James May

A supermarket shelf

Chain reaction

Once again, and not for the first time, the motor industry is in a position to show the rest of commerce the way.

It’s happened before. Henry Ford may not have invented mass production – we can look to the clock and gunsmithing businesses for that – but he did show that something once considered inaccessible to normal people could actually be affordable.

In the Fifties and Sixties, cars showed that high style and fashion could be had in an everyday consumer durable. They also encouraged the acceptance of new materials such as plastic, vinyl and even – in the door trims of the Rover P6 – Formica. More recently, and despite what the miserablists would tell you, car manufacturers have led the way in improving the dependability of the product as well as the efficiency of the means by which it is produced.

But there’s still more to be done, so now I’d like to have a look at shops.

When I was a small boy, shops were pretty much the way they had been since the turn of the century, which was usually closed. If they weren’t closed, there was a good chance they wouldn’t have what you wanted, even if it did all cost a penny.

Sadly, I’m old enough to remember the advent of the supermarket, at least up in t’ north where I was living. I mean real supermarkets; huge Sainsbury’s with great towers of fruit and bog roll stretching to eternity. I loved the supermarket when I went there with my mum to stock up for our family of six: its inconceivable inventory of stuff, all under one roof and seemingly always open.

I still like a good supermarket, but these days it’s just me and Fusker the cat, and there’s the problem. It’s a bit facile driving two miles to the great grocer’s colossus to stand in line with my meagre basket of Whiskas and pies. A smaller, closer shop would do.

Sainsbury’s realised as much, and now provides a miniature supermarket only half the distance away of the big one and probably only about a 20th of the size. Tesco has gone even further. It has really big Tescos in the wilderness, quite big Tescos on the edge of towns and town-centre Tescos called Tesco Metro. And now, at the end of my road and on the site of a former petrol station, is Tesco Local. I can almost shop there in loose robes.

But it’s still not enough, because I go to Tesco’s, buy stuff, then bring it home and store it in my own cupboards. No matter how localised supermarkets seem, there is still, in effect, an even more local one in a corner of my kitchen. But here, food goes off.

“In the Fifties and Sixties, cars showed that high style and fashion could be had in an everyday consumer durable”

The car-making business would never allow this, because for years it has been working to the principal of ‘just in time’, which means that a factory carries no significant stock of parts, and that all components are delivered terrifyingly close to the point in time when they will be needed.

Take Ford’s Michigan Truck Plant, where its big 4x4s are assembled. An articulated lorry from a seat supplier will roll up at one door of the factory building. Its tarpaulin sides are lowered, and there, in the trailer, are enough seats for maybe three cars. They are in sets of different colours, and stacked in the correct order. They are simply loaded onto a branch of the moving assembly line and, by some miracle, end up in the right position in the right cars. This happens throughout the day.

Wheels arrive at Mazda’s Hofu plant in the same way. On this line, everything from a small sports car to a large panel van is made, and wheels for all of them arrive in small batches in some uncharted corner of the complex. But with minimal intervention, they all end up on the right vehicles. If it went wrong once, every car thereafter would be wrong. But it’s always right, and I’ve never seen an MX-5 running around on the wheels from a Bongo van.

How this industrial brinkmanship is effected is one of the great mysteries of the modern world, but effected it is, and the space and overheads associated with sitting on piles of parts are saved. Once, in one of Toyota’s factories, I was truly appalled at the tiny number of mounting screws available at any one time to a man whose job it was to fit headlights to Corollas. But every time I looked again, the tub containing them had been replenished. Later in the day I discovered that I’d inadvertently put one of these screws in my pocket, and spent the night worrying that I’d brought the whole Japanese line to a shuddering and screwless halt.

Back to the local shop, where sausages are still sold in packs of six when I only want two. I buy six, and leave four in the fridge to rot. Why? Someone should hand me two sausages in the last yawning moment before I fire up the frying pan. And that gives me an idea...

I have in mind a new kitchen cupboard, one that opens into the house but also out onto the street, guarded by a simple security device. If I decide I want a fry-up, I simply turn to my computer and enter exactly what I need. Ten minutes later, when I open my just-in-time cupboard, the ingredients are there: two sausages, two rashers of bacon, one egg, one piece of bread for the toast, half a tomato, two heaped teaspoonfuls of baked beans, and a small sachet of brown sauce. How they get there I need not worry, and I need never worry that they won’t be there, either, just as headlight man doesn’t need to fret about screw supplies.

This wouldn’t be too hard to arrange. Supermarkets already deliver, but they deliver huge piles of food that go into a fridge, which is something Nissan would never tolerate, and rightly so. They’ve just come from a fridge. Why put them in another one? My scheme represents salvation for the bachelor and would free families from the tyranny of trying to decide on Saturday what they might eat the next Friday. And without the need for a fridge or cupboards, the kitchen can be smaller, and a more agreeable room, such as the garage, a little bigger.

Apparently Honda is quite flush these days. Perhaps it could buy up Spar and set to work.


James May, Column, Toyota, Mazda, Ford

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