this is the result of rich people being willing to travel further to buy Big Macs, Fried Chicken or whatever. But in fact it seems that the demand is unable to support more outlets. Contrast this with the "poorer" parts of town. Travel distance home to outlet can be as small as 1/4 of that travelled in a "rich" area. Is this because of the cost of travel? No, it seems that people will buy the family dinner on the way home from work, or will give the eldest the money to buy dinner at McDs or BK or whereever.

The distance function is the result of the demand for the product, not the cost of travel.

So we end up with a quiet revolution from Detroit Free Press
And yet Americans in general and Michiganders in particular spend a lot more time hunting bushytails than grouse, largely because while most grouse hunting is confined to the state's northern forests far from where most hunters live, squirrels can be found everywhere.

In anticipation of telephone calls and e-mails from the uninitiated, let's say right off the bat that the primary reason to hunt squirrels is that they are delicious. Truthfully, I'd rather have a Brunswick stew or one of my friend Craig Porter's fantastic squirrel pies than grouse breasts or a venison roast.

Squirrels are incomparably tastier than supermarket chicken, beef or pork that may have been raised under questionable circumstances and took weeks or months to get to the consumer.

To which I might add that I have never tried kiore (the Pacific rat), or dog, both considered delicacies by the Maori in pre-European times. I have tried huhu - a grub not unlike the Aussies witchetty and it tastes like peanut butter which has been soaked in wood. Regretfully though, most of the wild food is getting difficult to find due to poisoning programmes for possum and rabbits, the commercialisation of deer. Pig are getting hunted out and hard to find. Goat is now farmed - had goat stew a couple weeks back and it were very good.

To return to the top, an article from Britain's "Independant"
Should we be worried about the power of supermarkets?


* Their dominance is killing the diversity of the high street

* Suppliers are being bled dry by their cost-cutting demands

* They have the power to dictate to the consumer


* They are powerful because they provide the best deal for the public

* Many investigations have failed to find any wrongdoing

* Competition between chains ensures a good deal for consumers

... and our government is adding folic acid to all bread to prevent birth defects. About 15 of them a year.


T. F. Stern said...

This reminded me of the movie, A Beautiful Mind, where the fellow would observe naturally occurring events such as pigeons meandering in a courtyard and attempt to create some mathematical formula that would replicate or predetermine their future meanderings.

I want to see your graphs and computations to send in for the Nobel Peace Prize; that would be worth blogging about, it would beats the “Thinking Blogger Award” for putting on your sidebar.

The probligo said...
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