Just a short while ago The Guardian shared a stark report on the upheaval that the arrival and eventual cataclysmic departure of a Walmart had on McDowell County in coal country, West Virginia.
When the supercenter opened in the small county, it almost immediately replaced many of the mom-and-pop shops that had supplied residents of the area for years. The sheer size of the supermarket meant that it also served as a gathering place for residents, and the community shifted to adapt to the increased traffic with a number of bars and restaurants in the area thriving.
But once the Walmart closed, there was no one remaining to pick up the Emmental-sized holes it left in the region. This brought to mind a recent trip to Switzerland, where I stayed with an Airbnb host in the almost impossibly quaint town of Gsteigwiler, near the tourist hotspot Interlaken.
Our host Annarös was keen to point out that the village shop depended on the deliberate patronage of visitors and local residents, and how the shop in turn gave back to the community by stocking local cheeses, yoghurts, and wine from many of the villagers themselves. We were encouraged to support the store instead of a nearby supermarket, and the owner was clever enough to offer a unique range of products. While the village shop isn’t essential, it does possess a small niche that enables it to remain open—for the time being.
During the month that I was away in Europe, I spent a week driving through France visiting winemaker friends in far-flung towns. The loss of a village shop was a fact of life that almost all of the growers subconsciously brought up, as they shared rustic but delicious meals with my friends and I.
In a similar case to how the residents of McDowell County quickly accepted the Walmart due to the competitive prices, convenience, and sheer selection, many of the winemakers admitted that they too shopped at supermarkets. They also mentioned that the situation wasn’t so black-and-white, because many of the supermarkets helped to stock local artisan goods—such as the freshly baked bread that we were eating, or the slices of Morbier and Comté that came after one of our meals in Bugey.
However, the case of McDowell County was a harsh reminder of how supermarkets do more than just make our lives cheaper and easier—they also disrupt our food culture. And in the extreme case that they end up closing and nothing returns to replace them, an essential part of our communities can become lost.
In Hong Kong a kickstarter project to introduce a farmer’s market on the west side of the island failed to receive adequate funding from the public to continue. It seems strange to me, with the copious number of tote bags that egg us on to eat local, and with the fact that farmer’s markets provide tastier, cheaper food, that from Hong Kong to Switzerland we still can’t seem to make eating as local as possible a reality.
Even for those of us who live in some of the largest cities in the world, there may come a day in the very near future when supermarkets no longer exist. As shown by the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon, grocery shopping is likely to undergo a sea change.
When the rows of plastic and aluminium that line our supermarkets disappear, it’s possible that the corner shops we take for granted will too. And while a drone might be able to drop off a midnight snack delivery directly to your doorstep in 2025, each time you decide to buy that banana from a supermarket instead of the local store, it only hastens the day when the owner decides it’s just no longer sustainable to remain open.
Small rebellions like this may most likely not halt the slow creeping of artificial intelligence into our daily lives, but it might delay the introduction of such cold conveniences like this.
This article was written and shot by Anne Berry.