Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The ascent of Waitrose Man- keeping up with the "ethical" Jones's in the Twenty-First Century Supermarket.

http://conservativehome.blogs.com/torydiary/2006/09/does_cameron_ge.html

As David Cameron's new Conservatives hold their Conference in Bournemouth, he is keen to appeal to the "fashionable middle classes" (assuming that phrase isn't a contradiction in terms!). The key to electoral success is seen as winning the hearts and votes of those middle classes who both aspire to wealth but also care….. or at least care that they are seen to care.

This important electoral demographic has already been described (tongue in cheek) as the "waitrose voter". For my purposes I will refer to the more evolutionary correct variant as "Waitrose Man".
Being at the top of the evolutionary tree he obviously knows himself to be above such variants as Neanderthal Man or the more recent Mondeo Man. A look along any British High Street shows however that both species still flourish in large numbers!

Of course I jest. To be a Waitrose Man is not an accident of birth or evolution- it is a choice and apparently an increasingly popular choice.
Let me first describe the general characteristics of Waitrose and Waitrose Man before explaining my doubts about whether he does in fact represent the pinnacle of civilisation and caring social conscience that he would like to think he is.

Why Waitrose?

Waitrose Man takes his name from the UK supermarket chain of Waitrose. Waitrose remains one of the smallest UK supermarket chains with only around 4% of total market share (giant Tesco has 30 % with Sainsburys and Asda on approximately 15 % each). Nonetheless Waitrose is deceptive as a minnow. Its market share has been consistently growing for the last 5 years (no mean achievement in the hugely competitive UK market) and while other supermarkets often have to resort to price cuts to hold customer share, Waitrose manages to grow share while still charging more for nearly every line including necessities like bread, milk and bananas.
Waitrose in undoubtedly a strong brand name and builds its reputation on the basis of perceived "quality". In many cases it stocks some unusual items which due to rarity are expensive too. In one of the main London branches I once saw an "unusual" loaf of bread that cost £4. Of course that is an exception but even the normal lines usually cost a few pence more.

In recent years Waitrose has moved beyond selling good food and a few specialist lines to marketing itself in terms of aspirational lifestyle.

Waitrose has moved from being a small quality retailer focusing on the more leafy towns to being a badge of status to the metrosexuals, the vocal socially concerned, the Observer readers who also work for a big corporation, the food snobs and the West London wannabees. In 2005 the Waitrose Foundation was formed. This is the corporate social responsibility trumpet that they can blow themselves. It is all about special stickers on avocadoes and lemons that mean funds will be set aside for school (s?) and crèche in South Africa when these fruits are purchased.

Essentially Waitrose is trying to say to a certain section of the middle classes- "Come shop with us. Let us take away the guilt of your poor Volvo driving souls. Let us put balm on your conscience that you are wealthy and live in Windsor*, Putney* and Mill Hill* while others are poor and cannot. Ye workaholics of Canary Wharf*- it is ok. Ye workaholics and drinkers from the trendy bars of Balham*- buy your Chianti from us and even Hannibal Lecter can enjoy his fava beans and census taker's liver in peace. We know you feel guilty as you drive your 4x4s and polar bears drown in the melting ice flows but if you buy a lemon with a special sticker on you will be giving 10 pence to a school in South Africa- when your friends see that at the next dinner party you can look them straight in the eye". (*all locations of Waitrose stores)

What's more Waitrose is moving the supermarket beyond the realm of just shopping. It is now a place of leisure and dining too. One of the leading branches that I have been to at London's Canary Wharf contains a bar for freshly squeezed fruit juices, a sushi bar as well as a café which certainly doesn't offer the £1.99 breakfasts you could find in more proletarian supermarkets cafs. No- this is for people who know their coffee and want to luxuriate a minute while they read their Observer, all with a clear conscience that they are doing all the possibly can to help the world unlike those lesser mortals who shop elsewhere.

All this has brought Waitrose a long way since 1904 when Wallace Waite, Arthur Rose and David Taylor opened their first small grocery shop in Acton Hill, West London. Quite appropriate roots for the store that now represents the badge of middle class social snobbery borne originally in West London !

Who are the Waitrose Men (and women)?

I have already briefly described some of the characteristics that Waitrose Men possess as well as some as their more obvious habitats.

However let me also say that not every one who shops in Waitrose is "Waitrose Man". Many older Waitrose stores exist in polite but dull suburbs of "nice towns". These are often situated in geriatric ghettoes and mainly cater to the well-healed coffin-dodging community. These senior customers have little in common with the socially concerned workaholics or West London posers who shop at the newer stores.

So I will focus on describing a typical Waitrose Man (and woman). They are generally younger but not too young-broadly in their thirties but ranging between late 20s and early 50s. Despite what they may say to the contrary they are all middle class. If they are not middle class they are either lying or lost or both. (Britain is one of the few countries where some people much prefer to be seen as working class and will argue against any middle class title despite the presence of a BMW on their driveway). They are nearly all quite wealthy (relative to the rest of the country) and are either successful "salarymen" or a running their own business. They like to think of themselves as having a social conscience. This excludes the wealthy but genuinely ignorant who've never given a second thought to global warming, global poverty or AIDS. "Philistines" may shop at Waitrose but they will never be "Waitrose Men". Due to their social conscience they would like to think of themselves as politically moderate- not exclusively left of centre but certainly embarrassed by "loadsamoney" Toryism of yesteryear. A decade ago they would have been new Labour almost to a man but now are more scattered politically with "Cameroons" anxious to recruit them.

In terms of appearance they are generally rather self-consciously informal- particularly at weekends when shopping. It's all cargo pants, combat trousers and flip-flops for him- and largely the same for her too ! "Trendy" t-shirts abound. Che Guevara is probably a little too naff and obvious these days so maybe some Chinese characters, an unusual Canadian town or failing that some phrase in a hip foreign language such as Spanish.

Children are optional but where they exist they are treated like little emperors. Bulky "humvee" style push chairs clog the aisles laden with enough equipment for an Everest expedition. A copy of the Observer may be seen secured in the webbing at the back of the pushchair. There is a trend for 3 wheelers- my correspondent on the subject tells me a company called "Maxi-cosi" has a near monopoly on this market. Annoyingly the parents may be sipping coffees as they progress round the store- maybe Americano for him and skinny latte for her.
The other obvious characteristic is that at present they are pretty satisfied with life in general and themselves in particular.

What's Wrong with all this? What is my problem?

In writing about Waitrose man I am forced to admit that he possesses many positive characteristics. He is educated, thoughtful, aware of the wider-world and civilised. So what if he is a bit self-righteous and smug? Yes, sometimes he is a hypocrite too. He may sometimes ride a bike to the office but clogs the roads and pollutes excessively with his 4*4 on the school run.
He may buy organic eggs but smacks his fat lips as he chomps his way through the suchi sucked up unseen by industrial fishing vessels that decimate marine populations.
Yet he tries to do something positive while many others do nothing at all.
I think my main problem with Waitrose Man is he only makes a token effort and he makes such a lot of noise about that token effort. Just because he can afford it he doesn't mind paying a few more pence for his lemons while this would be more of an issue to the less prosperous. But building one school in Africa from all this "lemon money" will not really change much at all.My concern is less that Waitrose shopping is pretentious but more that it makes its shoppers self-satisfied. Ultimately Waitrose is just another supermarket chain, a corporation gaining more customers by appealing to their sensibilities. Shopping at Waitrose won't change the world, it won't change any system but it may just give some well-educated, well-intentioned people the excuse they need to carry on as they are. Waitrose Man is most dangerous because of his lost potential. Waitrose Man knows there is much wrong with the world as it is. He knows about Global Warming, poverty and AIDS but when he goes to Waitrose he allows himself to feel good about himself and better than the hoi-polloi who shop in Tescos and elsewhere. He allows himself to become self-satisfied, even intoxicated by the smell of his own farts (see South Park and the Smug Episode involving George Clooney's acceptance speech).
Pigeon-holing yourself or others by the supermarket you shop at is all rather vulgar and shallow in any case. So "Waitrose Man", I promise to stop calling you that if you do something constructive in your life. If you won't, at least don't pretend that shopping at a certain supermarket makes you better than those who don't.

Waitrose Men of the world wake up- you have nothing to loose but your avocadoes!

3 comments:

Ж said...

Dear Writer,

Thank you for well researched and pleasantly written article on a social topic! I experienced a great delight reading it even not once - exquisite style and the content which is rather appealing! The more difficult question - appealing to whom? A bunch of philosophising aesthetes?

I liked the article for the style mainly and a certain literary benefits. But if we would get closer to the subject, I am not sure what is your problem?

If it is just a sketch of a cluster of the society - yes you might have succeeded describing it! But I could not see for myself what is wrong with the people you described and why their social behaviour is so unnerving to you!


‘My concern is less that Waitrose shopping is pretentious but more that it makes its shoppers self-satisfied’

What is wrong with being self-satisfied, dear Sir? I am not sure any intelligent person will be ‘self-satisfied or not based upon a supermarket trip; but if it is the case - well, I would recommend then such trips as a cure against stress and depression in modern societyJ

‘Annoyingly the parents may be sipping coffees as they progress round the store- maybe Americano for him and skinny latte for her.’

Why is that annoying people are having coffees while they are shopping? They are not singing or fighting, they are not shouting at their offspring who creates mayhem around (tesco, asda). So either here some personal sensitivities of the author towards the drink, or I need to spend a bit more time reading this post to find more intrinsic reasonsJ


‘Britain is one of the few countries where some people much prefer to be seen as working class and will argue against any middle class title despite the presence of a BMW on their driveway)‘’

Well - just a small observation, without disagreeing with the main point - if you drive BMW in Britain, you are potentially either working class or ethnic minority unless it is mini or some superb model. I thought you meant Jags at least.


He may buy organic eggs but smacks his fat lips as he chomps his way through the suchi sucked up unseen by industrial fishing vessels that decimate marine populations.

How does it different from smacking grilled ribs in Asda? Or it is just facial expression we are talking about? Next time I order suschi be it Waitrose or other place. I would have a minute of silence in remembrance of the ocean creatures!


‘Just because he can afford it he doesn't mind paying a few more pence for his lemons while this would be more of an issue to the less prosperous. But building one school in Africa from all this "lemon money" will not really change much at all’

Common sense argument but still stands - building one school is better then doing nothing at all. Also this ‘waitrose men’ (excuse me people) is a major tax payer in this country whether you like it or not. And his money are spend on many other things within and abroad. He earns money but his wit and brains! I think it is sufficient excuse to be slightly pretentious if you chose so!

All this aristocracy pretending to be at the short hand with the working class, to care and to be humble is much more pretentious at the end. But more important than the class differences which are extremely important in this country as a social topic of a chat, is the ability to think and to give. It does not matter whether you are doing it in waitrose, tesco or in your local charity shop. It is your intimate business!


‘Shopping at Waitrose won't change the world, it won't change any system but it may just give some well-educated, well-intentioned people the excuse they need to carry on as they are.’

And it will be good if they would - especially people you mean by your definition of a ‘waitrose men‘!!!


'Pigeon-holing yourself or others by the supermarket you shop at is all rather vulgar and shallow in any case. So "Waitrose Man", I promise to stop calling you that if you do something constructive in your life. If you won't, at least don't pretend that shopping at a certain supermarket makes you better than those who don't.’

I agree with the first sentence entirely. Therefore, I still do not understand why you decided to make a theme out of it!

Pure Waitrose - you overlooked one more thing - it is very useful for people who either foreign in this country or have been abroad for a while. Where else you can buy Italian sardines, Russian bread and Finnish cookies? I would not mind going to the local newsagent with the solemn face to buy what I like! But ups - it is not there!

Well, and for the last statement about avocados… I suggest next time you invite Che-Guevara and make it a bit more radicalJ Fortunately for this country these people have lots to loose and they are conscious enough not to let it go…

Waiting for your new articles!

Luis said...

Thank you Ж !!

I appreciate your feedback even though it is clear we won't agree on this subject !

Thank you for your kind comments on the writing style.

As for your disagreements on the substance you seem to have so much to say, as to justify your own blog- so I hope to hear more from you in some form.

I will try to respond to your comments as far as possible:

1) It is good for people to be self-satisfied.

Maybe, but I will always worry about a nation that gets its satisfaction from things as shallow as a supermarket or consumerism in general.

I am hoping to read JG Ballard's new book, "Kingdom Come" which touches on the subject. In it he compares the consumer society, with the social pressure to buy the same things as our neighbours as well as the advertising and slogans of supermarkets as a soft police/fascist state. I don't go that far but there is certainly more to life than shopping and consumerism !

2) Drinking coffees in supermarkets.

There was an age in Britain when it was considered vulgar and uncivilised to eat or drink in the street. I guess part of my objection comes from that upbringing.

I also consider it pretensious and decadent. Maybe there is something I have inherited from the more Protestant side of my family. I felt similarly when I saw a US General on TV in Iraq drinking a "mega-cup" of coffee while being interviewed. It is alienating in a way.

Lastly it presents a minor health and safety risk !

3) I take your point about BMWs. I've never been a particular fan. There has always been something of the estate agent about them. If I was in a position to have a big German car I would go for Mercedes Benz !

4) I agree that one school is better than none. My main argument is that a token effort by a supermarket does not make it a good reason to shop at that supermarket. You would be better off shopping at Asda and giving the money saved direct to charity. The resulting donatation would be far bigger.

Agree about pseudo working classes- Aristocrats and Middle classes should be true to themselves and avoid this inverted snobbery of pretending to be "less posh" than you really are :-)

5) Shopping at Waitrose won't change the world. I am glad we agree on this one !

But some people get so cocooned in their smugness that they allow themselves to become disconnected from the important issues in life. I am sure Waitrose shopping, conspicuous token acts of goodness is ultimately worse than dealing with the raw commercialism of Walmart and Asda. Walmart is a "monster" but we all know that and can react accordingly. Waitrose, I would argue is nothing but a wolf in sheeps clothing !

Maybe Waitrose could be equated to "moral opium". It satisfies the pangs of guilt we may feel over consumerism while not changing our hunger and merely replacing it with an addiction to smugness ????

6) Waitrose stocks foreign food

I am glad to hear it but I could also recommend countless East European and Continental shops. I bought some Russian "Hren" just this weekend in Cambridge !

Nonetheless I never criticised Waitrose in terms of quality and choice.

7) British people have lots to loose.

I agree with that. Maybe that's why we've been revolution-free for 350 years ! Nonetheless we could all gain a lot if we extended our horizons beyond Waitrose shopping, consumerism and dinner parties !

Ж said...

you would here from me very soon, Dear Luis! Well, as soon as it would be something new to read and enjoy!

Ps
1) Tremendous consumerism about the Mers car;
2) Please try and go and find Italian sardines instead of limited usefulnes of Hren with probably suspcious quality in the Eastern Europe shops :-))