Supermarket shopping: so much quicker and more efficient – not to mention cheaper – than dotting along the high street from butcher to greengrocer to baker. Or so we’re led to believe. Yet there I was, the other week, in the cereal aisle, taking ages to reset my Tesco loyalty card password, which I had forgotten, and squinting at the screen like an owl in sunlight, since I’d also forgotten my spectacles.

I could have waited until I got home, of course, but then I would have lost out on the rewards of being a member of what is surely one of the biggest clubs in the UK. And while on many shopping expeditions the savings are negligible, had I been buying an electric toothbrush, say, I’d have paid double the price.

Given how sporadically and reluctantly I shop, it’s no thanks to me that Tesco has posted exceptionally healthy annual results in the past week. In the year to 24 February 2024, its sales rose by 4.4% and its pre-tax profit shot up from £882m to £2.3bn. Now accounting for a 27.3% share of the grocery market, Tesco is immodestly claiming it is “winning the supermarket wars”.

War is an apt word for the ferocious level of competition between grocery retail giants, their skirmishes and full-scale battles played out under our noses. We can’t hear the big guns blasting, yet there’s an undercurrent of tension as they vie for our custom, parading their cut-price credentials at every opportunity, fearful lest we be lured away.

Perhaps that’s why my modus operandi on the weekly shop feels less of an agreeable browsing expedition and more like being out on manoeuvres. Faced with stores as vast and soulless as a car park, I try to get the task done in the minimum time. Otherwise, I risk being overwhelmed by the sea of shelves and products or, as during the Easter holidays, by the log-jam of parents with children escaping the rain and treating the store like an entertainment arcade. On occasion, only the thought of having to return later and retrace my steps has prevented me from abandoning a heaped trolley and making my escape.

Not everyone has this aversion. I remember when I moved to Musselburgh, some years ago, a colleague told me where I could find the best café in town: Tesco. That’s where he went for his weekend bacon roll, enjoying the view of shoppers scurrying like ants while he unfolded his newspaper to make sure his exclusive had not fallen off the page. I believe Donald Dewar felt the same about the Tesco in his constituency.

An evening watching TV adverts – especially in the run-up to Christmas – is all the evidence you need of how cut-throat a business superstores have become. At the moment Tesco promises to price match with Aldi, but Asda does the same with Lidl as well as Aldi, as does Morrison’s. Even M&S, mother ship of the gourmet ready meal, now has a budget range as economical as, and sometimes cheaper, than Aldi.

The Herald:

When you have to eke out your earnings then taking heed of every price and seeking out the best value buys is essential. Hard work too. For many of us, however, there’s no need slavishly to compare costs between items so long as we’re confident we’re not being ripped off. During a cost of living crisis, being price savvy has become an engrained habit, but occasionally paying double for a four-pack of Mutti tomatoes, while irksome, isn’t likely to tip us into the red.

In their bid to hold on to customers, stores behave as if they want us to be their best friends. They’re always parading how hard they’re working to lower our bills, as if they were charities with our best interests at heart. In reality, of course, their tactics are less about making our lives easier than about boosting not just their annual profits but their chief exec’s bonus. Should their rivals slip down the retail pole while they ascend, victory will taste all the sweeter.

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The recent switch from accumulating points with loyalty cards to paying less for certain discounted items is a dreary way of doing business. For a start it means casual purchasers, who don’t have any store allegiance and will shop according to whim or a tempting promotion, can now only benefit from discounts if they have a loyalty card. The faff of signing up is deeply irritating. I now have three cards – with the Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – but if, as too often, I leave my phone at home, they are useless. As I pass through the checkout I can almost hear my lost pounds dropping into the store’s piggy bank, bolstering its shareholders’ dividends.

With prices fluctuating weekly according to whatever is on special offer, there’s a strong sense of the collective supermarket system working by a hidden logic that, as one Herald reader points out, is bordering on a cartel. Amid all of this, it feels as if we are being manipulated. And, undoubtedly, we are. Enter any superstore and you can be sure there has been a team of consumer psychologists at work in layout, display and labelling, each designed to make us spend more than we intended.

Of course, we can’t turn the clock back now. This way of shopping is entrenched and, for all its problems, does save us money. Yet does anyone really enjoy it? Hasn’t buying groceries (and everything else on offer, be it a barbecue or garden bench) become one of life’s humongous chores?

Call me a nostalgic or naïve, but when I was young my mother looked forward to her mornings out at the shops. She chatted to each of the storekeepers, and could fill her wicker trolley basket with everything from lamb chops and new potatoes to French cheeses and freshly caught fish. No overbuying in those days, no fruit or veg left mouldering at the bottom of the fridge. Very little impulse shopping either, and certainly no ultra-processed foods.

Was it time-consuming? It certainly was. But it also connected us to our food and where it came from in a way pre-packaged goods on the big store’s shelf cannot do. Whatever financial or efficiency benefits supermarkets can offer, the one thing they cannot provide is making shopping fun.