/ 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.

It’s the boot gloss in the deli that worries me more!

We do a weekly shop. With a fridge/freezer and longer life packaging than we used to have when I was small we rarely need to have to shop mid week, unless there are unexpected guests.
Food is better than it used to be. If you enjoy food, rather than just eat for necessity, there is a much bigger variety of quality fresh food, particularly fruit, vegetables and fish. If you like the convenience of ready made dishes, as we do from time to time, they are of a far higher quality and variety at sensible prices than ever before.
There are some things that shops cannot give you though – the sweetness of home grown sweet corn, the freshness of tomatoes from the greenhouse, and the delicate flavour of a home grown cucumber. All picked just in time for the meal.

Food Shopping was far better in the past. Firstly & most paramount our beautiful Cows, Pigs & Chickens weren’t being terribly abused be it from feeding them drugs(so they make more money)r feeding them unsafe, deadly GMO Corn, again for profit., the animals don’t like it & they cause life destroying diseases. These statements have been proven by The Top Scientists in the World, they have warned Governments against the Health risks involved but the Powers that be have brushed their advice under the carpet & are putting allsorts of false information around, to fool the public!! These are the very People whom the public pay Billion’s of pounds to, to keep us SAFE!!
Before 2003 & the massive flood of foreigner’s whom suddenly replaced Britain’s working in our supermarkets. They worked far more efficiently for any wage & didn’t have the same care about What or how supermarkets were changing the quality of our food, a lot of them were working to just send money back to their Countries to help their families. I noticed quickly that instead of a week , 2 weeks or longer sell by dates on food their would only be 2 or three days. I have been infuriated deeply about this ever since & I refuse to purchase such products, unless they have a greatly reduced & I can cook it the same night. I think You ought to be able to shop for the week however, food is nearly off before You buy it. Also the Organic range is disgustingly small even though there is evidence that consuming Food that hasn’t been sprayed with harmful chemicals, from Animals that have been able to graze normally & eat Grass & haven’t been fed regular Antibiotics is far better for Ones Health FACT!! I will only eat Organic food, but its not easy, free range can mean anything, its a Inhumane & Shame on Us, for the Cruelty our Animals are being subjected to. The food on offer prior to 2003 was of a far better standard, I feel We are being subjected to the Abuse tactic: ‘Give em nowt !’ We will need to spend so much time Keeping a Roof over our Heads & food in our families mouths, We’ll have no time to spare to look into the Big Bad Changes the Government is making(for instance, demolishing our prisons & erecting Massive new Prisons, that hold Thousands of Prisoners) like what they have done in America(Lock them Up for Years & Years for petty crimes, another Human Strong Point being massively weakened, so We can be more & further more CONTROLLED !!

Just for the record, is the man in the hat in the picture at the top of this Conversation James Cagney?

I well remember how it used to be in the past when, as a small child, I accompanied my mother on shopping trips. We would go to the grocers and stand in a queue waiting our turn, then go through the same procedure at the greengrocers, the butchers and the bakers. These days I am happy that I can go to a supermarket and complete my shopping rapidly with little fuss and, because I use Sainsbury’s Fast Track system, check out fast and be on my way! Go back to the old system? No way!

Actually, I have it even easier now. Having been diagnosed as suffering fro Coeliac disease I have to look for gluten-free products. Although Sainsbury’s have a good range in-store, the range on-line is greater and more varied added to which it is easier to look of the ingredients of products without having to stand in front of the shelves for a long time trying to read the small print on the packages. Life is a lot easier these days.

David i says:
26 August 2015

I miss the small specialised deli’s and mom and pop groceries – yes some were awful…but they were made up for by those that are fantastic – super fresh food and a selection you couldn’t find anywhere else… I still search them out…I find that in many Asian food and Polish stores the prices for fresh vegetables is less and the quality is better than at the chain stores.
The supermarkets selection of vegetables I find very limited….If I buy kale, I want to buy it whole…but the only option at the super is chopped and bagged….Fruits are expensive and badly treated by the staff so that they are bruised and mouldy even in their protective containers.
Also at the chain supermarkets everything is rounded UP to the nearest Pound to make an attractive price point to the unknowing…Too often trying to find the cheapest of several options is made impossible by a differing pricing basis… either say two tins of tomatoes…one is priced according to ml and another priced according to ozs or cl…. how are youto compute the best buy?
Pet food in the supers is such a rip off..dog treats..£33.00 per kilo for something that was made from grains and fat and dried meat not fit for human consumption???? £10 for dried chicken strips in a small bag?
The same goes for processed foods like frankfurters and the like…they are often bought as a inexpensive option…but when you look at the price per kilo it is exhorbitant….How much less expensive could these items be….or better quality ingredients for the same money?
Yes shopping is more convenient today, but at what price?

The prices of pet food have been rising at as fast a rate as the pet populations have been expanding. When I was young, apart from Spillers’ Shapes, Spratts’ and Bonio dog biscuits there were hardly any specialist pet foods and the family cat and dog had to live off the leftovers from the family dinners and the scraps you could get from the butcher’s and fishmonger’s. There were tinned pet foods like Chappie, Lassie, Pal and Chum for dogs and Kitekat and Whiskas for cats but they tended to be too dear for ordinary families. The whole market took off in the late fifties/early sixties with an explosion of brands and styles, including the unappetising-sounding Minced Morsels famously promoted on TV by the popular foodie and Liberal MP with the hang-dog expression Clement Freud assisted by a bloodhound named Henry. . . . OK . . . I’ll just get my mac.

Pets eat better than many of us – and consume a good deal of the world food. Perhaps when things get tough pets should go? Hope they’re not too tough 🙂

Has anyone else noticed how good the bread is in Polish shops? Not all puffed up with air, made with a mixture of grains often with sourdough, keeps really well i the freezer and costs about £1 per large loaf. I am sensitive to the additives in most bread and have absolutely no problem with this delicious bread.