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Mourning the Death of the Supermarket Deli Counter

Over the years I have often lamented about the death of the high street and of the shops that served us, indeed I have written nostalgically about the loss of the corner shop, the grocer, the fishmonger, family baker and so on,  but today I find myself writing about the decline of the supermarket and I am quite surprised to find myself looking back nostalgically on the supermarket deli counter. 

Sainsbury’s has hit the headlines this week as it has announced it will cut 3,500 jobs as part of plans to permanently close its meat, fish and deli counters.  These counters were the supermarket’s answer to our butcher, delicatessens’, fishmongers and confectioners. Indeed the original mission of the supermarket giants seemed to be to provide everything you could find at the various grocers and shops under one roof, enticing customers away from independent shopkeepers with the promise of fresh produce, greater variety and cheaper prices.  Now, it seems that the supermarkets are themselves under threat or at least the physical stores are. 

There have been changes afoot in the supermarket fresh produce counters for sometime. Whilst the in-store bakeries are still present the cake counters disappeared many years ago and seemingly without word.  The fresh produce counters have also been changing, with the lines offered gradually reducing, especially in the case of the deli counter.

The counter closures  were explained by a Sainsbury’s spokesperson as  being part of efforts to “better reflect customer demand” which has mainly turned online. Yes, indeed the once predatory  supermarkets are now getting a taste of what it’s like to be prey as online shopping soars. 

There was a time when supermarket cheese, deli and meat counters were so busy that you had to take a ticket from the dispenser to make sure you kept your place in the queue. I  recall several staff serving and that the deli counters sold a variety of foodstuffs from  pies and tarts through to rollmop herring, jellied eels, allsorts of coleslaws, cottage cheese, pickled onions, continental delicacies  and sauces which the staff would  decant  into small pots and weigh. 

The cheeses were cut from blocks and weighed and cold meats were sliced and weighed, it was the supermarket’s version of a traditional delicatessens, it may not have been the real deal, but it afforded some choice and variety. You could at least choose to buy a slice or two of something new or that no one else in your household would like. However, the fresh produce counter has been gradually moving towards self service for a number of years with cheeses being pre-weighed and wrapped and the queues have vanished along with the queue ticket dispensers. I’ve noted the decline of these deli counters for some time and indeed when I have had cause to meander over to them I have frequently been told by staff that a piece of fish, meat or cheese is already pre-weighed and wrapped on the shelf elsewhere, that is of course if I’ve managed to find anyone behind the counter to assist me as the once busily staffed counters are now frequently unmanned. 

Whilst it is Sainsbury’s that have made the announcement that they are closing counters,  I will not be surprised if other supermarkets follow suit. It seems that we are no longer bound for self service shopping, but instead no service shopping. With self scan checkouts being commonplace now and no one to consult about your cheese, meat or fish;  it seems that we are now a society who will buy what we are told because the supermarkets will only cater for the mass taste and what is most profitable. We chose the big, shiny supermarkets over personal shopkeepers because of variety and price and now the variety is dwindling and the prices are relative between all the big stores, but now it seems we prefer to sit at home and look at pictures of food and products and order with a click of a button. We have perhaps become so far removed from the food we eat that we are happy for people to pick, pack and deliver our food, but where is the connection, where is the interaction and where is the experience in online shopping?  Everything just seems so mechanical and unmemorable when it comes to shopping – I feel it is sad especially for young children who may never get to experience food sold by real people. 

I am sad to see the deli counters of Sainsbury’s go, but I don’t miss the ones that are closing now, I miss the ones that were phased out without an announcement, the ones we needed to queue for; the ones which at least attempted to mimic the real delicatessens they replaced.

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