Irish shopping habits: What Conor Pope saw on his day as a supermarket cashier

Checkout staff notice changing consumer habits long before the statisticians do. Our correspondent goes behind the till to see how savvy Irish shoppers really are

Irish Times Consumer Affairs Correspondent Conor Pope spends a day in Supervalu, Killester on Dublin’s Northside where he discovers people are buying own-brand and buying local. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

As I tie my apron in the SuperValu staffroom I can’t help thinking back to the last time I was in a place like this. In 1988’s “Summer of Stuttgart”, when Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net, I served time as a shelf stacker in a supermarket in the west of Ireland. I hated it.

Things have changed a lot since then. Supermarket giants have come and gone; bagels, prosciutto and miso soup now sit on shelves that were once the preserve of white bread, black tea and sweaty ham; and consumer habits have been radically reshaped by globalisation and shifting economic fortunes.

Cash registers have become more complicated, too – a lot more complicated. I go out of my way to avoid self-service checkouts when I’m shopping. If I must face them my blood pressure reaches dangerously high levels when the till finds unexpected items in the bagging area.

Having to look after other people’s groceries is not my idea of fun, and it quickly becomes clear during my stint at the Killester branch, in north Dublin, that I’m not SuperValu’s idea of competent. I double-scan items, forget to include discount vouchers and loyalty cards and, as the queue gets longer, see more than a few customers throw their eyes to heaven.

“Are ya daft? I’d never put Superquinn sausages in me coddle. It’d be an awful waste,” a woman tells me as I stressfully scan her supposedly inferior sausages. It might be the most Dublin sentence I’ve ever heard.

As I ring up the rest of her groceries she tells me that she’d never consider shopping anywhere else. “I have always shopped here, my whole life. My mother shopped here. Sure why would I switch?”

She tells me that she has started to buy more own-brand goods. And she’s not alone. As mountains of shopping pass by I see milk, cereals and even tea carrying the store’s own label.

“I try and buy their own-brand and cheaper versions sometimes,” another shopper says when I mention it. “I come here three or four times a week. I do my big shop of a Thursday, and then I won’t come in again until Monday.” She too says that she would never consider switching supermarkets.

Aside from this reluctance to shop around, customers seem really savvy about their shopping. They know what they’re spending their money on and have a keen eye for bargains.

The people working on the tills were on the front lines of the economic crash and of the subsequent recovery. They see shifting spending habits a long time before those trends appear in Central Statistics Office tables.

Gina Farrelly has been here since 2009. She says that the two big changes during the recession were the surge in popularity of own-brand products and the growth in the number of shoppers “looking for clearer pricing. In the last six months people have been spending more money, and they are willing to try the local brands.”

These brands come via SuperValu’s Food Academy. A bit of the store has been given over to small producers, such as the Happy Pear and Improper Butter. They get shelf space so they can assess how shoppers respond to their products. If something does well they can ramp up production. If it doesn’t go so well they can learn from the feedback.

As I scan the Food Academy stock a shopper sidles up to me. “Make sure you write about the Koo Kees. They’re absolutely brilliant,” she says. The premade cookies and the dry cookie mix certainly look lovely. The box says the ingredients are locally sourced.

Robert Ward, manager of the Killester branch, has been with SuperValu since he left school. “We’ve the freedom to buy locally, so if Mrs Byrne down the road makes a lovely soda bread we can stock it.”

The eggs here come from Swords and the pizza bases from Kilbarrack. Much of the produce is made in the store. Bakers come in at 9pm and work through the night. The salads and the ready meals all come from a kitchen at the back, as does the haslet.

The has what? Haslet is an old-fashioned cold cut made of compressed sausage meat. It has all but disappeared from Irish shops. Responding to customer demand, Joe Murphy, who runs the delicatessen counter, started making his own and selling it three or four years ago. Now they shift more than 20kg a week.

I meet Gertie Byrne, a SuperValu institution. She has been working here for 49 years, 40 of them in the off-licence. “Things have changed so much. The only beers we sold back in the day were Harp, Guinness, Smithwick’s and Carlsberg. Liebfraumilch was the really popular wine. And Piat D’Or. The top-of-the-range red was Nuits- Saint-George, and it cost £7.” Today customers want craft beers and wines from all over the world.

I ask if Charlie Haughey, whose political base was nearby for decades, ever came in to top up his cellar. “I only ever remember him coming in when he was looking for a vote. He shook my hand once, but I don’t remember him buying any wine from me.”

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