Lost in the supermarket
Marsali Taylor investigates the changing shopping habits of the islands’ consumers, and asks if it really is cheaper to shop in the supermarket.
I began thinking about this article earlier this year, when Somerfield closed and all of a sudden panic ensued. The Co-op was full to bursting point, with every check-out busy and articles in the Shetland Times about how they were coping. Why, I wondered, was there such a fuss? We’d only had one supermarket for years, and it had coped perfectly well; so what had changed about people’s shopping habits?
Furthermore, with the price of fuel being so high, was shopping in town really cheaper? How much would you have to buy, and how much cheaper would it have to be, to make it worth making the trip in to Lerwick?
Shopping habits have changed across the UK, and a number of factors have been responsible for these changes. New ways of preserving food longer mean that we can shop far less often. Travel is much easier, so we don’t worry about going further for our provision. We’ve also all become used to more exotic foods, and for many of us it’s easy and convenient to use ready-made meals.
I asked people from all over rural Shetland about their shopping habits. How much did they use the local shop? What did they buy in town? Did they travel to Lerwick especially to visit the supermarket? What would make them use their local shop more?
People were very happy to chat about their shopping habits, but because there was some criticism of local shops, a few people preferred not to be identified.
I began by asking about the balance of use between local shops and town, and what specifically people went to Lerwick to buy?
“Fresh fruit and veg,” several people said, straight away. Thinking time added staple items like tins of beans and washing powder, which many believed were noticeably cheaper in Lerwick. Freshly-made ready meals were also mentioned.
Most of the people I spoke to do use their local shop regularly, but also do a “big” shop in town.
Scott Masson, who has recently come to live in South Whiteness, deliberately uses the local shop as much as possible. “The local shop is vital to the community” he said. “I do a big shop monthly at Tesco – ready meals and stuff for my packed lunches. I’d also go for ‘buy one get one free’ offers, that kind of thing . . . However, I expect to do regular trips to the local shop through the month – the Weisdale shop is good for vegetables.”
Another Weisdale resident praised the meat. “It’s from the Globe, excellent quality. We do the bulk of our shopping locally – but we do a regular Lerwick shop too.”
James Garrick, from Tresta, also shops locally: “We have a link with Bixter, because we get our papers there, and I often pick up items from Eid Co-op on the way home. We do a town shop, but if we can’t be bothered going into town, then we go to Soundside [the Weisdale shop], and I have to say we always manage to get everything we need there.”
Aith is slightly further from town than Weisdale, and people here also make good use of the local shop. Elizabeth and David Nicolson are very supportive of Eid Co-op – Elizabeth is on the current committee.
“I buy almost everything in Eid,” Elizabeth said. “I go to Tesco maybe once a fortnight, and buy fewer than ten items, mostly treats – dried papaya, that sort of thing. I just feel it’s a waste of fuel and time going in to Lerwick – and you’re tempted by ‘buy one, get one free’ offers, to waste money on things you don’t really need, so it doesn’t work out cheaper either. Eid Co-op has everything we need, and it has excellent fruit and veg, and meat.”
“There’s no need to use the supermarket, Eid has everything we need,” said another Aith resident, “and if they don’t have it in stock, well, they’ll order it for you. We do have a trade card for Gray’s, the wholesaler, though, and we go there to buy cases of cat food and dog food.”
Without doubt, people’s diet has changed in recent years. We’ve become used to exotic foods that were previously unavailable: pitta bread, fresh tiger prawns, a range of ready-made meals that wouldn’t be easy for smaller shops to stock, as they’re both bulky and perishable. But what about the basics? Why do many people choose not even to rely on their local shop for these?
Up north, a couple of people praised the Brae Co-op, but also came up with a criticism echoed by folk in other areas: local shops can have problems of stock flow. They do have what you need, but can’t be totally relied on to have it all the time. “You can’t go in with a list for a particular recipe and expect to get it all” one person said. “You have to be ready to change your plans and cook something different. Not just exotic items – it can be things like celery, or orange juice, or tinned tomatoes.”
So what about more remote areas – Yell, for instance? I was up at the East Yell show, and popped into the Ulsta shop on the way past. It had a range of wholefood products, magazines and Shetland produce, including Yell strawberries and Scalloway beef sausages and mince. I also went into the Aywick shop, which is an ever-expanding building, selling food of all kinds, alcohol and soft drinks, Shetland books, soft goods, knick-knacks and presents, plastic goods, shoes, ironmongery . . . I couldn’t begin to list it all in more detail. My memory of Cullivoe Shop is that it has just as wide a variety of goods, and there are other shops in Yell too. All that for about 1000 people. Surely the Yell folk never need to shop elsewhere?
I asked Lawrence Tulloch of Gutcher. “Well, we do buy in town”, he admitted. “With Bed and Breakfast visitors, we need to get fresh produce, that’s the main thing. But I worked out recently that it costs £22 for every trip to Lerwick – £8 for the ferry, and then 100 miles of petrol.”
Surely at that cost he’d never save money going to Lerwick to shop.
“You don’t go into town to shop,” Lawrence said. “You’re in town anyway for a meeting or an appointment, so you take the chance to pick up some things.”
This was a comment a lot of people repeated. I didn’t meet anyone from the country who went into town specifically to shop. Everyone I spoke to was in town for another reason, and visited the supermarket while they were there.
I wonder, then, if that’s one reason for Shetland’s changed shopping habits. Until recently, more people worked in their local area, and more of those who commuted to town used the bus rather than driving. Now, many households include one person working in Lerwick, and many of these people take the car in and out, making it easy to pick up a load of shopping on the way home from work. People who don’t work in Lerwick still visit regularly – a dentist appointment, a haircut, something urgently needed that can’t be got elsewhere – and while they’re there they invariably stop off at the Co-op or Tesco.
But one Aith resident definitely didn’t agree with this theory. “I know a number of people from here do go into town especially to shop, even though they could get the same goods in their local shop. They’re used to going in and out of Lerwick so often that they just don’t think anything of it. I think the problem is one of perception; there’s this belief that town must be cheaper.”
Counting the cost
I decided to test the belief that shopping in Lerwick is cheaper by taking a basket of eight basic grocery items from several shops and comparing the prices. I went for goods that could be bought “own brand”, so the Co-op prices will be the very cheapest on offer.
I phoned Mainland’s, in Dunrossness, Eid Co-op, Ollaberry Co-op and R & S Henderson, in Cullivoe, Yell, to ask for their prices. For the Co-op in Lerwick, I looked for myself, and took the cheapest price on the shelves that day.
The results were interesting. Prices did vary according to the brand (Co-op baked beans were 36p, Mainland’s were Lifestyle, at 45p, whereas Eid and Ollaberry had only Heinz, at 57p). However, where the brands were the same, such as Kellogg’s cornflakes, they were similarly priced (except for a special offer price at the Lerwick Co-op).
Allowing for these variable though, no shop was cheaper or dearer for everything, not even the Co-op; really keen pricewatchers could go down to Lerwick for their mince, north to Ollaberry for their apples, and up to Cullivoe for their loaf. However, the overall price of this basket was pretty similar across all the shops.
With so small a basket, one item can make a lot of difference – Eid’s total was brought up by the price of their eggs, and the Co-op’s special offer on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes knocked £1 off their total.
As well as the cost of goods, I also factored in the cost of driving from each place to Lerwick. I took 45 miles per gallon as a reasonable average, and £4.73 as the cost of a gallon of petrol, so that worked out at 10.5p a mile. These were the results.
Medium sized sliced white loaf
Kilo granulated sugar
Litre semi-skimmed milk
Large packet cornflakes
500g beef mince
Six free-range eggs
400g tin of baked beans
Total cost of goods
Cost of fuel to drive to Lerwick and back
(+ £8 ferry
Total of goods bought from Co-op with fuel costs added
Prices were considered correct at the time of writing.
*Mince was unavailable at the time of contact, so this is an average of the other country prices.
Of course this is just a small sample basket of items, and the more goods purchased in Lerwick, the more that would be saved. Some supermarket buys are bound to be a good bit cheaper, but, on the other hand, some are a good bit dearer. Everyone was able to give me examples of items they could buy more cheaply in their local shop. Elizabeth Nicolson produced Eid Co-op’s latest leaflet, with a comparison between Eid wine prices and Tesco’s. James Garrick’s favourite tins of mackerel in savoury sauce are actually 20p cheaper at Soundside than in the supermarket.
Quality matters too. If you want particular brands, rather than the cheapest possible, then you could well find what you want locally at similar prices – the Co-op’s Heinz beans, for example, were 52p, compared to 57p at Aith and 59p at Mainland’s and Ollaberry. The cheapest Co-op mince was £6.59 a kilo, compared to around £7.55 for local meat, but locally produced meat was mentioned by a number of folk as a point in favour of the country shops.
Local produce is definitely one of the things the country shops do stock to lure their customers away from the supermarkets. Personal service and individual orders are also appreciated by customers. Supermarket-style special offers are introduced to tempt straying customers and, hopefully, once they see the range a small shop can offer, they’ll come back. It can be surprising, too, what a large range can be squeezed onto a small shelf.
“Eid actually has nearly as full a range of goods as the Co-op” one person who’d helped with stock-taking told me. “I didn’t realise that. The difference is that in the Co-op you have several rows of the same thing, and at Eid you have a dozen different things squashed on one shelf. You need to look closely at what’s on the shelves to see how much there is.”
Ollaberry is another of the country shops that’s a real success story, making a profit in spite of its small size. I asked one of its joint managers, Christine Duncan, how she felt this had been achieved.
“The main thing is that a lot of folk shop here – they really still support it. We cover most of the north mainland, apart from the small shop in Hillswick. Folk come here from North Roe, there’s no shop there now, and Eshaness. Some folk do still shop in Lerwick too, of course, but certain ones do all their shopping here, and others just pop out and in, and there have been a good number of tourists around too this year – it all helps.”
Why does she think her customers shop locally?
“I think folk realise that they can get everything they need here, they don’t need to use fuel and spend time going to town. Our fuel is among the cheapest in Shetland, and while folk are here for fuel then they get messages too. We have a good range of fruit and vegetables, and meat from the Globe butchers.”
Christine thought for a moment. “No, I think the important thing that keeps us going is the folk. They want to support us – they know how important it is to have a local shop.”