/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Your view: was food shopping better in the past?

Food shopping

Do you still shop once a week, loading your car boot up with lots of shopping bags? Or are you a more a ‘little and often’ kind of person? Some of you long for days past…

Our regular Dieseltaylor says it all depends on where you live:

‘Within 10 minutes by car I have two Aldis, a third arrives soon, one Morrison, two Waitrose, two Sainsburys, and an 18 hour a day Tesco, and another Tesco. There are also two small Co-ops, and a M&S shop at the local petrol station. The closest on foot is 10 minutes. We use Aldi, Waitrose, and the Co-op in decreasing importance and shop at the first two weekly. And the farm shop once a week – but that is just over 10 minutes away.’

Steve isn’t quite as lucky as Diesel:

‘We have the opposite scenario to dieseltaylor – namely a small Tesco and a Co-op. Both these chains are consistently at the bottom of Which?’s pile, but a lot is down to individual store management – our Co-op isn’t as bad as many others I’ve been to.

‘However, with the nearest Lidl 10 miles away, they have no competition. I frequently go to the West Midlands where my lady friend lives – there’s a Lidl or Aldi on almost every street corner, so that is where I do my bulk shopping. I very seldom make a special journey to do a supermarket shop, but if I’m in the area, I take advantage.’

Food shopping in the past

John Ward points out how times have changed:

‘So many things have changed in people’s work and leisure patterns that it’s not a question of whether we have fallen out of love with a big weekly shop, it’s a case of fitting in the shopping when and where we can. With so many more people commuting to work and not controlled by a regular shift pattern life has become looser; eating out at lunchtime [or going out to get a snack and a beverage] rather than opening a lunch box means the evening meal diminishes in regularity and importance.’

Larna8 reminisces about the 1950s:

‘Apart from the social side of everyday shopping in the fifties, fridges and freezers were far from commonplace in the household. Buying fresh meat and veg, and milk etc, to use on the day was the norm. Everything was fresh. There were no freezer shops, or supermarkets. You queued up at the counter of the nearest grocery shop, usually not very large, with your list. When it was your turn you read each item in turn, and they weighed it if necessary. Then you paid them, and then went to the butcher, the greengrocer, the baker or wherever you needed.

‘There were no plastic carrier bags and people had their own shopping bag, plus a string bag for overflow items. You could get brown paper carriers with string handles sometimes. Everything you ate was fresh, and not processed or frozen. It was very social and good exercise too.’

Was food shopping a better experience in the past? Or do you think the modern supermarket experience can’t be beat?


Food shopping certainly was not better in the past. I also remember the 1950’s and I don’t recall everything being fresh. The milk came round slowly on an open dray and if you were near the end of the round it was probably at 10-15 degrees C. Hygiene in shops was not so good. Proper temperature control was almost impossible. A lot of food like biscuits, cheese, and bacon, was handled by the grocer with no protection or hand-washing between serving other commodities like flour and washing powder. There were no use by dates. Eggs were often ‘off’. I could go on . . .

The big breakthrough in shopping was self-service which speeded up shopping, gave the customer more control over what they bought, and introduced better storage, packaging and presentation. But early self-service ‘supermarkets’ were still only doing basket trades. They were mainly double or triple units on the traditional high street with no car parking so people still had to go shopping two or three times a week. There was no need for large trolleys until the majority of households had a motor car which was not really until the end of the 1960’s/early 70’s. Eventually bigger sites were acquired in town centres and new car parks sprang up, and then the edge-of-town stores with level parking started to dominate, which many people think is where it all started to go wrong because they were too big and the range of goods sold was so wide they threatened the independent shops. The wheel is turning full circle again and we now see a growth in smaller stores which are closer to the original supermarkets of the 1960’s except they usually have some car parking alongside and are not integrated with other shopping.

While the rise of Aldi and Lidl has received much attention, something that was not picked up in previous Conversations is the amount of provisions shopping that is going on in ‘pound stores’. While customers need to consider the overall value offer [because pack sizes and qualities may not be equivalent to similar products in mainstream stores], there is no doubt they represent a sizeable and popular segment of the weekly shop for many households, and they tend to be located in town centres alongside other shops, post offices, betting shops, banks, budget clothing and shoe shops, and near to stall markets.


Thank you John for a most interesting and accurate resume of our past, exactly as I remember it. I particularly like your analysis of the changing trends, all very true. Certainly in my present circumstance it is a little and often, not necessarily at the best price, but at the most convenient store available.


Dear John, Very interesting and accurate report of our past. I think your analysis is true.
Nowadays its great for people like me to have their orders delivered after I order on line each week. It makes people with mobility problems able to be more independent.


What I find fascinating is how multi-layered and ‘class-stratified’ shopping has become over the last few decades. The one good thing I would say about shopping in the 1950’s is how egalitarian it was, especially in grocery, greengrocery, fishmongery and hardware stores. Most people were not averse to using market stalls and itinerant traders to make the pennies go further, and department stores particularly appealed to the masses with everything from dolls eyes and flypapers to napery and drapery [via millinery and haberdashery on the second floor].

Some shopkeepers advertised that they were ‘high class butchers’ but I don’t know whether that was because they came from the top drawer themselves or appealed to customers who could run a monthly account. I suppose there was always a bit of one-upmanship among butchers because many people could hardly afford to eat meat. Other shops promoted themselves as ‘family butchers’ but I didn’t like the sound of that; I always thought the meat we ate should come from an animal. Interestingly, butchers’ shops seem to have survived better than most other high street food shops like grocers, dairies, greengrocers and fishmongers, and wool shops, toy shops and tailors.

Today shopping has divided into Waitrose and M&S at one end and Poundland etc at the other. The Waitrose customer won’t be seen in Poundland and vice versa. Similar gradations exist in the intermediate echelons. There was no snobbery about Woolworth’s and they sold excellent bacon.


John, you remember “Eggs were often ‘off’. I could go on”. In university holidays I used to work for a small wholesale grocer, packing and delivering orders for, mainly, corner shops. Commodities ranged from tinned goods, sugar, cheese and so on stored in old premises on several levels shared with several families of rats. Not a good start. He held one of the restricted licences then as an egg packing station. That involved collecting eggs from the farms, inspecting them (a light behind showed if they were OK or not) and then packing them on trays in large boxes that were date stamped. Quite regularly these boxes went past their date without being sold, so the eggs were simply transferred to a new box with a new date.

I am now very particular about the source and quality of food we buy. I regret to say I am wary about small shops.


John, you remind me of things you used to be able to buy in places like hardware and haberdashery.

Until recently, we had a local hardware store that stocked all sorts of odd things. They probably didn’t sell well but if you needed an o-ring or screw, he had them. You could go in and say “I am looking for something to do……* and he would have all sorts of suggestions. While we were in the shop we usually came out with an additional purchase as it was a great place to browse. Unfortunately he has retired, the new owner has had a clear-out and now sells the same common stuff as every other hardware store with plastic containers outside. I have now been there several times and come out empty-handed.

Recently I needed a small hinge and the only place to get one was on the internet that took 2 purchases before I got the right one.

When I installed a new optical drive in my PC, it came without screws. The local hardware store and B&Q had none and I had to find them out of other equipment.

I do miss some of the old-fashioned shops where you could buy anything.


We used to have a local hardware store just as you described. However odd the requirement or how sketchy the description, the attendant always seemed to find a suitable product. Unfortunately it went the way of the others and closed down last year. The day of the specialist shop seems to have come to an end, sadly.


Despite having frequently criticised supermarket pricing tactics, self-service checkouts and poor customer care, I have no doubt that I prefer having modern supermarkets Improvements in food hygiene are the biggest step forward in my view.

One of the weaknesses of the self-service system is that occasionally shoppers will leave fresh food in the strangest places. I have seen cooked meat left alongside shoe polish. 🙁 Staff will have been trained to discard food treated in this way but ‘helpful’ customers can return it to the food shelf. Time-temperature indicators can alert shoppers to incorrect storage of food but I’m not aware that any UK supermarkets are using them.