November 27, 2011
Supermarkets are a blessing, but must be reminded they are not omnipotent, writes Michael Coulter.
SUPERMARKETS are wonderful, and also dreadful. It’s wonderful that there are places where you can buy chorizo and Lindt chocolate at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night and, should the mood strike you, pick up a couple of litres of chlorine bleach and a flea collar at the same time. It’s wonderful that nearly every suburb has its own symbol of affluence, individualism and globalisation gone right. From Africa to South America, the engine of commerce gathers the treasure of the world for your thrifty delectation. It’s a miracle with fluorescent lighting.
It’s wonderful that supermarkets function, that there are people able to devise the intricate structures that keep them stocked and staffed, and it’s wonderful that they employ tens of thousands of people and are many teenagers’ first experience of paid work.
And supermarkets are not just Aladdin’s caves of material goodies; they have a spiritual dimension. They’re the one-stop temples of the modern world, where you can worship everything from simple gluttony to your own identity. Every product you buy tells a little story about who you are. Home-brand or name-brand? Foreign or domestic? 70 or 80 per cent cocoa? Are you discerning, miserly, patriotic or impulsive? For the difference of 60Â¢ , you can define and redefine yourself a dozen times each shopping trip.
Marketers and advertisers know this, which is why product descriptions are loaded with emotive words – ”luxury”, ”indulgence”, ”all-natural”, ”completely organic”. Even generic products offer not just low price but a notion of no-nonsense practicality. Buying them makes you a shrewd consumer who sees through the branding hype.
But it’s this ease that is at the heart of what makes supermarkets awful, too. They might be elegant monuments to market forces, but they are also symbols of sloth, crass materialism and a ”near enough is good enough” mindset. Which is depressing, because the logical conclusion is that that is what people overwhelmingly want.
There’s no doubt supermarkets have raised the science of consumerism to a near-perfect pitch. To enter one is to be treated as a walking statistic, and not a particularly bright one. From the positioning of the various products to the selection of the invariably glossy but tasteless fruit, everything is skilfully designed to prompt, goad and seduce you into buying what is most profitable for the store.
This is not, in itself, a problem; it’s what businesses do. But not every business then insults your intelligence by pretending to offer a premium product at a great price, when, in fact, both quality and price are mediocre, at best. If George ”Shop where the MasterChefs shop” Calombaris is getting produce from Coles, I want to know which branch, because there’s nothing I’ve bought from a supermarket that tastes like what’s served at his restaurants.
The argument that you trade quality for convenience is persuasive, but even that is waning with the introduction of the noxious self-serve system. If I’d wanted a second job working a checkout, I would have applied for one at award rates. And if the savings made by shifting costs from business to customer are flowing back to us, I’ve yet to notice.
But as satisfying as it is to rant about soulless sterility and soggy seafood, supermarkets are nothing more or less than what we have made them. The dollars of generations of Australians have voted them into power, to the point where they can dictate prices to suppliers, squeeze out branded items with their own, very similar looking products, and turn whole industries on their head.
There’s an argument that savagely discounted products such as $1-a-litre milk are simply a boon for consumers, but you don’t need an overly suspicious mind to wonder what a company hopes to get out of selling a product for less than it costs it. If it’s not an aggressive bid to put rival dairy producers out of business, then it must be one of the more notable acts of corporate philanthropy in recent times. Bakers are now suffering, with Goodman Fielder last week announcing a cost-cutting drive in an effort to cope with bread discounting. Meanwhile, the chief executive of Heinz has remarked several times this year that Australia is the worst place in the world for his company to do business.
The upside is there’s only so long this can go on. Coles and Woolworths are behaving like companies that think they have become immune to their customers’ right to withdraw their custom. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, they’ll find out they’re wrong.
Within 200 metres of my local ”Fresh food people” are two green grocers that sell better and cheaper produce. Shopping at them is good for the health and the wallet, and helps, in a small way, to keep the duopoly at bay. Supermarkets are wonderful and have made our lives immeasurably easier. But they are not the only places to shop, and it’s important to remind them of that.