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Shopping in hard times
The anxious, deliberate work of staying afloat
By Jack Dulhanty
Yesterday at 9am in Salford Shopping Centre. The insectile hum of ventilation systems mixed with the muzak of supermarkets, charity shops and pawnbrokers. People drifted; sunlight crashed through the glass ceiling; a queue threaded its way out of a Greggs.
I walked into Save A Lot. It’s a discount store where you can get spaghetti, a mattress and a Playboy-branded extra-thin condom all on the same aisle. “Have you been getting any new customers?” The cashier stood for a second, considering my question. Not really, he said. But when he listens to people chatting in the queue “they only talk about bills”.
Yesterday saw the biggest increase in domestic energy prices in living memory, as the price cap rose by half overnight. Energy company websites crashed as thousands tried to submit meter readings. The Resolution Foundation think tank calculates that the energy price increase will push five million households in England into “fuel stress” – a term for those spending 10% or more of their income on energy bills, after housing costs. It’s expected that four out of five of the poorest households will be in fuel stress, stretching already thin budgets to breaking point. In Salford, the 18th most deprived local authority in England, 11% of households are already considered fuel poor.
Adele walked into Save A Lot pushing her youngest son, Phoenix, in a pram. She started looking at chocolate and sweets – she was buying some for Phoenix’s birthday – then doubled back to grab a basket. Her blonde hair was scraped back in a ponytail, and she fed Phoenix chicken nuggets that he had to hold with two hands.
Adele is a single mother of three: Elijah, Benjamin and Phoenix. Elijah, her eldest, has multiple disabilities, including hypermobility – a condition that causes joint stiffness – so she has to keep the heating on at all times so he isn’t in pain. On top of that, he has regular appointments on the other side of the city, which she drives him to, but rising fuel costs are making that harder. "It used to cost me £40 a week to fill it (the car), now it's £70."
Before having Phoenix during the pandemic, Adele was a mobile carer, but the demands of her three children now means she can’t work, which leaves her even more vulnerable to rising costs: "they say they're upping benefits, which I'm stuck on at the moment and hate. But everything else has gone up as well, so we're still going to be on our arse,” she says, as she absent-mindedly yet lovingly presses her index finger against the tip of her son’s nose.
She usually shops at an Asda in Swinton, but came to Salford Shopping centre for better value. She can get a few things from Save A Lot, then the rest of her food shopping at Iceland, then cheaper meat from the butchers. She laughed about the stresses of making ends meet while also ensuring the welfare of her children. But, it wasn’t enough to cloak her anxiety, the multiple spinning plates reflected in her eyes: it’s Phoenix’s birthday, Elijah has physio, and she’s still waiting to hear back from an incontinence team who are meant to be visiting. The bills are rising, and she won’t be able to get back to work until Phoenix is in nursery and Elijah’s appointments slow down: "I can't explain it all,” she says after a pause, “it's just everything".
The last time I was in Salford Shopping Centre I was reporting a piece about the living conditions in Briar Hill Court – the residential block the shopping centre surrounds. I remember passing through the centre each day to enter the block, taking the elevator to the floor I was last on the day before, and working my way down.
The spot Salford Shopping Centre finds itself in is a kind of forgotten hinterland. Not quite Chapel Street, not quite Media City. It feels like a still image of Salford before its steroidal development, a Salford my dad and his dad would recognise. These areas – Pendleton, Ordsall, Weaste – haven’t seen the same investment as other areas of the borough, and they’re the areas in which much of Salford’s poverty is concentrated. According to the 2019 multiple indices of deprivation, these were the areas that slipped into the 1% most deprived neighbourhoods in England.
This typifies the imbalanced impact of the energy price hike across the city. Energy prices are like what economists call a “regressive” tax, because poorer households will have similar energy bills to more affluent ones, despite having much less income to pay for them. In Worsley, where 13% of children are living in poverty, many residents won’t even have to change their summer holiday plans to accommodate the energy rise. In Ordsall, not far from Salford Shopping Centre, where 59% of children grow up in poverty, the rising prices will hit many families like a catastrophe.
“I’m scared,” said Katie, who had just angled her double buggy out of the single door exit of Heron Foods, a frozen food shop. She pays for gas on a pre-payment meter, so she won’t know how much her energy price will have increased until next month. Regardless, she’s started to adapt to make savings. She’s buying pre-mashed potatoes to save the gas it would take to boil potatoes to mash herself. And she spent yesterday going from shop to shop looking for the cheapest nappies, and now knows somewhere she can get them for £1. “Luckily, because I'm not working, I can go out and find the cheapest things.”
In Quality Save are Darrel and Claire, who are followed by their son and daughter. They have six children altogether. Darrel spoke a lot about the mental drain of scrutinising each item that he puts in his basket, then thinking about it again. Is he sure he can’t get it cheaper somewhere else? "It used to be like: 'just grab this, grab that’, now you've got to really think about what you're going to buy and what you're not.” Whether it’s food, diesel or clothes for their kids, there’s a sub-level murmur of stress surrounding every purchase, and it’s exhausting.
"The cost of living is ridiculous,” says Claire, “we've got six children, we both work and it's just going to get worse". Darrel is an agency worker for truck companies and Claire works behind a bar, both precarious positions with wages unlikely to rise in tandem with climbing costs.
"It's payday today so we're getting a bit more,” says Claire. Her daughter interjects, motioning her open palm toward the ceiling as if looking into the future: "today we're buying a bit more, but tomorrow we could be scrapping for one piece of bread.” We all laugh, and then we stop laughing.