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Why I won't be mourning the demise of supermarket deli counters

Some British supermarkets are calling time on their fish, meat and deli counters, but my honest reaction is not one of sympathy

Sainsbury's says falling customer interest has led to fish, meat and cheese counter closures in stores 
Sainsbury's says falling customer interest has led to fish, meat and cheese counter closures in stores  Credit: Peter Nicholls

I won’t be weeping into my tub of peaky taramasalata at the demise of supermarket fresh food counters, as much as I’m appalled at the prospect of more job losses in the current circumstances.

With Sainsbury’s the latest in a long line of British supermarkets calling time on their fish, meat and deli counters, my honest reaction is not to mourn their passing but to ask: what took them so long? 

The whole idea of these counters has always seemed a bit of a conceit. After all, they’re ersatz versions of authentic market stalls and independent shops, designed to lure us in with the false promise of an artisan food shopping experience.

They’re completely different beasts to the vibrant bustling counters in many European supermarkets, where demanding home cooks expect – and receive – specialist advice and the best selection of produce in the store. That’s because in many cases these counters are the real deal.

“Instead of just opening up and destroying the high street, supermarkets approach the best local butcher and fishmonger and invite them to set up shop inside,” explains a British pal who lives in France. “It’s a win-win in most cases. Our local supermarket is marvellous.”

In Britain, consumers have started to catch on that supermarket counters are little more than window dressing, a kind of marketing schtick. Often, there’s a wider and superior choice of produce available in the aisles. And far from offering expert advice, the counters in my neighbourhood can be so understaffed as to provide no service all.  

A fish counter at one supermarket near me mostly resembles the Mary Celeste; one or two souls might hover patiently for a while before drifting off to find what they need pre-packaged in the chiller cabinet.

It’s a Catch-22 for supermarkets, for sure. To win back customers, they need to invest significant amounts in training and staffing, so they can match high street fishmongers, butchers and delicatessens in terms of service and expertise. But that investment is difficult to justify when shoppers are giving these counters a wide berth.

Some industry analysts say the biggest factor in the passing of the supermarket counter is our desire for speed and convenience – we just want to dash around with our trolleys and not waste time waiting to be served by humans. 

But I have a feeling – or perhaps it’s more of a hope – there’s more to it than that. The pandemic has reignited our love for our high streets and underscored the urgent need for us to support the independent retailers in our community. It’s reported that sales at butchers in April and May shot up by as much as 50% and remain higher than usual.

Some supermarkets like Waitrose and Morrison’s are resisting the trend and vowing to remain committed to their traditional fresh food counters.  But at the other extreme, Asda plans to replace its meat and fish counters with concessions offering sushi, ‘street’ food and hot pizza.  And I say, good luck to you Asda.

It’s time we all got reacquainted with our fishmongers, butchers and deli owners – not only because they need and deserve our support, but because they offer us so much more than food.  They include specialist expertise and professional advice as part of the transaction.

Last Saturday I asked my local butcher if he would consider boning a turkey for me, as I was toying with the idea of cooking something different for Christmas lunch this year. “Of course,” he said, baffled that I’d even ask. “I can debone some smaller birds to go inside it too, if you like.”  Try asking for that at your supermarket meat counter.