The strange case of the discount Serrano ham

It’s a funny old world. Bands now make more money selling t-shirts than songs, you can buy red berry and lime flavoured cider, a Serrano ham is for sale at a discount supermarket and Miley Cyrus exists. The certainties that made up life are changing again. Take food shopping. In the 1970’s people shopped every few days and locally; probably because most food was fresh and the concept of a ready meal with a sellby date longer than the half-life a Deuterium atom didn’t exist. 

Basically, you bought, you ate and you bought some more. Then in the 1980’s supermarkets started building out of town mega-stores where beleaguered families were forced to spend countless hours navigating 500,000 sq ft cathedrals to choice and excess and the rest of their Saturday humping their weekly shop into and out of their small family car. In effect a quick necessity had become a time-consuming chore under the guise of almost infinite choice and the offer of free car parking and dodgy cut-price petrol.

Then in the 1990’s two things changed, one technological and one societal. In essence we all got busier; work, family and leisure all demanded more of our precious spare time and so the weekly mega-shop was about as attractive as a Soviet era bread queue. But help was at hand in the form of online shopping and urban supermarket mini-shops like Tesco Metro and Sainsburys Local. Now workers could shop quickly on their way home for a microwaveable curry for one and families could do the weekly shop while slouching around in their underwear guzzling a cheeky G&T. Or was that just me?

Online shopping provided the obvious advantage of time-shifting the weekly shop so that you could order the food in the wee small hours, after a good night out, and then enjoy the unexpected thrill of discovery when the groceries arrived a few days later. Who can forget unpacking 17 bags of Cheesy Whotsits and putting it down to a Chardonnay fuelled indescretion or unwrapping 4 kilos of chicken breasts and swearing you clicked units not kilos.

But how does this account for the rise of discount supermarket brands like Aldi and Lidl?

Economists have argued that the recession has driven the mid-market, budget conscious consumer to become more price sensitive. Undoubtably true but what of the middle class? Logically they should do what they’ve always done and trade down in their usual supermarket brand. ‘Gone are the days of organic polenta, Cressida darling. It’s Waitrose oven chips for us……they’re so authentic’.

 But a strange thing has happened. Having saved many hours by shopping for essentials online, the middle-class shopper is now spending time bargain hunting for food in their cars. The fact that 25% of Aldi’s customers are upmarket bears this out. Furthermore, I saw a TV ad featuring a £39.99 Serrano ham at Lidl which seemed as out of place to me as being offered pate de foie gras at a kebab shop.

So three cheers for unpredictable consumer behaviour, let’s celebrate the irrational and offbeat and all pretend that our 9 kilo boxes of assorted Hungarian ginger biscuits are worth the 55 minute round trip to buy them. 

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