Friday, 10 April 2015

The tale of the posh grocer and the plain grocer. With a moral for the Labour Party

The earth trembled in Britain this week. The heavens shook. We learned that one of the cheeky, cheap and cheerful German supermarket chains, Aldi (the other one’s Lidl), had overtaken top of the range Waitrose, in market share.

Upstart cocking a snoot at the establishment
Admittedly, neither has a huge share, and the difference isn’t great – 5.3% to 5.1% – but it’s nonetheless one of those watershed moments, because of the characters involved. Aldi, you see, operates out near-Spartan shops, small, a little dingy – fundamentally functional and little else. A setting that says, loud and clear, no frills – and cheap.

Oddly, though, Aldi maintains high quality for its low prices. No doubt the style of shop and the small numbers of staff help, but it also has a strategy which says that it will only sell what it can get, in good quality, in time to get to the shop. The lamb chops are pretty well guaranteed to be there each time you visit, but that particular soft drink your kids liked so much last time? Nope. They may not have been able to pick up another job lot at a fantastic price.

If you shop at Aldi, you have to plan to visit two shops. You go to Aldi first and buy everything off your list that they happen to have, knowing that it will be fresh, good and competitively priced. Then you go to one of the other grocers to pick up the rest.

Waitrose, on the other hand, caters self-consciously for the toff end of the market. Wide aisles, far more choice, pleasant light, all stock replenished as it runs out (well, nearly all), lots of air, courteous helpful staff in every aisle. And prices that frequently make your eyes water.

If you like, Waitrose is the place for antipasto, Aldi for starters. Except, oddly enough, that Aldi also does antipasto. And a great antipasto at a great price. When it has any, however, and that isn’t always.

Top of the range. And overtaken
The fact that Aldi has pulled ahead feels like a parable for our times. Many would feel more comfortable shopping at Waitrose, where the experience itself is so much more pleasant, and where you can pick up grocery bags you can feel proud to be seen with. But most people have purses that suit Aldi far better. If they’re beginning to realise that, and come to terms with shopping for quality at a good price, that has to be healthy.

It’s like our politics. We have a Conservative party led by people who feel right for power. Educated at our best private schools. Accents you could cut with a knife, and fully trained to make sure it’s the right knife. Who know how to behave in at a garden party, on a yacht or in the royal enclosure at Ascot. But may be not quite so sure about a working men’s club in a colliery village where the mine has closed down.

Many people would like to have their lifestyle and admire their easy fashionable manners. But they can’t afford them. Waitrose aspirations with Aldi pocketbooks.

They’d do far better to settle for Labour. Less up market, no doubt, but more in touch with us Aldi people. Able to deliver good quality but without costing you an arm and a leg (or perhaps I should say without costing you a social safety net in case you ever need one, or decent healthcare if you’re sick).

The only sad thing is when Labour decides to be more like the Conservatives. Aldi aping Waitrose. That’s not what gave Aldi its success, and it won’t help Labour. After all, people who want Conservative will vote for the real thing, not for the imitation.

As for people trying to sell goods far below Aldi’s quality but at at Waitrose prices, well that makes no sense at all. Unless you’re a UKIP voter.

What this week’s news about the grocers shows is how important it is to be yourself. Be proud of what you are. And do what you do supremely well.

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