April 4th, 2004



Okay, for a long time now I have been a supermarket snob. I like Sainsburys, because Sainsburys feeds my aspirations ("Tonight I will make prawn and lemongrass filo parcels with a hot-and-sour dip, in my open-plan minimalist kitchen full of shiny appliances and spotless Corian worksurfaces") while still allowing me to buy cheap rice pudding which I can eat cold out of the can.

In the past when I've gone to ASDA, not only has the food been terminally unappealing, slouching towards its best-before date to be binned; not only has the layout been so badly designed that it's impossible to find anything; but the whole place has been heaving with screaming kids running riot around the aisles while their mothers (or possibly older sisters...) try to wallop the kids into obedience. The kids are often even pushing the miniature trolleys provided by the supermarket, which bear a flag proudly identifying the child as an "ASDA shopper in training"; and there can be few things more dangerous in the world of supermarkets than a small child in the throes of tartrazine psychosis armed with a shopping trolley. I've invariably left feeling depressed and dissatisfied.


Today I decided to brave ASDA just to buy badgers. I decided that while I was there, I might as well pick up something for dinner tonight, if I could find anything worth buying. So, dear reader, any guesses as to what I found? A can of "Finest" spaghetti hoops, perhaps?

No, in the end I found some juicy-looking fresh tuna steaks (I decided against shark, swordfish or marlin on the grounds that I hadn't the faintest idea what to do with them), some new potatoes, and broccoli which could actually be bought in sensible quantities (Sainsburys' "buy six kilos, get six free" style of packaging their vegetables may be good value if you're the food-buyer for an organic hippy commune, but it's not much use to the lone shopper buying for one or two). Plus a fresh basil plant to replace our sadly wilted ones, some fresh strawberries, the biggest fresh peas in the pod that I've ever seen outside my mum's garden, and half a trolleyload of impulse buys which I really didn't need but hadn't seen anywhere else.

Then there was the beer. "Oh, the most exciting thing they'll have will be Stella," I thought, "but I'll have a look anyway." Well, I counted nearly 50 varieties of bottled real ale, and that's before I started counting the trappist beers, the cherry beer, the wheat beer... After that, I didn't even dare look at the whisky, though I caught a fleeting and tempting glimpse of the Bowmore and the 20-year-old Laphroaig nestled up against each other.

While searching for the badgers (which I did eventually find!) I found myself wandering around the non-food section of the supermarket. I remember being amazed when I first saw Tesco's selection of inedibles -- "I can't believe they sell DVD players in supermarkets!" -- but ASDA knocks that into the proverbial cocked hat. DVD players? Sure, no problem, plus TV and stereo. Clothes? There's the equivalent of a small branch of C&A tucked away in the corner, only even lower priced. DIY? Light-fittings, furniture, power tools, decorating materials... it's B&Q-lite down there. Not to mention the aisles of books, CDs, DVDs, stationery, kitchenware, home furnishings and so on that we've come to expect from supermarkets.

And, of course, there's the prices. None of this "reassuringly expensive" malarkey; not even, in most cases, confusing 3-for-2 double-or-quits-on-200-reward-points offers; just "everyday low prices". Do I want my life to taste better, or to cost less? Or can I in fact have both?

The main point where Sainsburys still noticeably scores over ASDA is the space. Sainsburys aims for that large-white-plates-with-ostrich-steak-and-rösti-tower-in-the-centre (and possibly rocket garnish on the side) feel; ASDA, on the other hand, goes for the spatial equivalent of a mixed grill with a side-portion of MORE CHIPS.

Sometimes, yes, I do want my life to be twenty-seven different pastel shades of minimalist organic hand-knitted feng-shui-positive low-salt Zen gardening (the Jamie Oliver 'chillout' remix). But sometimes it's good to know the full-fat option is still there, and I don't have to hide it embarrassedly under the kaffir lime leaves.
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