Skip to content

Supermarket Sweep

The trip to the supermarket has rocketed up my rankings of fun things to do during the lockdown. In close proximity to my flat are several pillars of Britain’s venerable supermarket industry, including ASDA, Sainsbury’s, a Co-op and Tescos.

I’ve been frequenting supermarkets more often than my once-weekly grocery shop these days. That’s in part because I’ve been eating more, especially cereal and cheese scones (obviously the cornerstones of a balanced diet). It’s also because some of your planned trips are fruitless when half the shelves are empty and something you need is sold out. Finally, the good samaritan in me has been getting supplies for one of my neighbours, who is self-isolating with her son for twelve weeks due who has an underlying health problem.

ASDA’s the biggest store out of the lot – one of the superstores. The car park is normally chock-a-block from 5pm until 8pm, but as I arrived one afternoon at the start of this week, it was pretty quiet. There were a cluster of cars parked together, scrunched up next to the main entrance. The queue, however, snaked its way from the main entrance for at least a hundred metres. The policy for many large supermarkets such as this has been one in one out, resulting in an excruciatingly long wait.

The queue was one of the most civil I’ve seen. People are standing, roughly two metres apart, and all minding their own business, mostly checking their smartphones. The procession slowly but surely makes its way around the car park towards the entrance, with a bouncer regulating the traffic flow like a bouncer at a nightclub. It reminds me of those scenes you see during Black Friday purely through mental juxtaposition: this is my socialist queue to your capitalist one. A queue whose march is driven by mutual respect for each other’s needs, rather than one driven by greed.


Queueing because of greed and queuing because of need.

The sluggish supermarket queue offers the perfect opportunity for one of my favourite pass-times: people watching. And here, in the Great British institution of the queue, the spectrum of life in Cambridge is laid out before your eyes.

A middle-aged lady carefully studies her shopping list; she must be a mum because the list looks long. Everything about her is patient: the way she slowly scans down the piece of paper; how neatly she folds it back into her handbag; how she stands motionless when the queue is static, and how she glides forwards each time it moves. The precision of everyday life.

There are the students – a couple of flatmates, whose degrees have been upended and their futures shrouded in uncertainty. But right now, all they want are instant noodles. The elderly couple, whose anxiety about even being there is evident in their fixed stare towards the ground, with occasional furtive glances. They shuffle their feet slowly forward, festinating, as queue creeps forward. The single man, who has one hand in his pocket, his eyes fixed on his phone, with his thumb gliding over the screen and leaving a greasy smear in its wake.

The relative peace of the queue hid the comparative chaos within the supermarket. Things were a little more hectic. Walking down the main aisle perpendicular to the individual food aisles was like a dice with death. Trolleys were careering from either side, and before you knew it a trolly full of loo roll was all up in your personal space having snuck in through your blind spot. It reminded me of the program Supermarket Sweep which I sometimes watched with my mum – possibly the most enjoyable half an hour of TV you could ever hope for. Participants compete in a supermarket-themed quiz to add seconds to a timer. The more time they accrue, the longer they have to fill their trolleys up with as much stuff as they can at the end of the show, as they dash around the studio’s makeshift supermarket. It’s bonkers.


Supermarket Sweep. The original was hosted by Dale Winton (pictured), who sadly passed away in 2018.

Many of the shelves were bare, which does admittedly create a sense of nervous panic that we’d somehow run out. The supermarkets are the most obvious example of the epidemic of maladaptive behaviours has accompanied the spread of the virus. The widespread panic buying and stockpiling was most apparent in mid-/late-March, where rows upon rows of shelves were bare.

We’re assured that the supermarket supply chains are sufficiently robust, and the warehouses sufficiently full; that if everyone does only buy what they need, we should be okay. We’ve been told that there is plenty of food for everyone. My grandparents told me that during WW2, sugar and sweets were in such short supply that some people on their street began to chew candle wax as a snack. Horsemeat, famous for the meat contamination scandal in the early 2010s, also found its way to British tables (despite social taboos) because of widespread shortages.

I don’t think we’ll reach that stage, but what if? What if we’d start using ration books (or apps) like they did in the war? At least it’d make sure everyone gets their fair share.

There are some good things about state-enforced rationing: for example, it could encourage a more balanced diet. And having a good diet is central to any successful war effort – whoever (or whatever) the enemy is. I remember reading about the nutritionist Elsie Widdowson during our nutrition lectures. She conducted wartime simulation experiments where Britain’s food imports had been crippled by German U-boats, to see if participants could survive on British food alone. According to this article:

British food production in 1938 became the basis for the experimental diet: one egg a week (a third of the pre-war consumption); a quarter of a pint of milk a day (half the pre-war consumption); a pound of meat and 4oz of fish per week, assuming trawlers would be commandeered for patrols. No butter and just 4oz of margarine. But they could eat as much potato, vegetables, and wholemeal bread as they wanted.

The participants fared remarkably well, and avoided malnourishment, but suffered levels of flatulence which were described as ‘remarkable.’ That’s a pretty serious side effect if everyone is indoors together during lockdown.

Is it morally right to stockpile? I think there are arguments on either side. When the behaviour of people is unpredictable, you can’t rely on others to listen to messages that they should only by what they need. Here I think there is a moral justification to look out for your family and close friends. On the other hand, stockpiling stokes inequality: it’s all very well for families that can afford to buy multiple items of the same product, but what about the people who can’t? They rely on buying small amounts each time from the stocks on the shelves. They only having enough money to buy the one pack of loo roll or the one container of hand soap.

The local Sainsbury’s, affectionately termed Mainsbury’s, has a rather imposing – and in my opinion, excessive – anti-riot wooden barrier in front of the glass panes either side of the main entrance. It rudely blocks the homeless man’s usual spot, comfortably tucked away in between the trolley stacks and the glass pane next to the entrance. He now has to sit against a board of plywood whose perimeter abuts the pavement, so he juts out awkwardly to occupy two-thirds of the pavement with his back at an uncomfortable angle.

I’ve seen this particular gentleman since I started as an undergraduate at Cambridge, and I’ve been studying here for nine years. He’s still out on the streets, and it’s tragic. I don’t think he recognises me because most of the time is gaze is directed downwards. I’ve given him change several times before, although I am disheartened about how little difference it’s made. I once remember tossing him a couple of quid, after which an old bloke accosted me, questioning whether or not I was aware that “those people” spend my change on “drugs, booze or both.”

Over time, my willingness to part with change has, sadly, declined. In part, it’s because of a more acute awareness of my own finances, having overdrawn as a student more times than I’d like to admit. But it’s also because of a cynical realism that that couple of quid might make me feel better in the short term, but doesn’t make much difference to the poor fella sitting on the street.

As I passed him earlier this week, I tossed a pound coin into his cap which was unusually vacant. After a few seconds of bathing in my own self-righteous glow, I realised that I had probably violated the social distancing rules.

Further down from the Sainsburys, I’ve noticed another homeless man who I hadn’t seen before. The first time I clocked him I was on my bike waiting at a set of traffic lights, and he sat next to a sign claiming he needed money for a “taxi to go to the hospital.” I was startled by what looked like a leg injury, with dried blood visible beyond the lower border of his bandage. Since then, I’ve seen him a few times, both pre- and post-lockdown, with the same problem. Each time, his bandage is remarkably clean and the dried blood is there, just in a slightly different location. I figured that if he really had a deteriorating leg injury, he’d be pretty unwell by now.

The sceptic in me says he’s faking it, but you can’t really blame him for being inventive. Out of everyone, the homeless are hit the hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdown has left them more vulnerable than ever before, with food banks struggling to stay open with staff shortages. In some European countries, they are faced with the prospects of fines for being out on the streets.

The little Tescos and Coop sit opposite each other, just down the road from my flat. In the Tescos, the same, friendly security guard is standing proudly next to the entrance, looking out wistfully onto the street. I sometimes wonder how closely he monitors the shop itself, given his intent stare out onto the road – at the people walking past, the joggers, the cars and buses passing on one of the main arterial roads into Cambridge. As you walk in, he grins with his array of spotless white teeth and greets you with a “how you doin’.” He’s so pleasant that I sometimes feel guilty about visiting the Co-op opposite (I’m sorry, but their dark chocolate is much better).

Still, today, as I visit during the lockdown, he smiles. He still looks out onto the street and with the same fixed stare. But now his cityscape is bare. As I leave, it’s clear he’s focusing on some point in the distance. At a point in the sky close to the spire of a nearby church.

A kestrel is there, hovering in the wind. In the stillness of a city on hold, the streets have become her new hunting ground.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 664 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: