Basket Case

For almost seventy years, British statisticians have used a “basket of goods” to help them calculate inflation. It’s a collection of commonplace items that a family might expect to buy: studying the price of the same items month after month allows a like-for-like comparison, but while it’s interesting to track inflation and see how it affects ordinary families, it’s also instructive to take a long view and see how the contents of the basket have changed over the years.

A recent BBC News magazine item did precisely this, as the annual process of reviewing what goes into a standard basket is a great way to understand the eating habits of the nation. In reality, the basket monitors all kinds of things such as televisions, cars and rail travel… but the BBC concentrated upon the food element. (I hope the podcast is available where you live; it’s quite good.) It makes for an interesting walk down memory lane for those of us who remember Smash (instant mashed potato), tinned peas, Ski yoghurt and Monster Munch.

Smash instant mashed potato

Fifty percent free! Fifty percent more… bland mashed potato. Great.

Nostalgia is fun, but a lot more can be learned from a study of the changes to the basket. It shows how much our lifestyles have changed in three generations, and it says a lot about how much the supply chain for foods has had to adapt as well.

A number of key themes were identified in the broadcast, including the rise (and perhaps fall) of the supermarket: the ‘one stop shop’ for everything was unknown back in 1947 when studies began, when shopping would have involved visits to the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, and the fishmonger. Then shops got big and moved out of town (accompanied by a rise in car ownership) but since working hours became longer, the notion of the “weekly shop” has been eroded, replaced by “grab and go” visits to miniature supermarket outlets found at railway stations, petrol stations and the like. Home deliveries are nothing new, but the Internet is another disruptive factor.

With somewhat less time being spent on the preparation of meals, and the move to more frequent, smaller shopping trips, the way in which our food is presented has changed as well. Instead of stocking up for long periods of time, customers are increasingly likely to be buying something to eat that evening, with consequences for the way in which food is processed, packaged, transported and displayed.

We’re less interested in dried, frozen or canned goods, and more likely to opt for equivalents that are chilled or sold at ambient temperature. Bad news if you own a canning factory; good news if your facility supplies ready-to-eat lettuce leaves. All of this is reflected in the notional “basket”, once new types qualify by achieving significant sales over a reasonable period of of time. Smash, for example, was invented in the 1960s but didn’t make it into the basket until 1974… where it remained until 1987 when it was replaced because customers had become more likely to choose frozen oven chips.

In addition to being increasingly money-rich and time-poor, Britons are becoming more adventurous in what they eat. Bell peppers were unknown to shoppers at the beginning of the study; can you imagine life without the humble capsicum now? Internationalisation has seen us embracing new vegetables, fruits and spices – some of them used in new ways, and others imported along with more-or-less authentic recipes. Another significant shift has been to move away from simply accepting the seasonality of produce, instead relying upon international trade to deliver things at times when they wouldn’t grow in the UK; cut flowers from Colombia, baby corn from Zambia and so on… something that would have been unthinkable before the jet engine slashed the price of fast airfreight.

Frozen fish fillets in box

Ah, the wonderfully non-specific “fish” (a sign that stocks are in decline…) but frozen food is out; chilled is cool.

The BBC chose to focus upon the food items in the “basket of goods” because whatever else happens in society and the economy, we still need to eat. Thus, despite the study beginning when post-war rationing was still firmly in place, a degree of continuity was achieved. Look closely, though, and almost everything has changed: the foods we consume, their sources, the methods of preparation, the retail outlet, the packaging… and at every step, the supply chain has transformed right along with it.

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3 thoughts on “Basket Case

  1. Interesting to see the change in shopping & eating habits but I’m not familiar with most of the brands. Our consumer price index (CPI) is known to fluctuate with the price of bananas – to the extent that they sometimes need to be excluded from the basket (e.g. when Queensland is hit by a cyclone or flood).
    And if you have travelled by train in Italy, you probably bought a ticket with lots of ‘supplements’. Tim Parks (in ‘Italian Ways’) says this is so that the country can raise rail ticket prices without affecting CPI (as the base price for slow trains stays roughly the same but these services usually run at inconvenient times so few people take them).

    • Thanks Pip! Interesting points. Changes to the CPI (and RPI) are often contentious. We’re currently in a strange situation whereby inflation seems to be non-existent, but that’s almost entirely driven by a short-term fall in the cost of petrol and diesel.

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