The food shopping revolution

Doing the weekly shop is something many of us barely register; it’s just one of those jobs that has to be ticked off the list, whether you enjoy it or not. After all, we’ve got to eat.

But have you ever stopped to think about how your local supermarket came to exist? It turns out, our shopping habits have evolved considerably over the years, and are set to keep on developing as tastes and needs change.

Here’s what the average shopper has had to contend with in recent decades.

Doing the rounds
Visiting and dealing with producers and traders directly used to be the norm when it came to food shopping.

You’d ‘do the rounds’, seeing your local fishmonger for the catch of the day, your butcher for a cut of meat, the greengrocer for your dry goods, veg, butter and cheese, and so on. And instead of collecting what you wanted in a basket and taking it to the cashier, you’d queue at the counter and have the shop clerk collect, weigh out and package up individual items for you.

It was social and much gentler than dashing around Coles in the quickest time possible. For a start, you’d know the shop owner and, if on good terms, could put your groceries on a tab, as well as chat to others in the queue, who, if you lived in a small town or village, you were almost certain to know.

In Australia, rationing regulations for food and clothing were strictly introduced in mid-1942 to manage shortages and control civilian consumption. Australians were never as short of food or rationed as heavily as civilians in the United Kingdom. Rationing was enforced by the use of coupons and was limited to clothing, tea, sugar, butter, and meat.

1938 first Australian supermarket?
It seems that Farr’s of Newcastle, NSW, may have become the first Australian supermarket in 1938. A number of grocery chains were already operating on a self-service model, but Farr’s was the first to advertise itself as a supermarket. Farr’s housed a range of departments including fruit and veg, seafood counter, confectionary, deli counter and baked goods. Although they had branches throughout northern NSW, only the Newcastle store was promoted as a supermarket.

The first modern supermarket was perhaps the Chermside Drive-In Shopping Centre in Brisbane, which opened in 1957 and included a Brisbane Cash and Carry supermarket. It was co-branded as Woolworths soon after it opened as they purchased the BCC chain.

The self-service trend expanded exponentially through the 1950s. Coles was also steadily growing through this time and Australian shoppers have never looked back.

Coles cafeteria
For several generations of Australians, a visit to Coles Cafeteria was the highlight of a trip to the city. The first Coles cafeteria was opened in their flagship store in Melbourne’s Bourke Street, which also housed their company headquarters. Coles claimed it was Australia’s first in-store cafeteria, although other retailers including Boans in Perth had earlier provided tea rooms.

The flagship store opened 21 March 1930 and was, at the time, the largest variety store in Australia with more than 3000 items offered for sale. The cafeteria took up an entire floor and could seat more than 1000 customers. One person recalls it as being ‘truly a sight worth seeing, with its beautifully coloured tiled walls and artistic ceilings’.

An increase in choice
With rationing a not-too-distant memory, combined with the option to suddenly be able to peruse and handle goods before buying them, it was only a matter of time before people began to demand more from their supermarkets.

A lot, for instance, is owed to America’s bagged salad revolution, which kicked off in the late Eighties and early Nineties. It saw food infrastructure and technology change rapidly, so that instead of just iceberg lettuce or, more iceberg lettuce, consumers had access to different varieties of salad leaves from across the country. Crucially, the leaves had to look and taste as fresh as they would have when just picked, regardless how far they’d travelled.

This availability of produce is increasingly stretching to cover more niche foods from around the world. Getting hold of okra, yams, a variety of chillies and herbs on your weekly shop no longer has to involve visiting specialist independents.

Superstores and self-service checkouts
When does choice get too much though? Since the mid-Noughties, we’ve seen an increase in superstores, which draw shoppers into huge supermarkets you can get lost in for hours. Sure, we can now buy ready-made sushi and indulge in 40 different flavours of ice cream on our weekly shop, but the personal touch has vanished almost completely.

Instead of gossiping with neighbours while your usual cashier hand slices your cheddar, we now swipe plastic cartons of milk ourselves, interacting (usually wordlessly) with staff only when the scale doesn’t recognise potatoes for potatoes.

Internet shopping and drone delivery
The supermarket shopping experience is always charting a path towards efficient, mechanised and impersonal perfection. Between internet food shopping (an easy way to never end up in a supermarket aisle again) and new technologies (drone deliveries are not that far away, the likes of Amazon – which has already branched into food retail in the US – are already seriously looking into it), it’s set to get even more targeted towards individual tastes.

In June 2016, Coles opened its first online-only ‘dark store’ in Melbourne. Dark stores have no customers and house only staff stocking online orders. Dark stores have become increasingly prevalent over the past five years and online shopping itself has become ever more important for consumers and industry operators alike.

However, with growing-your-own back on trend, the popularity of farmers’ markets and a surge in artisans setting up micro-breweries and bakeries, not to mention the pressure to slash our plastic consumption, the supermarket really isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to filling your fridge.

How do you feel about modern grocery shopping? Do you miss going to individual stores or do you like the convenience of having it all in one place?

– With PA

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YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.
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