Well, the supermarkets can relax. A poll for BBC Radio's Today programme says the public loves them. But is it as simple as that?
The poll for Today will have cheered supermarkets. For all the publicity accorded to critics of big retailing, the public votes for it daily. Who cares about noisy critics or competition arguments or environmental accusations or planning opponents? These are merely the chattering classes. What matters are votes at the cash till!
Today's poll reminds critics that although supermarket power is on their agenda, the cultural mainstream not only fails to demonise supermarkets, but views them positively. Nationally, only 4% hate them, while 11% love them; 65% "don't have a particularly strong view but I do like them"; and a further 14% think "they are wonderful".
Concerning morality, the highest position was 39% agreeing "supermarkets give people what they want all year round at prices that they can afford"; 18% agree "supermarkets make huge profits, destroying the high street"; and only 8% agree that supermarkets "drive down prices paid to producers".
The poll illustrates the complexity of public attitudes. Rating what is most important when shopping, quality comes top for 29% followed by convenience for 24%. Prices, long the retailers' mantra, and here defined as "getting what you want as cheaply as possible", is rated most important by only 13%. Hmm.
Asked if they are "prepared to spend more money to buy food that is healthier", 42% agree strongly and 31% slightly, with only 9% disagreeing strongly and 5% slightly. Only 11% sit in the 'neither agree nor disagree' middle ground. Views on environmental costs are as strong. All this complements analyses and discussion at the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers conference last month. Papers suggested complex consumer attitudes towards the supermarkets. One study of active ethical consumers showed them making complex trade-offs, wanting fair trade or organic or local foods to be stocked by supermarkets while recognising that this maintained their control over food supply chains.
So is all fine for supermarkets? No. Ahead are immense challenges, shaped by climate change, oil prices and obesity. These are structural problems requiring systemic responses. NGOs and ethical critics are actually cultural pathfinders, not Luddites. Consumers know they cannot sort things individually. Supermarkets are their choice-editors. Supermarkets will have to be part of solutions, with the state arbitrating. If not, the public will fall out of love with both.n
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, City University