Financial advice and Sainsbury’s bacon slicer

I can dimly remember that in my early childhood, Sainsbury’s was still an old-fashioned grocery store.  You queued at the counter, and eventually it was your turn to give your order to a white-coated chap who scurried about on the other side of the counter assembling it for you.  If you wanted bacon, he’d ask a few questions: how much you wanted, obviously; whether back, middle or streaky;  smoked or unsmoked;  and whether cut thick, medium or fine.  If you didn’t know the answer to any of these questions, he’d ask about the use you had in mind for the bacon:  from this, the specification of what you needed could be deduced.

Needless to say, you weren’t allowed within yards of the bacon slicer.  You stood safely on the customers’ side of the counter, while the man in the white coat got that fearsome blade-wheel spinning.  The slicing done, your bacon was wrapped, weighed, priced and brought to you.

It sounds great, doesn’t it.  Personal service;  expertise;  bacon sliced to meet your needs precisely.  But of course, actually, it was rubbish.  The main problem was, it took so bloody long.  You might have to wait in that queue at the counter while half a dozen other customers had their orders assembled. If they were all big orders, complete with bacon and other bespoke services, you could be there for 40 minutes.  And there were other problems too.   Sometimes, the man at the counter gave you tiresome amounts of hassle, trying to encourage you to buy more bacon than you needed, or to buy expensive back when you wanted cheap streaky.  Sometimes he sliced your bacon from a tired old piece, all dried up and manky.  Sometimes he didn’t cut it very well, and half the rashers were too thin to cook properly.  And in any case, the truth was that your order simply wasn’t so special. All you wanted was eight ounces of thin-cut smoked back bacon.  All this tedious and expensive hand-cutting was way over-engineered for your needs.

Rather a lot of years later, this is not how we usually buy bacon.  Today, we pick up an eight-ounce (well, 225gm)  pack of dry-cured thin-sliced smoked English streaky, and drop it into our supermarket trolley.

Some might imagine that because we have to do this ourselves, with no white coated man, and because we don’t have the option of asking for 190 grams, or 270, or whatever, that the modern style of self-service is worse, a backward step from the old.  

But of course they’d be wrong.  It’s miles and miles better. It’s incredibly much quicker and more under our control.  It’s cheaper.  The quality of what we get is more consistent. And if we care, we can use the information on the labels to guide our choice – they’ll tell us the use-by date, the salt content, the country of origin, whether it’s organic or not, the price, and, more revealingly, the price per hundred grammes.

Whenever someone tells me how important it is that we should all go to an independent financial adviser whenever we want a financial product, I always think of those old-style Sainsbury’s and their bacon slicers.  For as long as the only way to get the bacon was to operate that terrifying machine, and for as long as the man in the white coat was the only one who knew which side of bacon was the smoked and which was the unsmoked, and which was the back and which was the streaky, then going to the man in the white coat was the only option.

But when Sainsbury’s and all the other supermarkets started pre-packing bacon, putting it on shelves we could access for ourselves as we went round with our trolleys, and giving the packs clear and informative labels that allowed us to make our own decisions, going to the man in the white coat seemed like a pointless complication most of the time.

In some very upmarket butchers and delis offering exceptional levels of quality and service (with prices to match) , men in white coats still hand-slice Iberico hams.  But for most of us, most of the time, all this tiresome palaver is as unnecessary as… well, as it would be in financial services if anyone showed the slightest interest in building a retailing business that’s actually easy for consumers to use.

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