Sunday, 24 January 2010

How shortages are made

Michelle of Rational Living asked me about the shortages I mention frequently on this blog, so I thought I'd expand on my answer here.

First, some geography.

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This is the tip of the Wirral peninsular where I live - specifically West Kirby, the end of Merseyrail's Wirral line. I've asked Google to highlight the supermarkets nearby, to which it has added a couple of off licences (alcohol shops) for reasons I can't begin to fathom unless Google knows far too much about me. From this, you can see that Morrisons (formerly Safeway) have a monopoly on walking-distance supermarkets. For train-ride distance supermarkets, the Sommerfield (formerly Gateway) in Hoylake is actually an (in)convenience store rather than a supermarket per se, while the Sainsbury is half the size of the Morrisons. So I'd have to drive if I wanted a supermarket of any real size. If I drove, of course (I gave up driving for environmental reasons a year ago; I live opposite a station with a 15min service into England's 4th city and I work from home; what use would a car be?). But if I did have a car, I'd have to drive off the right of this map, all the way to Bidston (for a Tesco) or Upton (for a Sainsbury) to reach a large supermarket.

So, I think I've proved that Morrisons have a monopoly here. This monopoly they (take a deep breath, the UK's libel laws are harsh and fickle) might be alleged to be abusing. Some of the staff are breathtakingly unhelpful (some are wonderful, though, so go figure). They advertise themselves as being Britain's premiere supplier of cheap fresh food, then sell old mouldy crap for ridiculously high prices. This is partially true of all branches of Morrisons, but particularly true of this one.

Fortunately, the monopoly-of-crappiness that Morrisons have means that they haven't driven our independent shops out of business. We still have two butchers - one ordinary, one very upmarket - a fishmonger, a greengrocer and four pharmacies (one in Morrisons, and five if you include the Superdrug, but it doesn't dispense prescriptions; the people of West Kirby must be in a bad way).

The greengrocer is excellent - and cheaper than Morrisons - but doesn't have the muscle to hedge against supply problems. If the potatoes are frozen in the ground, Morrisons will, eventually, fly potatoes in from somewhere warmer (making it warmer still, ultimately). The greengrocer will go without potatoes. And so will I.

The posh butcher is much more expensive than Morrisons, but thousands of times better. Their meat is locally reared, locally cured and, for sausages, locally turned into sausages (in the back, where they've got a sausage-making machine, I'd assume). I don't eat meat, for moral reasons, but I believe you draw your own moral boundaries and don't impose them on others. CJBS does eat meat, the murderous swine, and I cook it for him. I'm very good at it, I'm told. Cooking with steak that has been hung for 28 days is a pleasure compared to cooking with the scrunched-up, bright red, nitrogen-bathed, shrink-wrapped, "processed in the UK" rubbish from the supermarkets. It just costs 5 times the price.

But using local stores requires planning. They open 9-to-5ish Monday to Saturday, with a half-day in the week; the greengrocer staff have usually packed everything away by 4:30, while the fishmonger has such strange opening hours you can't really predict when they'll open or close (at the first approximation, they're always closed). Morrisons is open from about 7am to about 9pm so is more convenient; they're also open on Sundays, unlike everything else.

So today, being a Sunday, it was Morrisons or nothing (perhaps Morrisons or better-planning-earlier-in-the-week would be more true). And at Morrisons, it was nothing. No carrots (they ran out on Friday, I think, but this could be weather related as the carrots they don't have are British), no non-air freight broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage (except red cabbage) or tomatoes. They did have some courgettes. Here they are, in case you wonder why I went without.


Michelle said...

Wow! Thanks for the stellar explanation! I wish we had green grocers here in the U.S. - it would be such a nice alternative when the farmer's market is not available. I hope you have better veg available the next time!

peezedtee said...

I'm a bit taken aback to learn that West Kirby sounds to be no further advanced towards civilisation than when I visited it frequently in the 1980s. Here in Inner London we are slightly better off as regards Tesco's opening hours, but the Tesco in question is unbelievably badly managed, and the nearest decent full-service supermarkets (Waitrose) are at Canary Wharf or Balham, both a bit of a trek on the Tube. Consequently we now have everything delivered by Ocado, which costs £6 a month for unlimited deliveries - you can have them come every day for that, if you want, as long as you spend £40 each delivery.

Merseytart said...

To be fair, the 24 hour Tesco at Bidston is across the road from Bidston station. OK, it's a very wide road, and you then have to walk the length of Tesco's car park, but it's certainly do-able. Has the Hoylake Somerfield not become a Co-op yet, with the accompanying improvement in service?

If only we had a Waitrose within spitting distance peezedtee! Never mind Ocado, I'd be in there all day stroking the veg...

paul f said...

I hope my waitrose(s) are never taken away from me. Alas we lost the local farmers market in Hampton Hill last summer - it was a curious mix between organic fruit and meat and then rich tea biscuits and jaffa cakes?!?!?