In itself, this is an interesting case of how even the Outer Hebrides is increasingly meshed into the globalisation ethos. Unlike much of the rest of the Outer Hebrides, the Uists doesn't have any food shop or supermarket who run deliveries; thus, online shopping through Tesco and other stores is increasingly filling a market gap/vacuum. I've been floating this topic for a while to gauge the reaction of people who live here (in other words, the people who live and shop here). The response is roughly:
- 25% think it may damage local shops.
- 75% think it may be a good thing for communities, as it will encourage the local shop to raise its game.
This last point is an interesting one. It's widely held that the most urgent issue here is the population (personally think that coastal erosion is no.1 - no land, no people - but I digress). There's lot's of speculation about why people leave for the mainland, not to return. A lack of quality research, and a usually complex mixture of reasons for each individual, doesn't provide a clear answer.
However, one influencing point that often comes up in conversation is the very variable experience of shopping here. In some places in the Outer Hebrides the situation is great, with a good selection of fresh local and more worldly food and drink products. Eriskay, with a thriving local shop, is a good example as is Uig on Lewis with its expanding delivery service and good range. At the other extreme, in certain other parts of the islands, local food shopping options are, to be blunt, dire.
Though it is doubtful anyone will get malnutrition, having a relentlessly poor and narrow selection of low quality foods must surely burrow into the mind, especially as people are aware of how different the situation is in much of the rest of the western world. This would push some people nearer to the tipping point of deciding to moving to the mainland. There's the population figure going down again.
As was argued by a resident and native of a nearby town with a negligible food option: "Just because I live in the Western Isles, why should I have to merely survive like it's still the 1950's?". Quite.
Back to that Tesco online shopping. The process is a little bit fiddly, but here's how you do it:
- Set up your Tesco account. Put in your normal home address, BUT put in the DR MacLeod depot in Inverness as the alternative address for Tesco to deliver to. Enter the DR Macleod address manually; it is:
D R Macleod
7a Henderson Road
- Shop online as you would if a resident of Inverness. You will get a fiver off your first order if you remember to type in the code (effectively meaning that the Tesco component of the delivery charge is free). Also, you can still collect clubcard points!
- Time your order for delivery from Tesco to the DR Macleod depot in Inverness on a Tuesday or Thursday before 6pm (for Wednesday/Friday morning ferries).
- Ring DR Macleod (01463 715217) after placing order to tell them to expect a delivery from Tesco and where to deliver it.
- The DR Macleod component of the deliver cost is £2.50 per crate plus VAT. It apparently comes down to £2.00 per crate if you have 10 or more crates. Minimum DR Macleod delivery charge is £10 plus VAT. A crate is v roughly 2.5 foot by 1 foot and 1 foot deep; hand these back to the delivery driver. The delivery cost means this is not suitable for small orders. Basically, the larger the order the proportionally less you will pay in delivery.
- DR Macleod are okay with delivering fruits, veg, meat, dairy. No frozen foods though. Ours arrived fine. No items damaged, only one item out of stock (we selected "no substitutions"). It meant I could have my favourites - Pizza Express Pizza's are sold through Tesco - finally.
Any concerns, speak to your local DR Macleod delivery person next time you see him.
Will this form of shopping mean the end of shops in the Outer Hebrides, if it really takes off? No. There are three big disadvantages:
- You need a computer and broadband. Many of the elder generation don't have this combination, and I can't see many of them getting it.
- The delivery costs. Not cheap (though, not exhorbitant). As well as the five pounds Tesco delivery, there is the DR Macleod delivery charge. So the minimum overall delivery charge, including VAT and not including the initial Tesco five pounds off, is £16.75.
- No frozen foods. The stuff comes over at least part the way apparently in a "cool" lorry, so things such as meat and vegetables are okay. However, frozen items cannot be handled as it isn't a frozen goods lorry. So, no ice cream, or frozen peas, or a whole load of stuff. "Mum's been to Iceland"; well, she'll have to keep going there.
On that second point; when working out the true cost of delivery against the true cost of going to a shop, you should take other things into account:
- The time spent doing the online shop, and needing to be in for the delivery.
- The time spent going to a (real) shop, shopping, and returning.
- The true cost of going there and back, either in bus fare or full car cost (petrol, wear, depreciation) which for an average car was apparently 55p per mile.
Suppose Tesco online shopping really took off in the Uists ... who would win and who would lose? Well, the effects won't be as "devastating" as at least one doom-monger has predicted - because lots of residents have been shopping at Tesco for years.
When your typical resident drives back from Inverness, there's often a bootful of goodies from one of the three Tesco supermarkets. One local resident told me about his recent return trip to Inverness where he spent 200 quid in that store, filled the car up to a crammed-full level, came back and filled up the freezer. As he pointed out, when you are paying a not inconsiderable fortune to take your car on the ferry across to Skye, you're best off getting the most out of the trip.
- Residents, especially the housebound, people who don't have cars, and people who work from home, and people who have awkward shift times (there's an ambulance driver I met who had big problems with doing shopping). It's another option, and when you live in a place that is relatively remote and services are affected by the weather, having options for your essential supplies is sensible.
- Residents who want a wider choice of food than the often samey stuff in the supermarkets here (by the way, if you are literally hungry for something different you should also check out the Uist Wholefoods range).
- DR Macleod delivery company - and any other that offers the same or similar services.
- Local population figures. If/when it becomes widely known that you can get just about anything that you can if living on the mainland, this would be a more attractive place to move to for some people. Still, in 2007, there are people with weird and utterly wrong misconceptions about the remoteness of the Outer Hebrides. It is nice when I get sent food parcels in winter though as elderly relatives worry I may otherwise starve...
- Tesco, of course:
- Good shops that provide a high level of service and convenience, especially those that will deliver good stock. The shops in Uig and Eriskay have heard many good things about, such as their quality, convenience and customer service, and think they would be unaffected. I ran our family farmshop for several years and we successfully competed against a large Tesco 3 miles away, on quality and choice of our small but very popular range of products. For example, pickled onions so hard they hurt your teeth when you crunched them, as opposed to the softer, more disappointing effort Tesco sold.
Local bus companies. There will still be a lot of old people without computers, and people who want fresh stuff and frozen stuff, to fill the buses going to the Co-op stores.
Uist Wholefoods. We've compared their catalogue to Tesco, and there is so much weird, wonderful and wacky stuff in there that Tesco don't do, and would never do, that they won't be affected.
- Van delivery services. Well, the ones that do good quality products, anyway. They hold the trump card over Tesco and other mainland stores in that they can undercut delivery charges. I think I'll always be getting my fish from Dolly's Fish Van rather than Tesco, on the grounds of quality, cost and convenience.
- The planet. Food miles and all that; most of the goods from local shops have come from the mainland anyway. On the downside, this may mean less local produce being bought. On the upside, one lorry doing home deliveries may replace 20 cars doing return journeys to the same shop (less carbon footprint).
- Shops that don't, or won't, deliver, or have restricted or inconvenient opening hours. It also doesn't look good for the often loyal staff of those shops.
- The Co-op and other supermarkets who don't add interesting new products. Don't like it (and that goes for a lot of others). Yes, their stock is okay, but after more than 2 years it can be grindingly boring. Plus, in a maddening example of bad timetabling, the bus leaves just before the fresh bread and milk comes in. In Norway, where things connect sensibly, that kind of thing wouldn't happen.
- The "Utopians"; a minority of tourists and incomers, who have an extreme mindset that the Outer Hebrides is a complete utopia, and should be preserved in some kind of bubble in isolation from the rest of the world. Typified by having a romantic and unrealistic stuck-in-1950's view of how people should and do live here, they are often horrified at things such as the Internet, air travel to the mainland, bagels and other modern things that they think should be mutually exclusive to the Outer Hebrides. Often crushed when they see the extent of globalisation, and especially how locals en-masse partake - and take advantage - of these things. I'll blog about these, with some examples, soon.
There is also the ethical question of shopping at Tesco:
Tesco aren't popular for a whole number of reasons in the UK. Some of it is the usual mistrust and outrage against a company for just being big. Some of it surrounds concerns such as their effect on smaller businesses, the unhealthiness of having a mono-supermarket culture, their aggressive approach to product acquisition and how they treat farmers. It's a complex case, with both good points and bad points and not sure if good or bad points.
So there you go. "What next?!" you say. Well, there's interesting ways of obtaining food and meals popping up all the time online. One example of many is "Just Add Heat" - you select your meals online, they provide the kitchen, utensils and ingredients, you go in and cook, take home, then stick in your freezer. Canadian only at the moment, but it's possible to copy and scale this model for any centre of population. Get innovative, work out what's convenient for people, fulfill people's foodie needs...
...and some here people are - for example, on the island of Grimsay there is now a sandwich company who will make up filled sandwiches, baguettes, whatever and send them to your desk if you work in Benbecula. Good luck to them! Perhaps sooner rather than later, if it's mid-morning and you are beavering away at work in the Comhairle or some other business in Stornoway, you could pull up a local "deli delivers" website, order online whatever takes your fancy, and it'll be delivered to your desk that lunchtime.
Perhaps we are getting to the point where, to live well in the Outer Hebrides, and have nearly the same choice and convenience as living on the mainland, you only need three things:
- a PC and broadband connection
- a generator for when the electricity packs up
- a credit card