I went shopping for veg and came home with a saxophone
Published 21/10/2015 | 02:30
Can you both love and hate something at the same time? The subject of my conflicting feelings is the discount supermarket chain, Lidl.
It's hard to believe it's just 15 years since the first Lidl shop opened in Ireland. The company was founded in Germany in the 1930s as a grocery wholesaler. Its first retail store was opened in 1973. The company now operates over 10,000 shops across Europe, with 143 of these in Ireland. It is still privately owned by its founder Dieter Schwarz and his family, whose Schwarz group reported a strong 7pc increase in sales in 2014 to €79.3bn.
Lidl's share of the Irish grocery market has been building and currently stands at about 8pc, which is similar to its fellow German discounter Aldi. These two, along with the three main supermarket chains Musgraves, Tesco and Dunnes, now account for 90pc of the Irish grocery market.
Isn't that a phenomenal figure? €9 out of every €10 we spend on groceries is spent in these Big Five.
My burst of love for Lidl came when, on a recent rare occasion that the TV remote ended up in my hands, I stumbled across the second series of RTE's Taste of Success.
Sponsored by Lidl, it's a food innovation competition which carries a prize of €100,000, with the winning product being sold in Lidl stores nationwide. €100,000 is a life-changing purse.
What gives this competition added appeal is that the contestants are mainly food enthusiasts rather than professionals.
They are ordinary people who are just doing something slightly different. Judge Catherine Fulvio chose as her finalist an Italian style hotpot because it was "family friendly". Afterwards, I thought: 'I could do something like that.'
But, then, my eyes nearly popped out of my head in disbelief when I saw the TV ad for Lidl promoting itself as 'local'.
In the ad, a small, chubby, balding guy - as Cork actor Ciaran Bermingham describes himself - cheerily tells us how he likes to do everything local including shopping local.
He explains how this used to involve a lot of tearing around but he can now get it all in his "local Lidl".
Though when my eyes had popped back in I couldn't help admire their audacity and consumer awareness.
Local is the current buzz word in food marketing.
It conjures up wholesome images of quality produce, grown nearby or made in small batches, supporting a network of indigenous family businesses and thus an integral cog in the community.
What of the closure of vast numbers of small family-run grocery shops that were also a valuable social asset to the community as Lidl and other multiples have swept in?
However, the growth of multiples has been in response to consumer demand. So what is Lidl's appeal?
The shops have a no-frills approach. Low priced, own-brand, good quality groceries are displayed in their original delivery boxes and staffing levels are minimal.
Traditional Irish grocery shops and, indeed, Irish businesses in general usually have a strong personal relationship with customers.
This extends into the community where they lend their support to whatever is on in the locality. Lidl help one main charity and sponsor something big like Taste of Success.
But there is another side to Lidl's business which keeps people coming in - the weekly specials, which are housed in the middle or 'man' aisles. This is mainly the non-grocery stuff you never knew you needed because, generally, you actually don't. These are heavily promoted on TV, glossy brochures and across a range of newspaper titles.
The internet is full of stories about people who went in for milk and come out with a hedge trimmer. One guy wrote of buying a stick object for cats to sharpen their claws, horse boots and solar pond lights. He didn't have a cat, a horse or a pond.
I wouldn't be drawn in by the cheap Irish produce because, as farmers ourselves, I know such low prices are unsustainable for producers.
In a presentation to the Joint Oireachtas committee on Agriculture in April, IFA vegetable chairman Matt Foley said the cost of production for an average grower is 55c/kg for carrots and 52c/unit for cabbage.
But I have been seduced by the specials, with purchases including a bird-watching telescope and a saxophone. Yes, really. Once inside, I admit that I would usually pick up some essentials, including fruit and veg.
Meanwhile, the recent announcement by Lidl that it will pay staff a minimum of €11.50/hour from next month, as set out by the Living Wage technical group has been hailed as a victory by the unions.
However, IFA president Eddie Downey said this news will "ring hollow in the minds of farmers. Hundreds of small family run vegetable suppliers have been forced out of business by the relentless pressure of retailers like Lidl to do more for less."
The cost of our groceries is not just borne at the checkout. But for all my righteous indignation, I know this article will be more of a help than a hindrance to Lidl. As Oscar Wilde said, "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about".