It feels like some huge conspiracy, sometimes.
There was I, cantering along the aisle looking for my usual butter when I completely lost track of what brand of supermarket I was shopping in. We have most of the usual suspects in our area and they are similar distances from where I live, so I pick and choose mostly on mood.
If I am meat shopping and not buying from our wonderful but expensive local butcher, I will tend to go to Morrisons. If I am general grocery shopping or taking my mother, I go to Tesco because she uses her vouchers there (I have loyalty cards for everywhere!). If I want nice lunch stuff or meats and cheese, then I am off to Waitrose, though I don't buy fish or meat there as they are very pricey. I bake my own bread every week so instore bakeries are of no interest to me, but Morrisons sell fresh yeast.
So, back to the butter, when I arrived at the butter counter and picked up the French item with salt crystals, it struck me that I could buy exactly the same item in just about any supermarket. The label would be different, but it would be the same shape, same size, same product, and pretty much the same price.
But it does not stop at butter.
A few years ago I noticed the appearance in one shop of double-strength, own-brand squashes. Within weeks, maybe quicker, ALL the supermarkets were stocking double-strength squash. What is more, they were and are all in the identical bottle shape.
Now, I am not one to jump at conspiracy theories, but it does rather look that they all buy the product from the same supplier, certainly in this case. And I am sure they are also doing this with other products too.
And even when they are not buying the exact same product and putting on their own-brand labels, they are certainly imitating each other.
Covent Garden Soups brought out their interesting range many years ago now, but all the supermarkets have now brought out their own ranges of premium "fresh" soups. They tend to be similar too. Tomato with Basil is a no-brainer, but I am sure I have seen Mexican bean and Thai something or other in most of the shops.
You see it on the cold-meat shelves too. Almost identical offerings of ham and pate, though I notice that Tesco has repacked its Finest pate offering recently. (By the way, guys, it is not particularly Fine; indeed, rather boring and mediocre.)
Cheese is something that has interested me recently. The gulf between really good cheese and what the supermarkets sell has been vast for many years with the supermarkets and big manufacturers even setting up their own awards so they can give their sad offerings a gold medal or two.
In more recent years the supermarkets have started stocking the genuine versions of cheese like Brie, though they still insist on selling terrible, fake, rubbish like President Brie - Don't ever buy it!
However, as with everything else, the range is almost identical in every store, though Waitrose does sell more of the good stuff and, more importantly, more British cheeses.
This is an area I would love to see addressed more. I am glad I can now buy good, Normandy, unpasteurised Camembert in most shops, but we also have hundreds of great cheeses in the UK and Ireland. Someone should do something about bringing those to the broader public at an affordable price.
So, is there a conspiracy here?
I don't think so, at least not directly. What is true, however, is that I think the big chains like to dictate what we eat and how we eat it to maximise their profits. So, they all use the same formula and that inevitably will produce the same results and end up with them dealing with the same relatively small number of big suppliers and wholesalers.
It is a pity, though. However good a product might be, they are not selling it for the love of wonderful food, but just to make money.
I know they must make a profit and I won't deny them that, but it is the wrong attitude and it leads to a public that is ignorant of how good food can be, how diverse it can be and how to eat healthily but still enjoy yourself.
What is worse, when all the chains stock pretty much the same range, we end up missing out on all the rest of the wonderful products manufactured up and down the country and across the globe that cannot afford shelf-space in the big supermarkets. Why? Because when it comes to so many products, the supermarkets don't really compete at all.