Class is a deeply embedded part of British society. Though it isn’t just about what school you went to, or whether you spend your weekends hunting foxes or racing dogs: it’s also where you shop.
Everyone knows, for example, that Waitrose and M&S are where posh people shop. And we all assume that Aldi is not a place where Jacob Rees Mogg would go to buy his quail eggs and pheasant meat, right?
But here at Gizmodo UK, we don’t like received wisdom and untested assumptions. So we thought we’d do the sensible thing: spend far too many hours crunching the data to figure an official, data driven answer on exactly what is the poshest supermarket.
How We Did It
Unfortunately “posh” isn’t a particularly scientific term. So let’s use income as a proxy: sure, there are some cultural aspects to poshness (by some definitions you need to know what all of the forks are for), but like all good classical Marxists, we believe that money is the real dividing line in society.
So we took the local authority median income data from the Office of National Statistics. This gives us the median income for every council area in the country. Imagine if you took everyone from a given city, lined them up by income order and picked the one in the exact middle of the line – that’s the median. (This is arguably an imperfect measure as regional differences are not taken into account – for example, London has a higher median wage but also has a higher cost of living, so using income is also not without problems – but it is the best measure we can think of.)
Now what about the supermarkets' data? The best dataset we could find was this from Geolytix, which contains data on every supermarket in the UK, divided up by store size and sub-brand, and so on.
Then it was a time consuming case of matching them together - we used postcodes.io to figure out which local authority most of the 13,000+ supermarkets are in, and then had to do the rest manually. We also excluded supermarkets in Northern Ireland and the crown dependencies. We’ve also amalgamated all of the different Co-ops into one, even though different regions have stored owned by technically separate companies.
And then from this data, we used the size categories and decided to only look at the 1,121 supermarkets that are between 1,400 and 2,800 square metres in floor space, on the basis that this will cut out lots of potentially weird store variations, like Tesco Local stores that are concentrated in central London, or enormous Tesco Extra stores that may have a wider regional impact. In other words, we think these large supermarkets are the sorts of places that people will go and do their weekly shop at.
So crucially, now we’ve got this data, how did we measure poshness? Simple: for each supermarket we added the median income for the area each branch is in together, and then divided by the number of branches to give us an average (mean) income for each chain. Where there were multiple branches of the same store in the same local authority, they would simply be counted that many times. So for each store we’re creating an average of the medians. Statisticians would probably have something to say about this methodology, but we think it still tells us what we need to know.
So what do the results tell us? Which supermarket is the poshest?
You might expect the battle for the top spot to be between Waitrose and Marks & Spencers, but the top spot is actually taken by a chain that many in Britain will be less familiar with: Whole Foods – the upscale supermarket that was recently bought by Amazon.
It only has two stores large enough to have been included in our sample – but as far as we can tell, all of the company’s British stores are in or near the richest parts of London: Think Primrose Hill and Kensington.
In second place, the Waitrose/M&S battle is resolved - with Waitrose by some distance having a higher average median income in its locations than its middle class rival (£562 per week vs £547). Well done Waitrose shoppers, now you can feel even smugger.
And now we get to the more ‘normal’ supermarkets, like Sainsbury's and Tesco and so on.
In fourth place is Sainsburys, which is like the kid from the rich family who still went to a comprehensive school. In fact, with an average median income of £542 per week in its locations, it is only £5 a week behind M&S.
What’s also interesting is that Sainsburys is much posher according to our measure than Asda, the company that it has recently made a bid for. While merging the two companies might make sense in terms of economics of scale and negotiating with suppliers and the like, it does make us wonder about the potential culture clash. If they choose to merge the two brands, will aspirational Sainsbury’s shoppers really want to mix with the likes of those people?
Next up is a bit of a shock: you might think that Tesco or Asda might only slightly trail Sainsburys but next up is… Aldi. No, really. The German discount retailer has an average median income in its locations of £530 per week - putting it above Tesco (£521), Asda (£519), Morrisons (£515) and Co-op (£513).
At the bottom of the list is Aldi’s fellow German rival, Lidl - at £505/week, and northern chain Booths (£503).
Yes, we feel as though our world has just been turned on its head too. How can we explain this? Have we all been judging the relative poshness of supermarkets wrong for all of these years?
We think that (as noted above) perhaps the distribution of stores could be having an impact: Booths are all in the north, where average incomes are lower, and we’d bet Waitrose is mostly in the south so that cosmopolitan Remain voters have somewhere to buy their avocados. But it could also be that perhaps discount stores aren’t just for lower incomes: posh people secretly like a good deal too.
In any case the message of this important scientific analysis is clear: don’t be surprised next time you’re pushing a trolley around Aldi, if you see Jacob Rees Mogg doing the same thing too.
James O’Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.