(james benedict brown) on the road

Ze Germans are coming. And so is Carol Smillie

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 February, 2009

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Something was different in our local supermarket this afternoon. Since moving to Glasgow last summer, I’ve rejoiced in the affordable rent, plentiful old-man-pubs and cheap local butchers and greengrocers of Govanhill. It may be a downtrodden and occasionally troubled part of the city in which to live, but it’s lively, diverse and brilliant value. Queens Park is right on our doorstep (as is our allotment) and we’re an 8 minute train journey, 10 minute bus ride or 30 minute walk from Glasgow city centre.

We do lack a decent supermarket, though.

Although we try to avoid it, the Somerfield on Victoria Road is our nearest and most convenient food retailer. Allison Street provides most of our fresh fruit and vegetables for a lot less money, and with a much more entertaining shopping experience to boot (if you overlook the fruit flies and milk that is never stored in refrigerators). But for certain things (cheap cheese, flour, free range eggs that are definitely free range, cat fod etc) Somerfield fills the hole.

We’ve know for a while that its days were numbered. The Co-Operative Group applied to the relevant authorities to buy Somerfield last year, and it looked this supermarket brand was up for the chop. And to be honest, I was delighted. Somerfield products are not competitively priced, the fruit and vegetables are rarely great quality and special offers don’t normally save me any money – they just add stuff to my basket that I could really do without. The Co-Op has a dividend programme for members and a laudable commitment to reducing unnecessary packaging on fruit and veg, and to encouraging fairtade, organic and free range products.

But not for us, it seems. Word reached the staff today, that this Somerfield will close its doors on 28 February 7 March, and re-open a week several months later as a branch of the German discounter Lidl. The interior of the store is now bedecked with sale signs.

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Is this good news? Well, yes. I remember the predecessor of Somerfield in the small market town near where I grew up. It was called the International Food Stores when I was born and became a Gateway by the time I was walking. And even then it was a depressing place, with downright cheeky pricing and a terrible customer experience (crowded aisles, hideous own-brand product design). Not much has changed: the green and blue colourscheme developed by Somerfield for its staff and stores must rate as one of the most hideously artifical and putrid colour pairings in retail.

But is it all good news? No, not entirely. Lidl are profitable and successful, but they manage it with a much tighter range of products and very few branded goods. I enjoy shopping there for store cupboard stocks, but a Lidl is no use for the specific type of pet food we use. Nor is it any good if you believe in buying organic or fairtrade products. And nor is it any good for the staff of Somerfield. I counted at least 15 members of staff on the floor of the shop this afternoon, and I’m pretty certain that Lidl will not be hiring as many when they re-open the store on 7 March.

I expected a sombre mood at the check-out this afternoon, but interupted a lively conversation between two younger employees of Somerfield. Were they distraught about receiving their notice?

Yes, but one had just served the Scottish TV celebrity Carol Smillie. She’d come to buy an evening newspaper, which happened to have a full colour photograph of herself on the front cover. Hearing my English accent, the girl at the till asked “is she famous down south as well?”

Life goes on, it seems.