Friday, February 27, 2009

The Supermarket’s Effect on the Shaping of Modern American Society

The self serve supermarket, taken for granted as the accepted norm in today’s society, is a relatively new and unique creation. Clarence Saunder’s patented idea of the self serve store, with consumers following a fixed path through rows of stock, revolutionized the food retail business. The only time any interaction occurred between the store clerk and the consumer was at the checkout station at the end of the path. In many ways, the self serve market had cut the connection between the consumer and the farmer; the label on the packaging became the only source of information about the food the consumer was to consume. This has had a significant influence on America’s attitudes towards food; we have a casual attitude towards eating and don’t even think of where our food came from or realize that what we eat is what we are. In taking away the human interaction normally involved in the sale of food, Americans also accepted the formality of the self serve food system and the fact that the prices are set. Bartering and haggling, commonplace in most of the world, became a rarity. It is said that Americans set the standard in forming waiting lines; single file, no pushing, patiently waiting. It is true that these quirks may be due to many unexplainable factors, but it is exactly the kind of behavior the self serve store system requires of its consumers for it to work. These are just a few examples of the American supermarket phenomenon’s impact on society. But it has had more drastic impacts as well.

Efficiency and low costs were at the core of Saunder’s idea of consumers following a fixed path through rows of stocked shelves and checking out at the end of the trail. Traditional clerks were demoted to the menial jobs of shelf stocking and running the cashier. Human interaction was minimized, the shopper was now on their own to do their own shopping. The layout of the store was carefully planned, this fixed path exposing the consumers to as much of the stock as possible to increase the chances that they would buy more. The idea of setting the psychological stage to encourage the consumer to buy more is a huge trend in today’s food retail. Convenience was another important motive; now consumers needed to go to only one store to get everything they needed. As the ‘self serve’ stores became extremely popular, local economies were greatly reduced (some destroyed) by the self serve stores taking all the business away. The self serve stores eventually became supermarkets; the main form of food distribution.

Being the main form of food distribution put the supermarkets in a very powerful position. As the intermediaries between the farmer/supplier and the consumer, they were able to control the amount the farmers and suppliers got paid (where else could they sell their goods?), and the prices the consumers paid for the food. With this control, the supermarkets were also immune from any fluctuations in the economy; either the producers or the consumers would pay to make up for the loss. Farmers suffered the most from this. Supermarket chains bought goods from farmers as cheap as they could, and farmers had no other choice but to sell it to them as alternatives were becoming fewer and fewer as the supermarket soared in popularity. The economies of scale also contributed to the farmers’ decreased profits. As the supermarkets were, well, super, they bought and sold goods in massive quantities with the least amount of investment per unit. This enabled supermarkets to lower their prices below that of smaller retailers. Local businesses could not compete with the supermarkets’ low prices, and many went out of business. Supermarket chains are able to fluctuate the prices of individual stores in areas with competition; when the competition is wiped out by the chain store’s low prices, the chain’s prices are raised again to normal levels. The supermarket had achieved a monopoly on the food distribution system in America.

Having the store clerks reduced to mere shelf stockers and cashiers set a pattern that would follow throughout every level of the food industry. To minimize costs, supermarkets were staffed with unskilled workers doing menial tasks. As most of the workers were part time, supermarkets did not have to give insurance and other employee benefits, and were able to pay only the federal minimum wage. Supermarkets gained in power as they became large employers, and with the labor unskilled and menial the worker was disposable and easily replaced. This has led to many instances of employee abuse and mistreatment by supermarket corporations (Walmart…). Unfortunately, with the increase in the power and wealth of the supermarket corporations came the corresponding decrease in governmental regulations. There have been reports of the government notifying corporations of raids on child labor law violations, health violations, and other labor law violations.

The supermarket has also contributed to the socio-economic stratification of American society. Supermarket corporations establish new stores in neighborhoods who can afford them. The variety, quality, and prices of the goods available in the individual stores are dependent on the type of neighborhood that they are in. In this way, supermarkets have turned food into something of a social class indicator, with organic produce, exotic goods, and sheer variety signifying higher socio-economic class. In the strategic placing of their stores, supermarkets have also contributed to the gap between the haves and the have-nots. In urban and rural areas, supermarkets are hard to come by, and small mini marts are the main sources of food. The minimarts charge higher prices because there is little competition in such ‘food deserts’, and the economy of scale is not working in their favor. The preference of supermarket corporations of suburban middle class neighborhoods encourages the use of vehicles; another economic class indicator. The supermarket corporations’ location strategies have caused drastic differences in the diets of the haves and the have –nots; this fact is supported by the drastically varied health statistics between high and low income neighborhoods throughout the country.

Are we letting the supermarkets have too much influence? I would say so. The government needs to take on the responsibility of adequate food distribution and availability for its citizens instead of leaving it to the decisions of a few corporate businessmen. The government also needs to fix the system to give farmers more rights and better support. Price and wage standards need to be set to ensure that workers involved in the food production and retail industry are adequately paid and that food prices are kept reasonable. Of course one cannot blame the supermarket system for sole responsibility of the current economic situation and the new culture that has developed during the last century. However, it can’t be denied that this system has had a larger impact than it is given credit for. The issues discussed in this blog demonstrate the amount of power the food distributor has in a society. Food is not a normal commodity, as it is necessary for life and we can’t live without it. Food is an extremely powerful political, social, and economic tool because of this. The main problem with the supermarket system is that this power is concentrated; locally with individual supermarkets and nationally and globally with supermarket corporations. As with any socioeconomic system, the power needs to be distributed to ensure the least amount of corruption and the maximum amount of people represented in decisions regarding the system that every person is a part of.


Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Raj Patel, 2007, Melville House Publishing, New York, pg. 215-252

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