Twilight of the Gods: Asda, Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsburys

Have you been down the Aldi recently? I ask because the chances are you have. Last time I went they were handing out free lobsters and washing your car with the tears of Cheryl Cole. Head over to Tesco and you can literally smell the stench of desperation on their staff, pleading with you to throw one extra BOGOF into their trolley, lest their kids go hungry this Christmas. Like George McFly in Back To The Future, knocking out the school bully with a fist of righteous fury (early drafts had him shooting up the school with a semi-automatic assault rifle), the worm has turned. Not only has it turned, it’s kicked Tesco in the nuts. We’re shunning Tesco, Asda and the rest – and we’re enjoying twisting the knife.

Several things are happening here. Everyone knows that Aldi and Lidl are cheaper, though you get much less choice (of shopping receptacle until 2012), less flashy displays and an altogether more chaotic environment. You also get much less of the open chicanery that UK supermarkets have been dealing in over the last several years over offers and pendulum prices.

But interestingly, something is happening in the case of Aldi and Lidl that runs contrary to all known laws of free-market capitalism – an economic system that’s been discredited but we continue to use, a bit like X-Factor. These supermarkets offer us less choice, and having been swindled, baffled and bewildered for years we’ve realised that we’re kinda happy with less choice.

More choice has made it easier for our supermarkets, privatised utilities and car-makers to blind us, to make the cheaper options more difficult to find. There are websites – many websites – that exist to explain these systems to us, so deliberately labyrinthine have they become. Simply put, the free market has been fucking us up the arse when it comes to choice. And punters have decided that they’ve had enough of being fucked up the arse, thanks very much.

You might suspect that I welcome the advent of Lidl and Aldi – and the end of the monopoly of the big four. But not really – while prices are being driven down at the moment they will rise again when Aldi and Lidl inevitably move upmarket. This is an observed phenomenon in the car industry when, every two to three decades, a shedload of budget cars hit British shores and start undercutting the established brands.

30 years ago it was Honda, Datsun (Nissan) and Toyota – now three of the biggest-selling brands in the UK; now it’s Hyundai and Kia – in actuality scarcely cheaper than the like of Ford or Vauxhall these days. Next it will be Dacia and some Chinese brands, then someone else will be nipping at their heels, probably the Indians or South Americans. The wheel turns.

Of course, another factor of driving down prices is the much-feared race to the bottom. And if you want to know what that looks like, look around right now. Wages are going down – not just against inflation, they’re actually decreasing in nominal and real terms. Jobs are scarce; demand for jobs is high, so as the value of jobs increases, the reparations decrease.

20 years we’d not have thought this possible. Again, it runs contrary to everything we’ve been led to believe about how capitalism works. But to find this unfathomable is as ridiculous as being surprised that Tesco is finally getting its just desserts – just ask Francis Fukuyama.

Aldi and Lidl will fuel a race to the bottom among supermarkets who, desperate to cut costs, will drive down the value of goods. Farmers will take another hit on the value of their yields and harvests, so they’ll cut their overheads too. That means lower quality products, lower ethical standards, corners cut and standards slashed.

This will also mean that those high-street stores that are left clinging on will be unable to compete – imagine what a year-long price war between supermarkets will do for your neighbourhood grocer, assuming there is one. Our obsession with paying less is destroying genuine choice and quality – Aldi and Lidl are more symptoms than causes, though the two are not mutually exclusive.

Here’s what happens next. The big supermarkets adapt or die. Sainsburys has space to go upmarket and fight Waitrose; Asda can move downmarket and take on Aldi and Lidl; Tesco has little choice but to accept the squeezed middle. Morrisons and the Co-Op… well. How do I know this? Because it has happened since time immemorial – or at least since we fucked off our friendly butcher, greengrocer and baker for the shiny lights of the out-of-town supermarket.

We killed our high streets, then we killed our town centres. Now it’s the turn of the massive abandon-all-hope hypermarkets that dot the edgelands and border the light industrial estates that now encircle our conurbations.

The increasingly pitiful adverts from the Big Four – and the genuinely innovative and engaging adverts from Lidl and Aldi (although the latter are nowhere as near as good as they used to be) – are not the last gasps of a dying system, they’re the sclerotic coughs from a economic framework that destroys value in the name of cost.

Having said all that, Aldi does a remarkably good line in cheap Malbecs and Riojas. Cheers!