It will come as no news to my compatriots, or to observant outsiders, that we Britons are obsessed with class.
Our sensitivity to our own and others’ class is particularly strongly expressed in the places we choose to shop. It’s common for self-deprecating comedians to comment on the prices and peculiarities of Waitrose, the most perceivedly middle-class option. (For non-UK readers: “middle-class” in popular usage means neither working class, nor aristocratic).
But our sense of supermarkets’ inherent poshness is quite subtle; it has at least as much granularity as the academically-accepted Goldthorpe seven-class scheme. If you were to ask Britons to rank the major half-dozen supermarkets by class, I’m certain you’d get very consistent results from any number of respondents.
Failing that, I turned to data about the incomes and political leanings of people who live near these retailers. These are both relatively crude measures of class, which is neither directly about income nor about politics. That said, the data turn out to support the implicit class ranking that I’ve been carrying around in my head all these years.
In terms of both income and Conservative-ness of the postcode its branches are located in, Whole Foods Market ranks first. But it’s a relative upstart in the UK: although it’s been present in the country for 10 years, it only has nine locations, and all of those are in London. Of the nationally established supermarkets, Waitrose comes first, of course. The rest of the ranking is somewhat unsurprising, although Tesco and Sainsbury’s swap places depending on which measure of poshness is used. As Nature Intended (which I’d never heard of before), also only has a few stores in London, which accounts for its neighbourhoods high income but low Conservative-ness.
Of course, all of this is still about the class consequences of supermarkets. If you’re landed gentry (or perhaps just an aspirationally-wellied locavore yuppie) you might be avoiding supermarkets all together. Maybe you can’t stand to be too near a retailer which clashes with your class self-perception. If you wanted to do that, how far away could you get from any supermarket, while staying in Britain? To find out, I looked for the nearest supermarkets to each of the few thousand postcode outward codes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you want to get away from particular supermarkets, you would be best off travelling to the Shetland Islands: the point furthest from 13 of the supermarket chains is there. But because there are Tesco and a Co-op stores in Lerwick, the furthest points from any stores of those two chains are the Outer Hebredies and Inverness. Strathnaver, in Northern Scotland, is the furthest from any supermarket: 53 km (23 miles) as the crow flies from the Co-op in Golspie.
In Britain, you may never be more than 70 miles from the sea, but you’re never more than 34 miles from a Waitrose.