Like 99.9999% of the rest of my fellow human beings, I have no idea how Google gets the numbers it does on its ‘results’, but I have to say that the idea of three hundred million sites sharing “sex and shopping” does strike me as a little strange. How and why did a pairing of these – to my mind at least – rather different activities come to be of even passing interest to so many people?

Okay, I know that “Sex & Shopping” was the title of a British TV documentary series about porn, and that anything that includes the ‘S’ word sells, but even when you substitute the word ‘pleasure’, it still looks as though a surprisingly large mass of people associate the process of going out to buy stuff with, well, feeling good…
Now, it would be interesting to know how many of those 129m people were men and how many were women. After all, the accepted wisdom is that the two sexes view the process of shopping very differently. The following cartoon which I came across here 
illustrates a theory that psychologist Steve Taylor explains rather convincingly in a recent Psychology Today article

10,000 or so years ago, Taylor points out, men hunted and women gathered. The first of these activities only took two or three hours per day and involved the alpha males finding and killing a beast and dragging it back to the cave as rapidly as possible, before other hunters or beasts stole it from you, or before it went bad. Meanwhile, their female mates were patiently going from bush to bush in the quest for the fruit, nuts and berries that would make up 80-90% of everybody’s diet. Obviously, some of the brightly coloured stuff waiting to be picked turned out to be poisonous and some of the apples had worms wriggling around inside them, so the women had to become skilful at taking the time and trouble to sort the good stuff from the dross.
However offensive it might be to feminists, the notion of women being hard-wired to enjoy browsing is certainly supported by the circumstantial evidence to be witnessed in the clothes and homeware sections of any mall, but… and here I’m moving to the nub of the matter, it seems fair to question how much pleasure humans of either sex get from the ‘shopping experience’ on offer at the average supermarket grocery store.

To be frank, I don’t care how many cafes Waitrose introduce into their shops or how many freshly-cooked bread smells or bunches of flowers are deployed to draw me into some of their competitors’ stores, to me – and I suspect to a great many other people – supermarkets are all about breakfast cereal, detergent, bottled water… heavy, bulky stuff I’m going to have to lug home.Yes, I love food, so I do actually sometimes enjoy the part of the shopping experience that involves exercising my finely honed powers of selection over the prawns or plums that are going to go into my basket, but to be frank, that only seems to involve a small part of the time I spend in Waitcos or Asburies. And on the occasions – the majority – when I’m in a hurry (especially when accompanied by my kids) I actually balk at the choice. If the first apples I see look sufficiently appealing and fairly priced, I may unashamedly pick up the kilo or two that I need and happily tick off an item on my list.

Belying her feminine stereotype, my partner is no fan of any kind of shopping (I actually dislike the process less than she does) and we’ve handled the fruit-and-veg-selection issue, for the moment at least, by doing the middle class thing of getting a weekly box from a nice company called Abel & Cole who even provide recipes to go with the ingredients. The loo roll, soap powder and cereals also usually arrive at our door from a supermarket van.

And then of course, we use independent butchers and fishmongers and I make forays to shop at various supermarkets and to see what’s on their shelves and in their shoppers’ baskets. Which brings me naturally to Aldi and Lidl. Probably inevitably, the Germans have already created a word for ‘shopping experience’: Einkaufserlebnis. For all I know, they may even have one that precisely describes how it feels to push a trolley around one of the German discounters’ stores. The term would have absolutely nothing to do with pleasure, other than the satisfaction of handing over less cash after your long wait at the checkout than you might elsewhere. These are utilitarian places with little to distract you from the business of hunting and gathering – even if that involves picking up unexpected items such as the frozen lobsters I saw at €5 in a French branch of Aldi last week.

For a male or female wine lover – someone who loves to cast their eyes slowly and thoughtfully over shelves packed with wine – the discounters are about as close to a pleasure dome as a railway station bookshop would be to an aficionado of great literature. But, of course most normal people are neither bookworms nor wine buffs, which is why there are now so many fewer book and wine shops on high streets across the globe – and so much online buying from the likes of Amazon. A small range of perfectly good, nicely packaged bottles, may actually suit a lot of people a lot better than the scary ‘wall of wine’ favoured by the traditional larger stores. Especially when they are really attractively priced. The extraordinary growth of the discounters – and the number of people who shop at them as well as at more premium stores – certainly suggests that the old-fashioned hypermarket is rapidly becoming the dinosaur of the retail world.

The clumsiness with which the lumbering T-Rex’s of the UK market are trying to defend themselves against the threat from the discounters is brilliantly lampooned by a Lidl advertisement noted here by blogger Dan Southern, who is also responsible for the discovery of the glorious image below from the Simpsons.
Pleasure is, by definition, an essentially personal emotion. Some people get some of their kicks out of writing blog posts like this; some, hopefully get at least a little pleasure out of reading them. Maybe desperate housewives really did often enjoy their outings to the local supermarket; maybe the colours of all those boxes and tins added something positive to their lives that they weren’t getting from daytime television or their nuclear families. But that was then and this is now. Today, for every hunter-male or gatherer-female who really wants to spend a few minutes thoughtfully selecting between a Gigondas and a Vacqueyras or a Rioja and a Navarra, I’ll bet that there are probably 20 who’ll be far happier to grab the inexpensive, award-winning Rhone or Spanish red from the tiny range at Aldidl, or simply to receive a delivery of the stuff they bought last time*. And the sooner the wine industry understands this the healthier it will be.
Nicely packaged bargain Bordeaux on sale
in Aldi, France last week

* Support for the picture I’m painting of the average wine ‘shopping experience’ comes from University of Adelaide-based academic Larry Lockshin as described in this piece by Australian writer Tony Love. According to Lockshin’s research, buyers spend 40 seconds selecting a bottle. Over 80% of purchases are based on recognition of a wine the consumer has previously bought; only half of the buyers pay attention to grape variety, region, brand and vintage. A third focus exclusively on price (though not necessarily on cheapness). And all of this came out of post-purchase research in Australia, arguably one of the most wine-sophisticated in the world. Don’t kid yourself by imagining very different results in any other country…

  1. Far from “expert” on Google Robert, but I think you're confusing “results” (simply the number of websites Google thinks have pertinence to your enquiry) with thinking that's how many people have ever searched for that term. The higher the number of search results, the vaguer your term, hence why so many websites spend so much time seeking out the “long-tailed keywords” because they filter out millions of other possibilities.

  2. Good article….. it's why independents need to change their game I think. Many are just shops with walls of wine, albeit more expensive than in the supermarkets. Damien is right though searching for items with 'and' doesn't necessarily mean that with google's search now and might as well mean 'or' in that you'll find lower down the list it's results include those missing one or other of your terms too.

  3. The wall of wine in Tesainsbury – hundreds of bottles ranging in price from £5 to £15, with absolutely no one in the store who knows or cares anything about wine, and no tasting notes. Much better to go to Majestic where the staff care, or if no time for that then Aldi/Lidl for competitively priced and consistently decent quaffing wines.

  4. Thanks Tim. As ever, I simply used the Google reference as a 'point de depart' but the question of wine and book shopping as only being a pleasurable activity for a minority remains one of my firmest beliefs. And like rugby fans dismissively discussing football, the people who enjoy those activities struggle to imagine that others could actually fail to share their preference.

  5. You make a good point. But it's also probably worth considering the benefit of separating wine from the rest of the basket (as Majestic does). When you go into a supermarket you know that the booze has to be squeezed into a £100-150 budget – for example. When you walk into a liquor store, the wine only has to compete with other forms of alcohol.

  6. “For all I know, they may even have one that precisely describes how it feels to push a trolley around one of the German discounters' stores.”

    How about “Einkaufswagendrückersunterbezahlungsselbstgefälligkeit” ?

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