As shelves emptied at unprecedented rates in March, the “big four”—Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons—banded together to act. But is it sensible to leave the fate of Britain's food system to the vicissitudes of the market?by Dan Hancox / May 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
It feels like a lifetime ago, but it was the first week of March. I still recall my shock, seeing the long shelves of my nearest hypermarket-sized Sainsbury’s empty of pasta. At first I assumed they were re-organising the aisles, or something equally mundane—until I overheard a conversation between two customers about “stockpiling.” The realisation dawned slowly—this is really happening.
Within days, many of us were doing a bit of panic buying, although we told ourselves we weren’t panicking, just buying. As the Covid-19 clouds gathered and darkened through the middle of March, I cycled between the largest supermarkets in south London to see which stocks were the first to go. To begin with, it was the store-cupboard staples disappearing—pasta, rice, pulses, tins of tomatoes—and then, a kind of retro-wartime rationing kit: flour, vegetable oil, eggs, tinned fish, tinned fruit, tea and coffee. As lockdown finally neared, fresh meat and vegetables started to empty out too, along with wine, beer, and bottled water. I peered in to read the label attached to an empty shelf in the Sydenham branch of Sainsbury’s: “Cherryade 2L.” A lesser-known preppers’ favourite.
Row after row of empty shelves greeted shoppers, and photos of the same circulated on social media, and were replicated across the nightly news—the images prompting more stockpiling, and a growing atmosphere of desperation and dismay. They were scenes we associated with failed states in faraway lands—recalling grainy footage of Russia in 1990 or Venezuela in 2016—with the collapse of communist planned economies, not the relaxed consumer utopias of the modern supermarket-state.
The supermarkets were jolted into action. On 15th March the “big four”—Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons, which hold 68 per cent of the grocery market between them—along with the second tier (M&S, Co-op, Waitrose, Iceland, Aldi, Lidl, Costcutter and Ocado) issued a joint statement. It promised they were working closely with their suppliers, offered reassuring words that they were in control, and asked that people shop responsibly. “Together we will care for those around us and those who are elderly, vulnerable or choosing to remain at home,” it concluded.
The letter was headed “Working To Feed The Nation” and carried the same paternalistic tone as a communiqué from the wartime Ministry of Food.…