Friday, 26 October 2007

Housewives Cash & Carry

This has to be one of my favourite shops in Deptford High Street. Annoying, amusing, frustrating and delightful all at once, its whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.

For a start, it has one of the most uninspiring shopfronts, offering no clue as to the delights that lie beyond. The view in through the huge glass frontage is mostly obscured by mountainous sacks of rice that are stacked up inside in great gravity-defying towers. Quite aside from its vaguely humorous name, part of its charm is the enigma of how to actually get inside. The shop front quite naturally has two doors; an entrance and an exit. More often than not, the entrance door is locked and all movement in and out of the shop has to be accomplished via the exit door, which opens straight into the back of the checkouts and is not best designed for such a use. Occasionally the management subtly signals the fact that the entrance door is locked by placing a trolley across it, but this seems to be only when they are feeling generous. Usually the only way you can discover whether it is open or not is by trying to get in.

But what about the most important aspect - the stock? Housewives' main stock is dry groceries although it does have a small fridge area at the back that occasionally has great yoghurt. But its great strength is the range and price of spices, beans and grains that are the staples in Asian, African and West Indian cooking. My particular favourites are the thai fragrant rice (one of about 30 different types of rice available in many different sized bags), the cheap and plentiful spices (even the best stocked Sainsbury's or Tesco's cannot compare in range or price) and the fact that whatever obscure type of bean or split pea your recipe demands, they will stock it! Want cashew or pistachio nuts without having to take out a mortgage? Housewives is the place!

Not all is cheap and cheerful - the shelves hide quite a few unexpected lines such as Dorset Cereals, organic olive oil, and herb and fruit teas. They have a good range of flours and baking ingredients, as well as standard tinned, dried and bottled groceries of all persuasions.

One of the things I like the most about Housewives - and also find the most frustrating! - is the fact that they don't really have standard lines. Apart from Asian staples, you can't always rely on them having the same thing on the shelves two weeks running - it's as if they go down the wholesalers and buy whatever takes their fancy. This is as charming as it is annoying - you might be irritated cos you're relying on them for your bread flour, but at the same time you're delighted by the discovery that have organic coffee on sale. And just because a supermarket stocks a certain line doesn't mean it always has it on the shelves.

The odd flash of eccentricity can be good for a giggle. Where else will you find tins of black pudding on the shelves beside tins of rice pudding! The mind boggles at what poor, unsuspecting customers think, the week they decide to try the black version of that lovely rice pudding they've been enjoying up to now...

Which leads me on to customer service. Or should I say 'customer service'! For this is not a strong point of our dear local grocery provider. Rather than investing in a proper security camera system, they like to position members of staff at the end of the aisles to stare at you while you shop. And I mean stare. These are not the same as store detectives. They do not pretend to be customers, drifting aimlessly round the shop with a basket while subtly keeping an eye on you as you browse the shelves. No, these are undisguised and slightly hostile individuals whose sole purpose is to make you feel like a career shoplifter. You may never before have entertained any notion of committing a criminal offence, but after a few minutes in Housewives, you're itching to stuff a bag of pasta up your jumper just to see what will happen! After shopping here for a couple of years, I've got used to this system and don't really notice it any more, but on the first visit it's almost comical to see how they blatantly move from the end of one aisle to the next in total synchronicity with the hapless shopper. It's actually quite an amusing game to act the indecisive browser, can't make up your mind what aisle you want to be on? Keeps them on their toes and stops them getting bored!

The checkout staff are almost as lacking in customer skills, although over the last few months I have noticed a slight thaw in the usual surliness. They've obviously now got used to me as a regular visitor, the one who brings her own bags and delights in trying to break the ice. I've even received a few returned smiles on recent visits. I have to add that there has been no direct rudeness, it's just a lack of the how-are-you-have-a-nice-day kind of thing you get in the supermarket. Which is not always welcome, especially if one is not-very-well-having-a-shit-day-not-that-you-care-thanks.

So why do I shop there? It's grubby, unpredictable, unreliable and has surly staff. I am now asking myself this very question. But somehow this place has a certain mysterious allure, and one thing for sure is that no two visits are the same.

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