Confessions of a Cambridge Shopper

I wrote yesterday about campaigns to block a new Tesco on Mill Road and a new supermarket of provenance as yet unrevealed (at least to me) on a site in West Cambridge. I’ve also commented on some of the shortcomings of the supermarkets that do exist in Cambridge.

It’s my proposition that – from the perspective of a no-car household – there are not too many supermarkets and food stores in general in Cambridge, but too few. To substantiate this argument, I am prepared to reveal to the world some of my secret shopping habits.

As I mentioned in a previous rant, I do most of my shopping at Sainsbury’s in Sidney Street, the only general mid-market supermarket in the City Centre. Because this Sainsbury’s is essentially a monopoly I have no choice but to put up with the length of queue that the Sainsbury’s management deem reasonable (they have the power to allocate more or less space, and/or more or fewer staff, to tills). Luckily for the customer, perhaps, there is little room to waste on queues in the store, so their length is limited even if – because of the lack of alternatives – the market would stand a longer wait.

But the main problem is that shelf-space is severely limited in the Sidney Street store. Sainsbury’s sometimes run out of particular lines – often as a result of their rather annoying BOGOF policy – and have an irritating habit of phasing out branded products from time to time and replacing them with their – in my opinion – inferior own-brand products. When Sainsbury’s lets me down, I either have to lump it and buy an alternative, or find the product I want at another store.

So here’s the confession part. Where else do I shop? And why?

There’s the market of course, but I’ve never really developed a rapport with any of the stall-holders. Perhaps because my father ran a fruit and veg shop for some years, I have a strong preference for choosing my own individual items, which is rarely allowed in a market. I remember once in Croydon I was “accidentally” given a bag of rotten avocados. I made sure that, while I was getting my money back, my loud complaints cleared the area of customers. Maybe it’s my suspicious mind, but I always suspect that market-traders think they see me coming, little suspecting my professional experience. I occasionally buy fresh herbs (in absurdly large quantities), an apple, or, on an impulse, some strawbs, in the market, but not much else. I just kind of feel the prices should be lower and I worry that, distracted by the melee around the stalls, I’ll end up with dodgy goods.

Occasionally I visit Asda on Newmarket Road. Unlike Sainsbury’s, this store is entirely geared up for drivers doing their weekly shop. For me Asda is a pain to get to, and queuing behind even a couple of overloaded trolleys is a tedious process. So why do I go there? Mainly because it stocks Kellogg’s Sultana Bran. Sainsbury’s used to sell KSB, but now have an own-bran alternative which a) to my palate is made of cardboard and b) comes in a taller box which doesn’t fit in my cupboard. Of course, whilst in Asda I pick up a few other items which Sainsbury’s doesn’t stock (or at least didn’t when I got in the habit of buying these things at Asda): usually Whole Earth sparkling organic lemonade and ginger beer, and Mexicana cheese (warning: contains peppers).

I even more rarely visit Tesco on Newmarket Road, which is even further than Asda. I can only remember going there a couple of times on emergency missions. The giant stores on Newmarket Road are unsatisfactory alternatives to city centre Asda, Tesco or other mid-market alternatives to Sainsbury’s.

Then, Cambridge being one of the country’s more affluent cities, we have no less than three M&S outlets: at the railway station, in the Grafton Centre and in Market Square.

Now, I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to supermarkets. In my opinion they are shops, not food producers. We’d all be better off if they kept it simple and just offered as wide a choice as possible of branded products. Then we’d get the benefits of sensible competition. You’d choose your store on the basis of location and shopping experience factors, such as stock-control effectiveness, queue-length and ambience, and you’d choose your product based on what you actually want, not what the only convenient store in your area wants to sell you.

Why, for example, M&S does own-brand wine and beer is beyond me. Do not touch this stuff! My experience suggests money spent on M&S booze would be better used by making an offer to the guys in the park for whatever they’re drinking.

But life is rarely as simple as own-brand bad, branded-brand good. In particular I can heartily recommend M&S’s soups, particularly the spicy red lentil. They are superior, in my opinion, to the tired Covent Garden brand stocked by Sainsbury’s. Of course, everyone has the canned varieties from Campbell’s and Heinz, but few new recipes have been introduced by these companies since the coronation. Of Queen Victoria. The best soup I’ve ever bought in Cambridge was borsch at the International Food Store on Mill Road, but sadly supplies of this delicacy are sporadic, to say the least.

It’s convenient to pick up some M&S soup at their busy little store at the Railway Station, but that outlet doesn’t stock the most important product I buy at M&S: their Unsweetened Fruit and Bran Muesli. As I’m allergic to nuts, it’s a big deal to identify a satisfactory nut-free muesli product (I used to buy some Jordan’s lines). Now, the Grafton Centre M&S food-hall is about to close and relocate to Newmarket Road, so to avoid a trek, I now rely on the Market Square M&S for my muesli supplies. Let’s hope Sir Stuart Rose doesn’t decide the Market Square space would be more profitable if stocked with bras and knickers.

And, while we’re upmarket, there is a Waitrose in Cambridge, but I’d need to drive to it. The John Lewis store, disappointingly, has no food-hall. As I said, there are not enough supermarkets in Cambridge, not too many.

I shouldn’t forget the farm shop that has recently opened at the junction of Lensfield Road and Regent Street. Handy, and I regularly pop in for a treat. But I couldn’t afford to do all my shopping there.

It’s a curious little area, because mere yards from the farm shop, along Hills Road (there’s a map in one of my previous posts) we head what I can only call down-market. It’s convenience-store land. On one side of the road is a One-Stop. Handy for picking up a paper on the way to the railway station, where the WH Smith’s cannot be relied on to be queue-free (funnily enough, they have a monopoly on the station – anyone spotting a pattern, here?) – the managers who decided it would be a good idea to scan newspaper bar-codes and vetoed an honesty box for payment in the Cambridge Station WHS should be fired, and their pensions confiscated. Occasionally I’ve picked up a snack, a stale dough-nut perhaps, in the One Stop, but not much else, though I have noticed it would be an excellent place to pick up that really tacky card, for when you want something so bad that it’s good.

For emergency purchases, I prefer to cross Hills Road to the Co-op. It’s good for fresh cream and, when I spilt a glass of red wine, the internet recommended diluting it with white. It took a whole bottle, but did the trick. I defy anyone to locate the original spill. Thanks to Co-op for that bottle of cheap white wine! Judging by those ahead of me in the queue – and on the my few visits to the store I’ve had plenty of time to ponder – some use the Co-op as their main shop. This seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Mill Road is good for more than just borsch. All kinds of delicacies are on offer, from Polish sausages to caviar! Arjuna is good for spices and lentils. And there are plenty of convenience stores – Nip-In is good – though I most often pick up milk if I’m short from my newsagent on Regent Street, which is nearer.

But the general picture must now be clear. I actually have only one practical choice for my main supermarket shopping – Sainsbury’s. I’d say Cambridge has too few supermarkets, not too many.

It seems to me that the planning system is not the right mechanism for determining how many supermarkets we actually need. Surely if someone thinks a new store is viable – that they could run it profitably – then the default position should be that they are allowed to do so. Then we can all choose whether or not to use it.

The major public concern seems to be that a chain (Tesco most likely) succeeds in executing the Starbuck’s business strategy of dominating an area by monopolising all the available outlets. But, assuming that at least some people would choose another coffee-shop or supermarket in preference to Starb’s or Tesco, this strategy can only work if the number of outlets is limited. It’s much better for competition, then, if planning permission is easier to obtain than if it’s more difficult. Commercial rents will tend to be lower, and some business models – such as independent coffee shops and specialist food stores – will be more viable. And we might all spend somewhat less of our lives queuing.