Friday, July 04, 2014

July's Shetland Life Magazine - my editorial on rural shops, Tesco and odd butters

Home delivery, the fate of the local shop and Tesco-itis. - My editorial from July's Shetland Life. Buy it here

I am not among the Tesco-itis sufferers who say, proudly, that they have never been inside the place, “and never will”. There are things hidden away there you can get nowhere else, for example the lovely Beurre d’Enseignes from Normandy. I prefer North Eastern Farmers or LHD for clothes (it’s a fashion thing) and of course the Big T does have some locally-supplied fresh food. Though I have to say that the only ‘off’ stuff I’ve bought in Tesco was locally supplied - and instantly refunded, without smelly packaging having to be shown.
And there are the Co-ops, In Brae and Lerwick. The ownership of its own farms has always meant, I’ve felt, high-quality meat at the Co-op, but now with the parent organisation in disarray and the farms being sold off, I’ve kind of lost faith. But you can get tubs of organic houmous in either Shetland Co-op, and for me that’s a matter of near-addiction. Food quality, particularly of own-brand flour and the like, is high.
The Lerwick Tesco is brilliantly and imaginatively run and stocked. Staff are well treated, quite well paid (I understand) and exceptionally well trained. Choice is massive. Prices are low.Why should you shop anywhere else?
Well, we have superb local foodstuffs in Shetland which don’t reach either supermarket. For fresh meat, the Shetland-sourced organic beef, mutton and vegetables in Scoop are not just fantastic quality, but reasonably priced, though available in limited quantities. Our various specialist butchers provide excellent products and service and the availability of locally-caught fish is one of the glories of the isles. In the country shops, fish and meat from Shetland sources is widely available too, though not every day and again, often not in the widest of varieties.
Bakery products? We have superb oatcakes, bannocks and bread, but again, wisely choosing your day to get fresh baking  is essential if you’re shopping outside Lerwick. We also, in truth, have had in the past some very average bakery products, which I think has led to the taste for ‘sooth bread’ you find everywhere, though the home baking habit has also meant that yeast and bread flour are on the shelves of nearly every rural outlet. Not to mention Shetland Dairies’ great triumph: buttermilk, bannocks for the making of.
But it’s easier to just go and do a huge, weekly one-stop supermarket shop. Convenience is, for some folk, everything. And if you live in Lerwick, why wouldn’t you nip into World of Trolley? Leaving (or not) honourable exceptions for butchery, fish, bakery products and, well, clothes and white goods? Rural dwellers with access to transport, can do a ‘big shop’, later ‘topping up’ at the local shop, if you’re lucky enough to have one: milk, eggs and...anything you’ve forgotten or run out of.
We have an excellent local community-owned shop in Hillswick, and I am privileged to have just been co-opted as a director. That it happened the week after I’d used the new Tesco home delivery service for the first time was embarrassing. But instructive.
I found the whole rigmarole of online ordering very irritating. Also, because this is Shetland, several items were unavailable. You are then provided with ‘an alternative’ or a refund. Fortunately, Beurre d’Enseignes was in stock.
I had no complaints about the delivery. Joel the driver arrived in the time slot arranged, was happy to carry the shopping into the house, and it was all curiously like Christmas. You forgot you’d paid in advance. The groceries were just...there.
I won’t be doing it again, though, and not just because of my new directorship. I believe local shops are essential to the wellbeing of a community, and there’s no question that Tesco home delivery threatens their viability. However, there is no reason why local shops cannot provide a delivery service which would be much more responsive, and not limited to those with computers. 
But it’s not just that. If I’m shopping for food, I want to see, reach out, touch, choose. I check onions’ softness and bananas’ brownness, bannocks’ give and crusts’ crispiness. Yes, I will go to Tesco and other Lerwick shops, if I happen to be in town. For sea-salted butter, among other things. But my default retail position is: the local shop. 
Use it or lose it.

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