How to cope with supermarket withdrawal
Avoiding grocery multiples could help curb tendency to impulse buy
Ruth O’Connor buying from Gary Adams at his fruit and veg stall on Moore Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
I’m already worried about the week ahead, unable to enter a supermarket when I rely heavily on Tesco Express, Spar, Centra, Lidl and sometimes, when I’m feeling flush, Marks and Spencer. What about dinner and the packed lunches? Falling asleep I fret about yogurts and muesli bars, sliced ham and eggs.
Next morning there’s a solitary €2 coin in my purse – enough for milk in E. Lawless’s shop in Irishtown – a place I have never entered, despite passing it daily for a year. The milk costs €1.50.
“Do you want a receipt with that?” “Erm, yes please,” I squirm. “Well you can’t have one!” the shopkeeper cackles gleefully before handing it over. A sign behind him says something akin to “Use us or lose us” so I feel like I’m doing my bit.
I am forced into Tesco as there is no other bank machine within a 15-minute radius and I figure that many of the shops I need to go to won’t take a cash card payment for small amounts. I leave Tesco where the same brand of milk costs €1.05 and Tesco’s own brand milk costs a mere 85 cents litre.
I head to Clyne’s butcher shop for eggs and into a bizarre café/charity shop where I buy a (not second-hand) bag of six pears and a box of cereal for €2 each and tear myself away from a pair of too-big vintage brogues that also, curiously, cost €2.
Later that evening, I panic because I have run low on baby wipes and have no bread for the lunches. I run to Il Valentino, my local bakery, but the tills are closed. My local chemist is also shut, so I guiltily turn to Fresh. It says “The Good Food Market” over the door, not “The Good Food Supermarket”.
It is Irish-owned, with only three stores in the chain, but still I feel like I’m cheating. I endeavour not to return for the rest of the week. Perhaps I’ve become too used to supermarket prices but frankly I’d rather wipe my baby’s derriere with sandpaper than pay €3.99 for baby wipes. I leave Fresh, go home and use cotton wool.
Next morning the baby wipes cost between €2.99 and €4.03 in the pharmacy.
I often go to Insomnia in Spar for my coffee. It’s close to my house, I like chatting to the Hungarian girl who makes a decent coffee and, if I’m making other purchases, it’s convenient.
On Tuesday, instead, I go to the Pause Café. My coffee there costs €1.25 less than in Insomnia, I get called “bella” and marvel at two very well-behaved Italian children eating ice- cream at 10 in the morning.
On Wednesday I buy six mint and lamb sausages from Michael Byrne Craft Butcher in Sandymount, costing €6. It’s a hot day and across the road in the retailer’s Fine Food Store, the scent of fresh fruit jolts me back to childhood, to our local vegetable shop where Tayto Snax cost 10p and dead wasps turned to dust in the window.
I buy salad vegetables, sliced ham and hummus for €13 and then head towards home where I pick up a coffee and a garlic loaf (€2.80) in said Il Valentino.
Late that evening I realise I’m running low on milk – here we go again! I walk to Mellon’s on South Lotts Road and then on to Ringsend where there are no independent shops open, so, despite my best intentions, I end up, 40 minutes walk later, back in Fresh.
On Thursday I go to the Asia Market on Drury Street. Spotting some plantains, I Google a recipe for banana curry – plantains, garlic, basmati rice, rice wine vinegar and more for €14.
I go to the health store Nourish where toothpaste costs about €4. Instead of back-tracking to Fallon & Byrne for some fruit, I head to Colm’s on Townsend Street. I buy bananas and potatoes – which, shock horror, actually have clay on them. I discuss the inconvenience of illegible mobile phone screens in sunlight and carry on with one arm longer than the other from the weight of my bags.
On Friday in Moore Street, I duck out of a torrential downpour into a Polish store where the skincare brand Ziaja is on sale at fashionably low prices and then buy a punnet of strawberries (not Irish as advertised), six delicious peaches and 12 mandarins from a woman outside protecting her strawberries with a parasol.
While the fruit costs €5, the craic is priceless. “Some fella from the council came down to talk about taking down those coloured yolks off the side of the Illac,” she says. “She told him he was mad, that people come from all over the world to see them! You’d swear they were the f***ng Pyramids!”
In FX Buckley’s I am impressed by the variety and quality of the meat (there’s chicken hearts and liver, goat meat and tripe as well as all the usual cuts). I end up buying a week’s worth of meat because there is something reassuring about this shop, the fact that there are actual butchers butchering instead of the anonymity of the supermarket chill cabinet.
I buy chicken breasts, round mince, pork roast and a rabbit (€11) for my dad.
“I don’t think I can carry a dead rabbit home in my bag,” I wimpily tell the butcher. “I can always chop off the head and cut it up for you,” he says helpfully. Sure who could refuse?
The next day, while visiting my parents (sorry rabbit in tow) I require nappies for my toddler. I go to a chemist, a newsagent and a huckster shop before being forced to cave in and buy them in Mace. I feel I have failed again, or rather perhaps, the system has failed me.
Overall, my experience of supermarket-avoidance felt somehow warmer than a weekly shop at the supermarket. Despite the impression that shopping independently probably costs more, while individual items were sometimes expensive my propensity to impulse buy was lessened and because I had to better plan my meals, less food was wasted.
I noticed a reduction, too, in the volume of recycling as all the food was not double- wrapped in plastic and polystyrene. Corny as it sounds, I feel as though I had the opportunity to engage more with my food – to smell and touch the fruit or to ask questions about how best to cook my meat from the people who have edited their stock to suit their patrons’ requirements and tastes.
On the downside was the panic, induced by the knowledge that no independent shops in my area stay open past 7.30pm or 8pm and the fact that many shops won’t accept a card payment for small amounts. Avoiding supermarkets would be easier if I lived in the centre of the city or in a hub of independent stores such as Phibsboro, Sandymount or Rathmines.
As it is, I live in the Docklands where there is an abundance of indie cafes and bakeries, but few independent shops.
There is no denying the handiness of the supermarket and the bargains therein. However if a balance could be struck between the cost and convenience of the supermarket and the individuality and endeavour of independent retailers, we might, in the long run, benefit, as consumers and as members of our own communities.