Let’s hear it for Tesco Town Croydon


By - Tuesday 13th August, 2013

Liz Sheppard-Jones wonders whether the proliferation of corporate supermarkets in Croydon is a blight or a bounty


As Gandalf observed to his Fellowship members in the Mines of Moria, ‘They are coming’. Croydon Town Centre is already encircled by supermarkets: re-furbed Sainsbury’s and mint-new Morrisons on the north-western stretch of the Purley Way, Tescos Purley Cross at the south of it and in Thornton Heath High Street to the north, and Asda on Beddington Lane to the west. Numerous additional smaller stores are colonising the outer reaches.

Now they are striking at Croydon’s very heart, with the Big Two both on the High Street already, Tesco in Saffron Square, George Street, South End on the former site of the Swan and Sugarloaf, Broad Green and (rumour has it) very shortly on Dingwall Road near East Croydon station, Sainsbury’s on Wellesley Road and London Road opposite West Croydon Station, and the one they all said was too upmarket to work  here – a thriving mid-sized branch of Waitrose also on George Street.  There’s also talk of a Morrisons local somewhere in central Croydon, as this previously northern chain extends its empire into the south of England and London. Drums, drums in the deep.

Confound their mono-cultural mission of mastery. Damn their dominion over our weekly domestic rituals. We should all rise up, overthrow them and push our trolleys somewhere else, preferably to an independent outlet supplying cheese from an organic goat freshly milked each morning by the artisan store-keeper.

Or possibly not. Perhaps we should be content to live in Tesco Town Croydon Central, and celebrate everything it offers us. That’s the case I am going to make now. You can never have too many enemies.

Supermarkets have lots of enemies. These enemies attack them, as enemies are wont to do, and make some points against them which seem difficult to refute, namely:

  • that they exploit farmers and agricultural workers, ruthlessly switching their suppliers nationally and internationally to keep store prices artificially low
  • that this in turn leads to outrages like that of horsemeat in ready-meals, as costs are forced ever downwards and the unscrupulous and even criminal scent a profitable opportunity and move in
  • that they support cruel methods of animal husbandry, such as confining sows in breeding stalls (on grounds of cost again)
  • that they over-use environmentally damaging packaging
  • that they throw away food for cosmetic reasons
  • that they destroy seasonality by flying produce into the UK year-round
  • that they pollute the environment by filling the roads with lorries
  • that they put the independents out of business
  • that they make all high streets, all towns and all cities look exactly the same

I think that just about deals with it.

However.

I see no particular reason to love farmers, despite the fashionability of this cause and the winsome picture in your local supermarket fresh produce aisle of a bucolic character leaning on a gatepost. Townies are sentimental about farmers, but farmers are not sentimental at all. These are the people who brought you the multi-billion-pound mad cow disease and salmonella in eggs scandals, mostly because of their greedy cost-cutting practices that took no account of animal welfare.

Farmers – not so loveable after all

The most right-wing opponent of subsidy, with his belief that everyone should stand on their own two feet with the devil poised to take the hindmost, strangely makes an exception when it comes to farmers, who without massive EU subsidy would be shutting up shop tomorrow. (I am not an opponent of such  subsidies – I mention them only to make the point that farmers and food producers are already the recipients of a public largesse on a grand scale. This limits my sympathy for their pleas of mistreatment at the hands of the corporates). These alleged ‘custodians of the land’ have been implicated in the damaging  over-use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, failure to rotate crops adequately (an inefficient and costly practise) and poor water management. The smiling picture in the produce aisle doesn’t show any of that.

I, as a shift-working mother of two school age children, can now buy decent bread in Croydon Town Centre at six o’clock in the morning.  If I take a night off from the kids and head up west for the evening, I can also pick up fresh milk for tomorrow’s breakfast on the way home again. The benefits of this service for the time-pressed simply cannot be overstated – and in your local supermarket, you don’t pay a premium for it.

(Of course, I can also shop late and early in my handy independent store, which I use and value since it’s right by the bus-stop. Tamil-run, it stocks a great many fascinating and ethnically diverse ingredients with which I experiment at home, although you cannot find an ordinary lettuce or cucumber there to save your life.  However, this store also has noticeably regular powercuts due to questionable additional electrical cabling protruding from the ceiling, dark and fetid corners in need of an intensive clean from the Veolia power-jet guy who works in Croydon Town Centre, a nasty habit of flooding when the power to the chiller cabinets goes out, and following one of these episodes, recently sold us a large carton of cottage cheese labelled ‘Fresh Milk’.  I know which is the more welcoming and hygienic environment and I greatly appreciate the uniformly high standard of all local mini-supermarkets. My nearest also has an ATM for which you don’t pay an additional fee, and for all these reasons is well worth a further three-minute walk up the road)

Ordinary people eat better every day, thanks to supermarkets

We forget what life was like without supermarkets, which have brought interesting varieties of olive oil, bread, vinegar and herbs (to name but a few – all of these once the province of wealthy metropolitan foodies) into stores the length and breadth of Britain. Ordinary people eat better every day, thanks to supermarkets. Increasingly, of course, plenty of ordinary people are struggling to eat at all, and as foodbanks proliferate in our allegedly civilised country, their mission to keep prices down suddenly looks more like a blessing than a blight.

Supermarkets are retail businesses – they respond to criticism. The practise of throwing away mis-shapen fruit and vegetables has now ceased as customers expressed their dissatisfaction with such waste. The issue of excess packaging is also changing, albeit slowly. Supermarkets reward customers who re-use plastic bags or bring alternatives. They emphasise their mindfulness of the humane treatment of the animals we eat, although our interest in this topic never quite goes as far as being willing to pay a realistic price for it. Animal welfare is an area where supermarkets cannot win.

Finally, Croydon’s new central supermarkets make the place safer. They bring lights, activity and people, early and late, to streets where shops had previously been closing and residents going about their business at these times had felt vulnerable. (Just look at the difference one branch of Tescos, with strong support from Pizza Express, has made to the look and feel of the west end of George Street). The number of residents in Croydon Town Centre is planned to rise and these shops are part of the infrastructure for a new urban community which will revitalise what has been for many years a hollowed-out and scary night-time environment. And supermarkets can do all this because size means power. They have the economic muscle to rent costly locations, transform them, then make a profit from them, changing the cityscape and making it work better for everyone. Or would you prefer a betting shop?

The history of the supermarket is deeply entwined with the history of our borough

There’s one more reason why Tesco Town Croydon should be celebrated, not deplored. The history of the supermarket is deeply entwined with the history of our borough. Supermarkets have revolutionised shopping well within living memory, for there was a time when it was a long and laborious chore, invariably performed by women, involving trudging between numerous outlets and repeated queuing for different items. When the first supermarkets opened, shoppers flocked to them for the excitement of the experience then stayed as customers for the liberation they brought. (It is, of course, still possible to shop the old-fashioned way, browsing in a farmers’ market, or wandering along a road lined with independent stores. I do not doubt the enjoyment to be gained there, by those with the income and the leisure time to do so).

And where did this revolution begin? Why, in Croydon, of course! The first self-service Sainsburys store opened here in June 1950. As ever, London’ brightest borough led the way – and long may we continue to do so.

Now – this piece has taken ages, we’re out of milk again and it’s half-past ten at night.  Isn’t it lucky that isn’t a problem at all?

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Terry Coleman

    As an old geezer it goes right against the grain to say this, but you are absolutely spot on right with this article Liz.

  • Chris Clark

    When I first started coming to Croydon as a visitor about 4 years ago, I remember trudging around in the snow at about 6.30pm trying and failing to find anywhere that was still open to sell me milk. The case against supermarkets has a lot going for it, but the ability to meet an unplanned need is something we should celebrate.

  • Anne Giles

    Wonderful article and I agree – could not do without our local Sainsbury’s.

  • Alessandro Zambelli

    You can’t argue with the convenience, and quality is acceptable across the board. If the only options were corner shop crap or supermarket mediocrity I’d be 100% with you. It’s the stuff in between (the baker, butcher and fishmonger of myth and the Shire) that have been squeezed out. Why can’t I have all three types dammit!

    Tesco and Sainsbury’s, but especially their smaller, faux-artisan, post-supermarket “Metros” and “Locals” are a 21st century wonder. Masters of disguise, they are unsurpassed in infiltrating the existing urban fabric. I remember when once feted architects like Nick Grimshaw would be commissioned to design astonishing machines of consumption like the Camden Sainsbury’s. Later, anonymous designers squeezed out pseudo-barn monstrosities like Sainsbury’s on Streatham Common. Now, having learned their lesson, mini versions of themselves appear overnight amongst and surrounding us.

    But, isn’t it also just a little bit depressing to think that many people will believe that the astonishing culture and variety of something as seemingly mundane as, say, Italian salami is summed up by “Try Me!” £1 packs of pre-cut mediocre-for-the-foreign-market Milano Salami – why bother going on an adventure to Terroni in Clerkenwell, Camisa & Son in Soho or even La Spezia in South Croydon? And this is just one example which interests me for, ahem, obvious reasons. These are of course rather niche concerns – but it’s the pretense that Tesco brings you the world that rankles. Nothing wrong with their veg, milk or cottage cheese though.

    Actually I’m pro-supermarket (and your elegantly argued article will help me sleep a little better at night too) – I even have a morbid fascination to discover what orange delights Stelios holds in store for us – but so many? Really? As Gandalf also said, “fly, you fools!”

    • Liz Sheppard-Jones

      I’m no foodie but I reckon you can make the case that supermarkets have brought us the world (although not, as you say, the best quality in the world). Perhaps it’s a generational thing – I’m old enough to remember the 70s when pasta was considered exotic. Consider the account in Jay Rayner’s latest book (A Greedy Man In A Hungry World, published by Harper Collins 2013) of how this critic, journalist and uber-foodie’s self-confessed metropolitan snobbery was challenged by the discovery of a selection of balsamic vinegars in a supermarket in Blackpool. Not bad, Tescos!

      If you’re interested in the book, there was a great review of it by Paul Dennis in the Citizen a few weeks back – highly recommended.

      • Alessandro Zambelli

        Bugger. Your argument was flawless after all.

        • Liz Sheppard-Jones

          Damn RIGHT! :-D