Target, the big box retailer, is selling a 15-item collection of Christmas food innovations from Marks & Spencer, my all-time favorite British grocer. The lineup, available in stores and online, is heavy on collector’s boxes, including one that’s a music box and one shaped like a double-decker bus. If you’re fed up, for whatever reason, of your Christmas biscuit tins not doubling as illuminated home decor, don’t worry – your prayers have been answered. For anyone wondering why Target is importing a holiday collection from a British grocer, let me explain.
Here’s what you must know about British supermarket chains: Unlike in the US, where beloved regional stores have been largely consolidated into a handful of monopolies that have retained local branding, resulting in a kind of middle-of-the-road identity between countries, the big ones here are mostly independent and individual in their corporate identity. And every It’s Britain small enough that it’s effectively one region, grocery-wise, and all its prominent chains are national concerns.
Tesco is where you get a cornetto at 9.50pm on a Sunday night when you’re a little wine drunk after sitting in the park all day. Asda is an enlarged and less dirty Tesco. Sainsbury’s bubbly orange monolith represents a middle British baseline. Cooperation has a bit of charm for each person, and they also do funerals? Waitrose sits at the top of the pile, the poshest of the bunch, its brand as green as the lawns of Buck House, where the king lives whose raspberries it sells.
M&S sits a bit above these. It has departed from its origins as the food hall of an Oxford Street department store, so its food and grocery stores, the latter still branded “food halls,” retain a close-to-lifestyle feel. In the UK, M&S has a reputation for high quality but expensive. (In its lingerie department, it has historically been known for selling really good underwear.)
announcing the partnership, food and wine Compare M&S to its new partner, but I find it more of a Trader Joe’s than a Target. Like Trader Joe’s, M&S mainly sells its own brand of everything; The seasonal rotation of disposable renewal products is strong; It crudely steps into attractive global foodways and small, frightening disturbances; And there’s a strange internal narrative scattered across its grocery aisles, if you know how to find it. For example, this year M&S celebrated the 30th birthday of its mascot, Percy the Pig, with a number of wacky themed products and a historic pink plaque recognizing him at Paddington Station.
So what is the value of bringing M&S products to Target for the holidays? RetailWire speculated that Target is seeking to recreate the synergy of its fashion brand collaboration in its grocery department. M&S might be a good candidate because its products aren’t available in the US, giving them the rare luster of Target’s many designer collaborations. For a grocery chain, it has a very strong — and mostly British — brand identity. One way that comes across is how much of a holiday bonanza His Christmas tends to be inappropriately tacked on. Since I don’t celebrate Christmas, the US holiday culture has always felt a bit performative. However, in the UK they don’t even pretend there is anything else to celebrate. And since many modern Christmas traditions are Victorian – like, like, popularized by Queen Victoria – M&S products bring a bit of that British Christmas spirit to the destination.
More powerfully, the grocery arm of M&S captures the illusory construction of Britain that makes culture its greatest export. The aisles are stocked with products like West Country Premium Yogurt in flavors like strawberries and cream that evoke Arcadian Albion with its neon green pastures and Goblin Market’s bounty of soft fruit, and others like the Indiana Starter Selection Side Dish that speak to the state of the state. Post-belligerent and post-colonial reform (sort of) into a modern global capital. Other British grocery chains also sell international products, but M&S’s framework makes its Britishness sharp and prominent.
Maybe you read all this and thought, isn’t the whole United Kingdom wasted? Didn’t they burn three leaders in four months? (Five if you count kings, I guess.) Wasn’t their economy destroyed? Haven’t they completely screwed themselves? Why would we want souvenirs from any of this?
All true, and if it’s okay to speculate conspiratorially out there in the name of journalism: if I were a company with somewhat of an international brand identity that had already produced massive inventory for Christmas, yet I was worried that I might not be able to sell it to the armed consumers whose currency had completely collapsed, I might try to take it down Somewhere that might have some kind of cache. Just a theory for fun – I have no hard evidence for this. What I do have are a pair of M&S Outstanding Value underwear that I bought in 2006, and they show no signs of slowing down. So if you’re going to waste your money on things you don’t really need, this M&S stuff is pretty good.