Forget Marmitegate, Brexit isn’t changing how we shop

Commercial companies may be in a panic, but hysteria is not warranted

BY Constance Watson | ConstanceWatson   /  14 November 2016

Brexit has propelled many of us into blind spirals of panic (#Marmitegate). Times are indeed uncertain, but such hysteria is largely unnecessary, and has infected the consumers amongst us with acute vigour. Ironically, of course, we are still a member state, waiting with baited breath for Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50. But that hasn’t halted the Brexit effect.

So first they came for the foodstuff, with Marmite falling foul to media sensationalisation. Brexit had robbed us of a national treasure, stripped us of our favourite breakfasts and irreparably ruined our larders’ stockpiles. For all of 24 hours. Consumer goods supplier Unilever, Marmite’s parent company, reacted to the pound plummeting by increasing product prices by ten per cent and supermarket chain Tesco then removed Unilever products from the shelves. Marmite swiftly became the figurehead of all Brexit’s apparent evils. The whole affair was a Big Fat ‘I Told You So’ from Tesco bigwigs, who had publicly opposed an Out vote in the months preceding June. As with all I Told You Sos, it was quickly forgotten, and breakfast order was restored. It was The Last Supper for supermarkets, Brexit was blamed, and Unilever played Judas Iscariot. Fortunately, like Jesus, Marmite came back from the dead. But for one tumultuous day, the fact that no one purchases more than one pot of Marmite per year was completely overlooked, and supermarket shelves were stripped of the spread.

Despite the temporary period of marmite mourning, the scandal made made us pull back the blinkers and look forward. Yes, there will be unexpected consequences that derive from Brexit. Yes, we need to be prepared. But we can do it: our love for our national treasures endures, and similarly our patriotism ensures that we are willing to protect what we hold close and to stand strong.

Then they came for our cars, and this time the victim was Nissan. Rather than the obstinate childishness of the I Told You So, the Nissan fiasco employed the characteristics of playground finger-pointing. Last month, Japanese car manufacturer Nissan announced that it was to build the new Qashqai and X-Trail SUV models in Sunderland. The move would create thousands of new jobs, and dramatically boost the British car industry. Theresa May announced that the move was a ‘vote of confidence,’ showing ‘Britain is open for business and that we remain an outward-looking, world-leading nation.’ But our European leaders weren’t so sure. So they ganged up against us, and accused the British government of foul play. Brussels requested details of the deal between Nissan and the UK government – they wanted proof. The crisis has since diffused, but it was yet another example of hysteria and disbelief surrounding Brexit. Here was an excellent deal, presented on a silver platter, but the Doubting Thomases among us rejected the possible merits. Have we been so conditioned to believe in Brexit’s ills that we are blind to any of its commercial virtues?

Perhaps. But again, just as with Marmitegate, the Nissan hype served to demonstrate our capabilities. Anything Europe can do, we can do too. Nissan’s new car plant will mean that the UK will build more cars than Italy. Nissan, a Japanese company, is choosing to operate here, on our small island. We can work with global partners despite our decision to leave the EU. And we will.

Finally, last week, they came for our smalls. Beloved retailer Marks and Spencer has announced that it will be closing up to 60 of its stores, with boss Steve Rowe saying that the company was ‘operating in uncertain times’ and ‘consumer confidence remains fragile.’ It wasn’t long before everyone’s favourite scapegoat was held to blame. Brexit was accused of murdering the high street. The halcyon days of purchasing beloved comfy vests and woollen tights are over – and Brexit is to blame. But in this, we forgot about high street competition. M&S’s dwindling brand strength was pushed to the back of our minds, and instead, commentators jumped on Brexit. Yes, times are uncertain. But inertia and stagnancy will drum the final nail into M&S’s coffin, not Brexit. We need our thermals now more than ever.

Whilst the demise of M&S is indeed wretched, the rise in online shopping is more accountable than Brexit. New communications and new technologies are changing the way that we shop: we are becoming more dynamic, more demanding and more techie. This is no bad thing, particularly when translated to a more global environment. Our consumer habits will change, but the new political landscape will become more flexible, as it strives to meet our demands.

So one thing is clear: commercial companies are in a panic. However, the hysteria is not always warranted. Commercial habits and cultural trends will evolve. They would have anyway. Certain behaviours may alter in unforeseen manners. But let us approach is crises by seizing the opportunity that it brings, by examining what it says about Britain on a global stage, and moving forwards. Carpe diem.