Target, the big-box retailer, is selling a 15-item collection of Christmas food novelties from Marks & Spencer, my all-time favo(u)rite British grocery store. The lineup, available in shops and online, is heavy on collector’s tins, including one that’s a music box and one shaped like a double-decker bus. If you, for some reason, are sick of your Christmas biscuit tins not doubling as light-up home decor, rest easy — prayers answered. For anyone else wondering why Target is importing a holiday collection from a British grocery store, let me explain.
Here is what you must know about British supermarket chains: Unlike in the U.S., where beloved regional stores have largely been consolidated into a handful of monopolies that have retained local branding, resulting in a kind of mediocre cross-country sameness, the big ones here are mostly independent and individualized in their corporate identities. And yet Britain is small enough that it is, effectively, one region, grocery-wise. All of its notable chains are national concerns.
Tesco is where you get a Cornetto at 9:50 p.m. on a Sunday night when you’re a little wine drunk after sitting in the park all day. Asda is an overgrown and less-grimy Tesco. The blaringly orange monolith Sainsbury’s represents a middling British baseline. Co-op has a bit of an everyman charm, and also they do funerals? Waitrose sits at the top of the heap, the poshest of the bunch, its branding as green as the Buck House lawns, where the king whose raspberries it sells lives.
M&S sits a little astride these. It’s spun off from its origins as the food hall of an Oxford Street department store, so its convenience food and grocery outlets, the latter still branded “foodhalls,” retain a lifestyle-adjacent feel. In the U.K., M&S has a reputation for being high-quality but pricey. (Over in its lingerie department, it was historically known for selling really good underwear.)
Announcing the partnership, Food & Wine compared M&S to its new partner, but I find it’s more Trader Joe’s than Target. Like Trader Joe’s, M&S predominantly sells its own brand of everything; its seasonal rotation of one-off novelty products is robust; it treads boorishly into alluring global foodways and lurid little rip-offs; and there’s a quirky internal narrative strewn across its grocery aisles, if you know how to find it. For example, this year M&S celebrated the 30th birthday of its mascot, Percy Pig, with a number of wacky themed products and a pink historical plaque acknowledging him at Paddington station.
So, what’s the value of bringing M&S products to Target for the holidays? RetailWire has speculated that Target is seeking to reproduce its much-heralded fashion brand collab synergy in its grocery department. M&S may be a good candidate because its products aren’t available in the U.S., giving them the rarefied sheen of Target’s many designer collaborations. For a grocery chain it has a very strong — and especially British — brand identity. One way that comes through is in how incongruously extra its Christmas bonanza tends to be. As I don’t celebrate Christmas, U.S. Happy Holidays culture has always felt a little performative. In the U.K., though, they don’t even pretend there’s anything else to celebrate. And since many modern Christmas traditions are Victorian — as in, like, popularized by Queen Victoria — M&S products bring a little of this British Christmas spirit to Target.
More powerfully, the M&S grocery arm captures the fanciful construction of Britain that makes culture its greatest export. The aisles are stocked with products like West Country Luxury Yogurt in flavors like strawberries and cream that evoke Arcadian Albion with its neon-green pastures and “Goblin Market” soft fruit bounties, and others like Indian Starter Selection Side Dish, which speak to the country’s post-Blairite and postcolonial (sort of) reformation into a modern global capital. Other British grocery chains sell international products, too, but the M&S framing makes its Britishness pointed and egregious.
These are food items embroidered, much like my writing, with unnecessary ornamental modifiers in their descriptions. Why do you need to call a plastic package of dumplings “Taste Japan”? Why not just call it gyoza? We don’t own or occupy these places, the branding seems to say, but they’re plainly exotic — so we just kind of want to consume them a little. And yet turnabout is fair play: Next time you’re at Target, pick up a little Britain (maybe a tin of Scottish shortbread, or some chocolate pinecones) with your candy cane Hershey’s Kisses. (Actually, someone please send me a pack of those.)
Perhaps you have read all this and thought, isn’t the entire United Kingdom effectively a shambles? Have they not burned through three leaders in four months? (Five if you count monarchs, I guess.) Is their economy not destroyed? Have they not totally and entirely screwed themselves? Why would we want mementos of any of that?
It’s all true, and if it’s okay to do some out-there conspiratorial speculation in the name of journalism: If I were a company with a somewhat international brand identity that had already produced a whopping Christmas inventory, and yet I were worried that I might not be able to sell it to the absolutely fucked consumers whose currency had totally plummeted, maybe I’d try to offload it somewhere it might have some cachet. Just theorizing for funsies — I have no rock-hard evidence of this. What I do have are pairs of M&S Outstanding Value underwear that I bought in 2006, and they show no signs of slowing down. So if you’re about to waste your money on things you don’t really need, it’s pretty good, this M&S stuff.