By making us believe that everything is always available, supermarkets provoke the worst in times of shortage
It might seem an odd time to criticise the supermarket. As governments order other businesses to shutter, the still-open supermarket has become the essential utility it has long purported to be. And I am grateful that, even during a time of unprecedented crisis, I can walk a negligible distance and purchase fresh food, store cupboard ingredients and more-than-passable bottles of wine.
But even as our reliance on supermarkets has been cast into relief, it is important to keep their numerous demerits in mind. They pay their retail employees — many of whom are unable to stop working through Covid-19 crisis, putting them at high risk of infection — a pittance. They have exploited farmers, driving many out of business. They are active participants in the wrecking of the world’s environment, stimulating mass-farming and importing produce from across the world. And they unashamedly aim to destroy small businesses, even employing staff to survey local rivals so that they can charge less for the same stock.
Laying aside these, and many other, serious ethical qualms, however, part of the supermarket’s misery stems from its design, from the outside-in. As they exploded across the west after World War Two, they came to signal the white heat of modernity, and a prosperous future where quality and variety would be available to all. This excitement, alas, is seldom reflected in their architecture. Here in the UK, it’s a combination of lightly decorated sheds and pseudo-vernacular brick masses that succeed neither in integrating with history or calling to the present. When they try to break the mould, as with Broadway Malyan’s Carbuncle Cup-winning Woolwich Tesco in 2014, they can become dystopian in their obtrusiveness.
It is within, however, that the supermarket causes the most distress. Most interior spaces, even the most functional, contain some evidence of design-thinking — whether that’s the mixture of quiet and collaborative spaces in an office or calming colours and pathfinding devices in a hospital. Supermarkets instead offer a conscious rejection of aesthetic qualities. They choose to become as visually unobtrusive as possible. And by doing so, they insinuate themselves into your daily life, become as customary as washing or showering. You begin to forget that going to the supermarket and buying its products there is an elective choice, akin to any other purchase.
The one aspect of that supermarkets do excel in is an insidious one: the art of arranging products to make you purchase more. Flowers and fresh vegetables at the front to draw you in, daily perishables like bread hide at the back, behind aisle-after-aisle of non-essential items begging to be bunged into a basket. And this superabundance of items — almost anything you might want, almost anytime — has helped to inculcate a mentality wherein the possibly of something being temporarily unavailable drives people into panic-buying madness, thoughtlessly stripping the shelves and depriving supplies from those who most need them.
Supermarket chains might not want people scrambling for loo roll and dried pasta. But the supermarket’s ability to present itself as an essential service rather than simply a type of shop fuels the mindset that led to such frenzies in the first place.