What is it that makes New World St Martins ‘the benchmark’ for all other supermarkets? Alex Casey asks members of its unofficial fan club.
Alexander Harmer is cradling two plump persimmons in his hands like precious jewels. “The shining beacon of winter fruits,” he muses as we stroll through the resplendent produce section of New World St Martins. We pass the ruby red cuts of meat in the deli section. “Fillet steak?” he gestures to the $56.49 a kilo slabs. “That’s the boss dog right there.” In the next aisle, he throws his arms wide open, as if ready to embrace the temperature-controlled air of one of New Zealand’s most expensive supermarkets. “See that? To there? That’s all teas!”
If he sounds enthusiastic about New World St Martins, that’s because he is. Harmer is one of around 500 members of the New World St. Martins: Unofficial Fan Page, a Facebook group established in 2016 to “celebrate our favourite supermarket in New Zealand: St Martins New World, Christchurch.” Started by Moses Robbins, a digital marketing expert and musician, the page is full of selfies in front of the supermarket, videos of buskers jamming out, reminders about free in-store promotions and stunning exterior shots of the supermarket at sunset, framed by a rainbow, or in the chilly Christchurch night.
In one post, the group even celebrates their incredibly wholesome-looking “Inaugural New World St. Martins Unofficial Fan Club Team Shop” with an Ellen-at-the-Oscars style selfie. Robbins is pictured in the foreground, proudly wearing his own promotional New World cycling jersey. “Our randomly selected lucky winner was Cathy here who scored $18 towards her shopping experience. Awesome!” the post reads. “We learned heaps from this experience and are already planning the next one which will be even bigger and better.”
Robbins explains that the page began as a joke – his way of celebrating the bizarre phenomena of people being forced to go to the supermarket at all. “We all just go to these giant supermarkets that have no real connection to the land, they’re either Foodstuffs or Progressive, and people walk around so weirdly that even when you know people, you just say ‘hi’ and then you say ‘bye’ and then you see them in the next aisle,” he laughs. “Just the absurdity of all of it made me think ‘why not amplify all of this and create an unofficial fan page?’”
Now that the group has 500 members, Robbins clarifies that he does also firmly believe that New World St Martins is the best supermarket in the country. “The flow and the ease of use in and out is really efficient,” he says, praising not just in the car park but the layout of the supermarket itself. “I think they were one of the first places to not force people through the produce section,” he explains. “They opened up that gap so you can walk in and cut straight through to the counter, which is great for people just grabbing some milk or whatever.”
The picturesque location is also of note – you can shop while gazing through the huge glass windows at the rugged Port Hills. “I think the way the supermarket is south facing is interesting too,” adds Robbins. “Because of the way the sun moves across Christchurch visually, when you pull up from the hillside it looks like a scene.” He also likes that there is a strange “mini strip mall” alongside it, with a pharmacy and a Paper Tree. “It just feels like the optimal supermarket, the benchmark – every other supermarket is too big, too awkward, or too wide.”
Walking around New World St Martins with Harmer, it’s easy to see what everyone’s on about. The aisles are roomy, and are split in half lengthways providing an extra arterial route. There’s often a busker outside, a tasty snack being sampled inside and great vibes throughout. The selection itself is staggering – a tremendous gluten free and vegan section, rows and rows of delightful seed packets, and an excellent range of zero alcohol options. On the community noticeboard, tooth gem technician ‘Dazzle Teeth’ promotes her services, as does a reiki therapist and a real estate agent named Brian May (not that one).
“It just seems a lot lighter, somehow,” Harmer tells me as we enjoy a hot beverage at the New World St Martins cafe(!). “I immediately noticed that it was a much more pleasant experience being here compared to other supermarkets.”
But this pleasantness comes at a price. Last month, a study found New World St Martins to be the most expensive New World in the country, a fact that even superfans like Maezee Burgess can’t ignore. Burgess, a local who has been going to New World St Martins her whole life, could not be a bigger fan. When I call her, she is parked up at the supermarket between meetings, just because she can. When the supermarket reopened in 2012 after the quake, Burgess even pushed a job interview so that she could attend, fashioning custom tank tops out New World bags for the occasion.
“I did grow up in this area, so whenever I go there I always see either friends that I know from school or their parents. It’s just a really great place and you always find someone that you can have a good yarn with.” Socialising aside, she also praises the “bougie” selection. “It’s always got the things that you can’t find in other supermarkets, hard-to-find items like fancy salts,” she explains. Despite her unbridled passion, particularly for the cream cheese and bacon ciabatta, Burgess admits she has recently started doing her “big shop” at Pak’nSave, saving just the “fancy bits and pieces” for New World St Martins.
Even as the founder of the fan page and the most frequent poster, Robbins has also had to curb his enthusiasm. “I live closer to three other supermarkets and it is only very recently that, just quietly, I’ve stopped going to St Martins weekly,” he confesses. Instead, he drives out to Veggieland on Marshlands Road and comes back via Peter Timbs Butchery, stopping at – gasp – Countdown for anything else he needs. “I’ll still intentionally go there every now and again because it’s become this meme now, but it’s real out of my way and it’s just too fuckin’ expensive,” he says.
Even Harmer, he who is dazzled by persimmons, the meat, the teas, admits the price is steep. “I came in here last night, just to grab some stuff for a quick barbecue and that was a hundred dollars,” he says. “I mean, there was a bottle of wine and a couple of cans of discounted craft beer, which weren’t essential, but just getting a few bits and bobs isn’t cheap anymore.” We finish our tour through the gift shop (the self-checkout) and his bill for 2 x persimmons and 1 x bag of L’Affare coffee is $12.69. “I think that’s crazy,” he says, shaking his head.
Although the snazzy supermarket might be losing some die-hards as the cost of living pinches, Robbins says he remains committed to keeping the page alive. “It’s the idea of celebrating, or at least acknowledging, these spaces that we all go to all the time,” he says. Having spent a lot of time working in social media, he also sees it as a small antidote to Facebook’s toxicity. “Everyone’s saying social media is getting crazy, so why not cast the light back on the analogue experiences that make up our lives? Why not try to get a positive feedback loop going again?”
It’s some pretty deep thinking to come out of a place mostly known for having both a fresh orange juice squeezer and a refillable Eco Store station. “By creating this seemingly inane [online] space celebrating a local supermarket, it is proof of concept to me that social media is all about context, and that people aren’t inherently bad,” says Robbins. Indeed, the only toxicity that exists within the Facebook group is entirely fictional, and mostly consists of an ongoing fake turf war with New World Durham Street, most recently photoshopped to look like Mordor.
Because, for all the memes and shitposting, the New World St Martins Unofficial fan club still has a rich vein of sincerity running through it. Scroll back far enough and you’ll get updates from the socially-distanced lines during the height of the pandemic, and people offering up their shopping services for those who might be vulnerable to catching Covid-19. There’s appreciation for the security guard named George, and for the checkout operator who walked the groceries to one customer’s car when they had a broken leg. All useful reminders that no shopper is an island.
From the carpark of her favourite local supermarket, superfan Burgess sums it up the best. “I just think it’s more than just a supermarket,” she says. “It’s a community.”