Shopping smarter, the BBC way.

There was an interesting program on the BBC last night. It wasn’t completely original, I saw something similar last year but I am intrigued by the message it is giving out at prime time and the assumption that there is sufficient interest in the subject. It was titled, ‘Shop well for less’, but I don’t think that title tells the whole story of what it was about.

The basic premise, if you didn’t see it, or can’t be bothered catching it here, was to take a family that shop really badly and consequently overspend, throw in a bathroom project in their house that has been unfinished for years because they are short of cash and show them how much they could save by shopping smarter. I’m not here to comment on the detailed content or quality of the program but I am very interested in what it had to say.

I suppose there are several ways of viewing this kind of show; you could see it as a useful educational tool that explains the value of shopping more thoughtfully and questioning not just how much you buy but also what brands and whether or not you are getting value for money. On the other hand, you could view it as an anti-consumerism message and thus part of a small historic movement that has always questioned the whole concept of acquiring stuff simply because we can.

On a different level again you could say the program was encouraging us to fight back against the fierce onslaught of the advertising industry. There was an element of blind testing revealing that top brands aren’t always the best value and neither is price an indicator of quality in all cases. To the producer’s credit they also acknowledged that sometimes paying more for quality works out cheaper in the long run.

The biggest unanswered question that it left in my mind though, was would such a program have any impact? I doubt it myself. The program lasted an hour and during that time it appealed to people to think before buying and to question the claims of advertisers. In the same period, on a multitude of commercial channels, tens if not hundreds of hours of advertisements were broadcast. Millions of sales e-mails were dispatched and in the same time thousands of minds were dreaming up new ways of convincing us to buy things that we may, or may not, need. Then there are the magazines we read, the bill boards that assault our senses every day and the mountains of junk mail that pile up behind our doors. All this verses a one hour TV program; it’s hardly a fair competition is it?

I do believe there might be a glimmer of hope in all this though. The fact that it isn’t the first program of its kind is encouraging, but more important still, is the time that it was broadcast and its position on a major channel like BBC1. The cynic in me believes that its main appeal might be in its voyeuristic intrusion into another family’s life so that we can all enjoy gasping with incredulity at the stupidity of the mum and dad that go out to buy winter coats for their boys and come home with bedding and clothes for themselves and the children but not the coats that they went for. Having said that, it was pretty hard hitting when it came to advertising and there were some strong messages about buying what we actually need rather than what the marketing gurus tell us we need. It’s not going to bring about the death of consumerism or drag the advertising industry to its knees overnight but it’s an encouraging step towards questioning the whole crazy business of what we buy and why we do it. There are plenty of examples of consumers winning victories over suppliers and turning the tables on who is in control of what we buy. In the 1970’s the large UK breweries were determined to phase out unprofitable and unpredictable real ale in favour of cheap-to-produce and stable keg beers. The Campaign for Real Ale was formed to combat this move and by people power alone they reversed the strategy of the suppliers completely. It is now almost impossible to find a pub in the UK that doesn’t serve real ale. Admittedly what we are talking about here is different; this isn’t just a suggestion that people should choose to buy a different product but that they actually refrain from buying a lot of things completely. That’s a much bigger ask, I agree.

Most people I talk to understand that unrestrained consumption, by an ever increasing population, on a planet of finite resources doesn’t add up. I am hoping that a program like this, being broadcast on a mainstream channel and at prime time is an indicator that challenging thoughtless consumerism isn’t quite as off the wall as it used to be. It’s only a very faint glimmer of hope but it’s better than total darkness.

Buy one get one free. If only that was an option

Buy one planet, get one free. If only that was an option


What is it like living without a car?

It’s been two weeks now since we sold our old car and we are still waiting for the new one.


That little exchange on Facebook made me smile. I have been trying to write something about the complications of living without a car but the words just wouldn’t come. I had almost given up on the subject until I read those comments above and I finally understood what is at the core of car ownership for me.

So here is the answer to the question:  What is it like living without a car?

Well it’s not such a big deal as it turns out. This probably explains why I have been struggling to write about it. I imagined that we would have all sorts of tales to tell about missed buses, taxis that arrived late or not at all or the terrible toll the experience has had on our shoes. In practice however, we have gone about our business without drama, and the only difference is that we are probably marginally fitter than we might have been had we had a car.

Friends and family have been very kind with offers of help and we have taken advantage on a number of occasions so I suppose in that sense it hasn’t been a genuine test of living without a car. If we did actually choose to abandon ownership for good I suspect the novelty would soon wear off and we would be on our own. That isn’t a dig at friends and family I should point out, it’s just inevitable that once people got used to the idea the offers of help would largely dry up except maybe in exceptional circumstances.

We have been really lucky with weather even though it has been pretty cold*. We have had hardly any rain and the winds have been mostly light. These things make a massive difference to getting about on a bike or by public transport which brings me to what we have learned and particularly that last comment about appreciating the car when we get it.

I must say that I’m not a big fan of cars in general and I struggle with the cost of them, the pollution they cause and the terrible toll in terms of death and injury that they are responsible for. The vast majority of journeys seem to take place with only the driver in the car which is a shockingly inefficient way of travelling and they isolate people from each other, stifling social interaction and turning normally level headed individuals into demonic monsters at the slightest transgression by another driver. But the one thing that I have really missed during the last two weeks has been the undeniable convenience of the ubiquitous four wheeled metal box.

As well as the convenience of the car I have also learned that a lot of us cyclists have been duped into turning the relatively simple act of cycling to the shops into some kind of cross between a sports event and a major expedition. Just look at the difference between taking the car or the bicycle to the supermarket to do a bit of shopping:


  1. Put on a coat and perhaps a hat and gloves if it’s really cold
  2. Drive the three point five miles to the supermarket in about seven minutes
  3. Do the shopping
  4. Load the shopping into the boot
  5. Drive home and unpack the shopping


  1. Remove all clothing
  2. Realise you haven’t got your cycling kit to hand so put clothing back on
  3. Assemble special cycling clothing and repeat step one
  4. Put on; padded shorts, two pairs of track pants, thick socks, merino wool long sleeved vest, cycling shirt, fleece jacket, special cycling shoes with clips to attach to pedals, overshoes to keep out nasty north east wind, waterproof jacket (just in case), buff to keep neck warm, woolly hat, helmet and winter gloves.
  5. Leave house feeling like spaceman on a moon walk and retrieve bikes from shed
  6. Attach panniers and front bag to bike
  7. Assemble locks, lights, spare inner tube, pump and tools and add to bag
  8. Cycle three point five miles to supermarket in about twenty minutes (two minutes less than it took to get ready)
  9. Lock up bikes
  10. Do the shopping whilst looking faintly ridiculous in Tour de France special winter edition outfit
  11. Reluctantly forgo best value toilet rolls which are in sixteen packs the size of a small family car
  12. Load shopping into panniers
  13. Unlock bikes, ride home against cruel headwind that has mysteriously been against you in both directions
  14. Unload shopping
  15. Put bikes away
  16. Reverse entire costume pantomime
  17. Feel smug and enjoy best cup of tea ever

Just popping to the shops

We haven’t actually got the new car yet and the forecast for the next few days is horrendous with heavy rain and strong winds so there may well be another chapter to this post in which I will declare the car to be my all-time favourite invention and offer a used Dave Yates touring bicycle for sale at a bargain price.

*Got soaked today riding to the benefit office and back!

Armed with nothing more than a shopping list.

This article on Radio 5 Live will hardly come as news to most people but it reminded me of my relationship with supermarkets and for that matter, just about any organisation that wants to sell me something. I don’t know about you but when I walk into a supermarket I feel a bit like a gladiator entering the lion’s den. Armed with nothing more than a sharp shopping list I am expected to take on the mighty power of the marketing psychologists that have laid out the store and set up the offers in such a way that my demise would seem inevitable. My carefully written note feels like a poor defence against the deadly sharp teeth and claws that I am faced with. I hesitate momentarily before entering the store and create a positive mental image of victory to boost my confidence before launching myself at the hungry beasts. Let battle commence.

Once in there I really quite like the challenge. It’s a battle of wits and wills. I like to think of it as two mighty intellects locked in mortal combat. My quest is to leave the building with nothing that isn’t on my list whilst theirs is to have me wheeling a trolley to the car that looks like somebody has just announced that there is a red warning for snow in Lancashire tomorrow and the government has just announced a 200% increase in wine tax from Monday.

If it wasn’t for this overpowering feeling that I am at war, engaged in a fierce fire-fight and seriously out-gunned, I might actually like going shopping. I might enjoy meandering along the aisles, browsing the products and selecting exotic new produce that I haven’t tried before. I might get ideas for tasty new meals from the delicatessen or the world food shelves. I could even wander into the clothing or footwear departments and treat myself to a new pair of slippers; but unfortunately it’s just too dangerous.

Buy one get one free?

Buy one get one free?

You see I know that this is exactly what the enemy is hoping for and like a carefully obscured ambush squad; the buy-one-get-one-free offers are lurking in unexpected places just poised to attack the moment I let my guard down. But I’m ready for them.

Unlike the highly trained commando who’s eyes are everywhere, on the lookout for snipers, mine remain firmly fixed on the few carefully selected items I have written down, wavering only momentarily to take in the overhead produce indicators lest I should stray into enemy territory. You really don’t want to find yourself in the electronics aisle when everything on your list is edible, believe me. I see myself as a member of the elite special forces, not only able to move swiftly, dodging bullets and grenades, but also, at the same time able to make rapid calculations based on price per unit or pence per 100 grams. The Weetabix may well be ‘LESS THAN HALF PRICE’ but I happen to know that in Lidl’s they are only eight pence per biscuit and your “LESS THAN HALF PRICE” works out at nine pence. Ha, ha! Victory to me!!

I arrive home feeling battle weary but smug. Another day, another battle and despite a mild but temporary bout of PTSD I have survived another round. Everything on my list is ticked off and as I am putting the shopping away Gill comes home and says, “Did you get any of that really nice beer that’s on special offer at just £1 a bottle?” Bugger! It wasn’t on the list.