So, another Tesco eh? Just what Liverpool needed. We mused on the likely effect of Tesco’s arrival in the Dingle on local shops last week.
But what’s it actually like? Well, predictably, it’s like an enormous version of every other Tesco you’ve ever been in; it’s actually the largest supermarket in Liverpool, covering nearly 6000 square metres and enough parking for nearly 600 cars.
When you get inside the Park Road Tesco it overwhelms with its size. It’s dizzying and baffling. Is it really as big as it looks? Where is the milk? Is that garden furniture? Exactly what can you not buy in here?
It’s tempting to compare the shop floor to the size of a football pitch, but you could certainly get dozens of badminton or squash courts in here, not to mention a great game of indoor cricket.
From Aigburth Vale, a good mile and a half away, the Park Road Tesco Extra can be glimpsed – its top floor windows sitting above Toxteth like an absurd, glowing toupe. The first time I saw it I shouted “What the fuck’s that?” in shock – half thinking that the aliens had finally landed.
The arrival of Tesco slap bang in the middle of the Dingle is sure to have a significant impact on the area, even if it’s not death-ray devastation. The area is already served by a sizeable Co-operative supermarket and a bustling, busy independent shop community. It’s hard to believe that all of these shops will survive the arrival of the largest Tesco in Liverpool.
However, what used to be here will not be missed by many. A massive, industrial-sized Mecca bingo hall with a Post Office that looked like something out of a John Carpenter film bolted onto the side.
Surrounding the bingo – once described by an elderly lady on Park Road I overheard as “a lovely little bingo” – was the desolation of concrete, ramps, steps, steel railings and abandoned flower beds that characterised 1980s retail developments. Broken glass and discarded shopping trolleys, a haven for gangs of youths. It really was a horrible place. Still, the Mecca provided a focal point for the community in the way that pubs no longer do, to the same extent at least. 100 years ago there was the Florrie for the local community; nowadays that role is taken by supermarkets.
But will the new Tesco be greeted by Dingle-ites? There’s a famed semi-mythical northern stereotype of tight-knit communities in industrial working class cities and towns that has all-but died out, but it’s certainly present in the Dingle. People know one another, the names of the shopkeepers, women enquire as to the health of families and friends of others on the bus. Of all the places in the city – perhaps the country – that might reject a hypermarket landing on their doorstep like a District 9 UFO, this is it.
But will they? On a short visit to the Park Road Tesco I did not receive that impression. The new supermarket is so vast, so all-encompassing, so bright that it seems to attract people like moths to a flame from miles around. On a Thursday night, quite late, there are families striding around as if on a night out, marvelling at the colour and symmetry of it all.
People genuinely seemed anesthetized by the sensory experience, the persuasion architecture of a building that’s subliminally influencing your actions. What’s that delicious smell wafting to me from the back of the store? I only needed milk, but there’s a great price on this flat-screen TV! Look at this row of bottles of pop – I must buy one! Without thinking about it I collected £40 worth of stuff I largely didn’t need.
Large Tesco stores like this deploy a kind of shock and awe tactic in the way they display their goods; they simply overwhelm with thousands of boxes of Frosties or tubes of Pringles or cans of Heinz. It appeals to the parts of our mind that like lists, order, neat lines. Tesco does, after all, offer degrees in retail management, which includes display management. There’s method in Marmite.
It’s common to hear the term Ballardian applied to nightmarish urban landscapes, but really Ballard was as much about the effects of these gleaming, artificial, brightly-lit edifices of society. JG would have loved this new Tesco: its enormous underground car-park; its overpowering use of colour, sound, architecture and display; its order and routine. There’s a sense that people are here to service this great building, rather than the other way around; acting out a comforting familiar ritual among fonts and colours and noises that they recognise.
And how many people there are. There are hundreds of people here as I glide around the aisles, marvelling at the scope of the offerings. Enormous buckets of muscle growth supplement; engine oil; garden furniture; bed sheets, 10kg bags of rice.
Here’s a kind of Irish fruit loaf I’ve never heard of; there are Eggs For Soldiers – donating cash to military charities for every egg sold; the rarely-spotted Roysters T-Bone steak flavour crisps. Rare brands, obscure products, deserted specialist aisles.
A family are passing by. “Dad, look!” shouts a young child, pointing at a display of pizzas as if it were Optimus Prime striding around the shop. A mother and daughter, clad in matching leopard-skin outfits and an inch of make-up, pass by on their way to the booze section. Did they dress up just to come to Tesco?
Tesco’s supporters point to the regeneration potential of bringing more people to the area, but the idea that people will come to this Tesco and then pop down the road to Soup Herb sandwiches or That Bloomin’ Flower Shop is clearly absurd. If you want a sarnie or a bouquet of flowers you’ll buy them in Tesco if you’re already in Tesco, especially if your car is parked downstairs.
Another fallacy trotted out in support of Tesco’s arrival in Toxteth was that shops on Park Road, which is a genuinely thriving shopping area in its own right, would adapt to sell things that Tesco doesn’t. Fat chance. Walking around this Mecca to capitalism it’s clear that you could do a week’s shop here and cut any further visits to B&Q, the garden centre, Holland & Barrett, Top Man, the local garage, grocer, butcher, fishmonger and a dozen other types of shop. This Tesco sells it all.
The improved access by roads simply serve to improve access to Tesco. Arguably the introduction of a set of lights has snarled up traffic even more if you’re driving up or down Park Road. We’ll see plenty of increased footfall alright – straight into Tesco and straight out again.
So where does this leave us? Well, Tesco have sourced half the new 500 full- and part-time jobs form the local community’s long-term unemployed and the former Mecca site characterised an area of Liverpool left to fend for itself for 30 years; its improvement can’t be a bad thing in itself.
We’ll see in time what the real effects are. For now the very existence of the huge supermarket in the middle of one of Liverpool’s true working-class areas gives me enough to chew on. Inevitably, while I dislike the idea of another supermarket behemoth hoovering up trade and cash and sending it back to head office or to foreign wholesalers instead of local farms, dairies and goods suppliers, the logic of Tesco cannot be ignored.
It offers us an easier, more convenient, generally cheaper life – and we live in an age where convenience is king, even though we might decry the homogenisation of retail and food. Which one of us hasn’t slipped into a Tesco or Macdonalds or Greggs from time to time when it’s simply easier to do so?
That’s the crux of the success of these places and remains the only possible way to stop them. If you don’t like them, don’t go to them. That’s as much – and as little – as can be done in a market that drives consumption and growth at every turn. We create the demand; we get the shops we deserve.
On the way out of the Tesco I let rip with an almighty sneeze. A girl stacking a shelf nearby beams a smile and essays a friendly ‘bless you’. She looks happy, despite the fact she’s stacking shelves with pork scratchings. Perhaps she lives in the Holy Land nearby and had struggled to find a job nearby. Perhaps she’s really happy that this store has opened; providing a stable job at a difficult time.
It’s an important reminder, too, that places like this are made up of individuals, people just like us. While the arrival of a square kilometre of bricks and glass, cheap meat and Corn Flakes is easy to characterise as A Bad Thing, it’s equally easy to forget that there are hundreds of people from the Dingle working here. These hundreds of people working here are, to all intents and purpose, the Park Road Tesco.
How the local community reacts to the new Tesco; and how it reacts to them will define the impact the arrival of this alien construction has on the Dingle – and tell us everything we need to know about these mega-shops and our relationship with them.