‘It’s my Waitrose,’ I proudly show the lady at the checkout, tapping my first ever loyalty card. What they don’t know about my dalliances with Sainsbury’s or my stolen moments at Tesco, won’t hurt them I reason. Still, it’s a new departure for me, I think even my wife would think twice before giving me a loyalty card.
Waitrose, it seems, has been widening its customer base. It started with colourful ads bigging-up competitive pricing on brands beloved of less discerning shoppers, baked beans, oven chips and the like. None of your rich, ‘slow roasted with herbs’, Jamie and Delia style campaigns there. But then came their coup de grace: free coffee and a newspaper. They had me at ‘free’ – and like so many, for that paltry opportunity, I signed away my precious data privacy without a by-your-leave from Google who must, by now, own it entirely.
My rapture at joining the club of those ‘comfortably off’ enough to shop at David Cameron’s favourite supermarket was, quickly dampened as, the very day my myWaitrose card arrived, the shopping threshold to qualify for a free newspaper rose from £5 to £10. It was as if they had seen me, or my type, coming.
So now, coffee in one hand, I take my receipt. ‘And this for the boxes’, she puts a small green plastic disk in my hand and gestures towards the doors. There, three transparent Perspex containers brim with green disks. I look back at her. ‘For charity,’ she explains.
‘Right,’ I nod, pretending that I knew that all along and I was merely distracted by a great thought; as we intelligentsia who frequent Waitrose must often do.
I gather my shopping bags and make my way to the boxes. Little, faded, home printed signs tell me that a hospice for children, an inner city youth project for underprivileged kids and a cat sanctuary, are all desperate for my green disk. Dying children, kids imprisoned in poverty and, well, the most adorable cats you’ve ever seen. Which one do I choose? Which one?
I only popped out for a frozen pizza and free latte, now I find myself skewered on the horns of an almost Solomonian ethical dilemma.
At the exit to Asda, your biggest problem is finding the right change for the Pay and Display machine. But try to be a little aspirational, step up a notch in food emporia, and look what happens! You’re suddenly being asked to decide between easing the last moments of a dying child or helping a kid escape a longer life of poverty. How can you make that kind of call? And yes, there’s still those big-eyed, fluffy, unhappy little cats to consider. I don’t care if it’s just one little green disk, I’m still being asked to decide one is more important than the others.
It’s at this point I start to feel a fraud; that perhaps I should have stuck to Lidl and to hell with the free coffee. Maybe, if I was genuinely supposed to be there, if I read the Guardian, if I had no doubts about global warming, if I sponsored an African child or drank Fair-Trade coffee, maybe then I’d be more prepared for this sort of moral quandary. Maybe if I was a regular Waitrose customer, reassured by the price of Duchy Biscuits, instead of a chancer lured by free coffee, I’d find this sort of problem as untaxing as the Cayman Islands.
I had imagined that, just by carrying a myWaitrose card, I too might become one of the elegant, high earning, sun-dried tomato nibbling, natural customers of Waitrose. I never realised that guilt would play such a part in premium shopping that charity was an integral to the commerce. Or that you may have to play Russian Roulette with worthy causes. Is it a bullet for the struggling children or the traumatised cats? The glossy magazine, the coffee, the Waitrose aura, it just seemed as close as one could get to becoming a card carrying member of the middle classes.
I know ‘class’ is one of those unutterable things – like Swiss bank accounts, membership of Fight Club, and haemorrhoids – that you apparently only talk about if you don’t have it but Waitrose has become so iconic to aspiration in Cameron’s Britain it’s hard to avoid the consequences of a card that bestows privilege and status as well as accessibility in the way the myWaitrose card does. It’s there confidently nestled between the gold credit card and the membership to Soho House as a clear statement of values and accomplishment.
But I’m locked in my dilemma. A mother, buggy and torrent of wailing, combo hurriedly passes. She dumps two green disks in different slots without breaking stride or pausing in phone conversation before caterwauling away. So this is the price of a cup of coffee I realise. I gratefully took the slot less travelled by – and that has made all the difference.
First published in