An alternative to supermarkets?

Supermarkets are self-service shops offering a wide variety of food and beverages as well as household goods. Having a substantial amount of floor space, they are usually close to residential areas and seek to attract custom through a broad selection of products, competitive pricing and convenient shopping hours.

When located in urban areas, they compete for space with the local community. The impacts of their operations within localities, is not what one would wish for close to one’s home. Both in the case of supplies delivered as well as a result of the customer traffic generated.

Identifying sites outside the development zone for supermarkets creates other problems. Foremost among them is that we cannot keep losing agricultural land and other ODZ land to development of any type.

As an issue of land use planning, it has not been addressed by the Planning Authority over the years.  It is a responsibility which the Planning Authority has abdicated and left to market forces to decide.  Surprisingly Local Councils have not spoken up about the matter, notwithstanding the substantial impacts which localities have to shoulder as a result.

Each supermarket has a substantial catchment area. Most users of supermarkets travel by private car to do their shopping when it most suits them. In an age when most of us are more conscious of the fact that private car use is a significant contributor to Malta’s climate change impacts, we should factor this into land use planning considerations.

The issue ties in with the 15-minute city idea which is being floated around as an objective in various countries, notably by Carlos Moreno, the architect advising the Mayor of Paris, but also elsewhere. If this objective is attained it would be a significant contributor to reducing car-use and the associated impacts.

The 15-minute city idea signifies that land use planning seeks to ensure that basic needs can be addressed within a 15-minute distance from our home. Among other matters this would signify that we would be in a position to find all our basic needs in retail outlets in our towns and villages. In such circumstances the car would be (almost) redundant. The objective of having self-sufficient localities is attainable over time through developing 15-minute cities.

Some may argue that supermarkets provide goods at substantially reduced prices from that possible in small or medium sized retail outlets in our localities. This may be correct and would generally result from their economies of scale. It has however to be viewed also in the context of expenses incurred not only in car use but also in the resulting reduction to the air quality and the associated health consequences. Expenses incurred, at the end of the day, are not only those measured in euro, they are also measured in terms of the social and environmental costs incurred.

Many more supermarkets are being planned. Can we afford the costs involved? At the end of the day, is it worth it?

The problem is much wider than that resulting from the uptake of land, be it urban or rural. It also involves substantial impact on existing retail outlets of a small or medium size within our localities. The number of supermarkets mushrooming across the islands is squeezing these small and medium size outlets out of the market. They cannot compete in terms of price and within a short time few of them will still be around unless they can group together. If they opt out of the market, our localities, will, as a result be much worse off.

This indicates a possible solution to the problem. The small and medium sized retail outlets in our localities should get together and organise themselves properly within a co-operative framework where they can pool resources. As a result, they would be able to offer products for sale at competitive prices. They can build up an economy of scale which could withstand the onslaught they are currently being subjected to. As a result, they can remain open for custom in our localities, contributing to their self-sufficiency.

We have not given sufficient weight to the cooperative model which, if properly applied in our localities, can provide a remedy to the impacts of supermarkets, possibly reducing their need.

Cooperatives based on the democratic participation of their members are a tool which can help us address the impacts of supermarkets on our localities. It is a realistic possibility which we discard at our peril.

Carmel Cacopardo
ADPD Deputy Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 10 December 2023