Are the big supermarket chains being demonised unfairly or are consumers as angry as the media portrays? Liz Hamson reports

So the multiples have too much power, do they? Whether it’s Joanna Blythman’s ‘Shopped: The shocking truth about British Supermarkets’ or Felicity Lawrence’s equally polemic ‘Not on the Label’, books knocking the big supermarket chains are ten a penny at the moment. Each mines a similar vein: power is bad, supermarket power is growing, ergo the supermarkets must be bad.

They argue that with this rise in power has come a commensurate fall in the quality and safety of the foods they sell. But consumers are said to be wising up.

In an article for The Grocer, commissioned for this report and published on page 34, Lawrence writes: “One of the things that has struck me as I have travelled around the country is how suspicious the average consumer now is about the food and retailing industries.”

Are Lawrence and her fellow polemicists right? Are consumers really worried about the growing power of the major retailers? Have they lost trust in the food being sold in their local supermarket?

The answers can found in a a survey into consumer attitudes towards the multiples carried out exclusively for The Grocer by market research company HI Europe.

Surprisingly, perhaps, in light of the recent publicity being given to this whole issue, shoppers are not as anti-supermarket as some would have you believe.

The survey reveals that while consumers do believe the multiples exert too much power over what they eat, they trust what they buy from them and believe the overall quality of food the big chains sell has improved or at least stayed the same.

That they see the power wielded by the multiples as benign shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, says HI Europe business development director, Tracy Thorne. The multiples have made vast improvements to product range - particularly in the prepared fresh food arena - and have shaken up the convenience format by offering that wider range of fresh food at lower prices. “People trust a supermarket will have the food they want. It’s about availability, convenience and quality,” she points out.

However, this does not mean they are off the hook. When it comes to the fresh food, one third of consumers say they do not worry about the quality of food they buy from supermarkets, while a third say they do. But almost half would prefer to shop elsewhere for meat and fish, and consumers are split when asked whether they trust the big retailers more than specialists.

Diane Gaston, head of corporate affairs at the National Consumer Council, says: “The survey shows how confused people are about the big supermarkets. Many, understandably, buy on price, but they are still concerned about quality. Most people say they would prefer to buy from traditional shops, such as the butcher or fishmonger or from farmers’ markets, but plainly the convenience of buying everything under one roof plays a part in their decision.”

Crack that convenience problem and the specialists could claw back some of the market lost to the multiples, Thorne says.

“Supermarkets may win out over the independents in terms of perception of fresh produce at lower prices, and may be seen as having improved quality of food more so than the specialists,” she says.

“However, when it comes to quality and preferred store choice for meat and fish, it’s the local specialists that win hands down and for fruit and vegetables they’re neck and neck. If only these independents were better at converting this high quality perception and preference into shoppers.”

This may not be an unrealistic goal. In her article for The Grocer, Lawrence points to the rise in popularity of farmers’ markets and the growing interest in food provenance and quality among the middle classes. She adds: “It may so far be mostly the chattering classes who have worked out that low prices mean someone paying more in other ways later. But where the chattering classes lead, the overall trend tends to follow.”

Specialist retailers can cash in on this trend and Thorne suggests they may also be able to benefit from subtle, but definite, changes in shopper behaviour. She cites recent HI Europe surveys that show:

n one in two shoppers make more shopping trips during the week than at the weekends

n one in three shop later in the evening than they used to

n one in three have split their main shop into frequent smaller shopping trips

n one in three have increased the number of stores they use

n and 83% top up at least once every week

Thorne says: “Although the signs are that consumers are coming back to the high street, they’re more likely to nip into the new-style convenience stores that are open later. For these consumers, convenience is measured from when they switch the car engine off and, although they may trust smaller versions of their main supermarket for fresh food, less than 20% of consumers trusted the more traditional convenience formats for fresh food, such as Spar, Budgens, Londis and Premier.

“There could be a big opportunity for specialist outlets to attract back a chunk of those shoppers who are looking and prepared to pay for superior quality fresh produce, if only they could make themselves more convenient for these shoppers to buy from. Fresh produce may well be the way to differentiate themselves all over again.”

With their ties to small local producers, independents are arguably better placed to provide consistently high quality fresh produce than the mass supplier-dependent multiples, says Thorne.

If there is to be a renaissance on the high street - with the local fishmonger, butcher and greengrocer vying for trade once again - then these retailers would be better capitalising on this strength rather than wait for any consumer backlash against the multiples. Why? Simple. When it comes to food quality and safety, our survey shows little evidence of a backlash in the offing.

Sure, as our vox pop opposite confirms, consumers do have a love-hate relationship with their local supermarket. They are also quick to voice their opinions about who is doing a good job (and those who are not).

But there’s no getting away from the fact that HI Europe’s survey shows the vast majority of consumers really do trust the supermarkets to deliver good quality food.

And when HI Europe quizzed consumers on the vital issue of who was behind the food stories that seem to dominate the headlines at the moment - from salt in kids’ foods to the source of a now-defunct brand of bottled water - it is fascinating to see the media gets the blame. Consumers clearly have worries about what they eat - but our survey suggests they trust the relentless barrage of scare stories in national papers, and on TV and radio, far less than the quality of the food they buy from the supermarket.

At the same time, consumers believe manufacturers are more responsible for problems than retailers, who are way down the blame list with just 4% of consumers holding them to account. The government and food regulatory bodies are not viewed in high regard, either, despite the fact that the Food Standards Agency’s crime is identifying food safety problems - not creating them.

That said, consumers look to both the media and the government to help tackle the nation’s obesity problem, blowing one popular theory out of the water, according to NCC’s Gaston.

“Although nearly half say individual consumers are most responsible for the nation’s rising obesity, when it comes to doing something about it by encouraging healthy eating, people see there is a clear role for the government and health experts,” she says. “Perhaps that nails the myth that people are worried about a nanny state. It’s encouraging, too, that consumers want supermarkets, manufacturers and foodservice companies to take responsibility. With obesity levels trebling in the last 20 years, everyone needs to be involved in finding solutions.”

The food and health debate stepped up another gear this week with publication of a new parliamentary report into the issue of obesity. This follows last week’s Westminster Diet & Health Forum where the industry came under fire (see page 36). So it must be reassuring for both manufacturers and retailers to see that consumers believe only one group should take responsibilty for health of the nation - and that’s themselves.

The health debate will clearly rumble on. And, we suspect, so will the debate about the role being played by the big supermarkets in society at large. But when it comes to their ability to provide quality, affordable food, our survey shows consumers do trust them to deliver the goods. This trust, however, is not unquestioning. Nor should it be taken for granted in the current climate.

Yes: 57%

No: 19%

Don’t know: 24%

Yes: 62%

No: 11%

Don’t know: 27%
Do supermarkets have too much power over what you eat?

Do you trust the food you buy from your supermarket?