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Hard discounters

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Tuesday, Aug 30, 2005

At TPMCafe a few weeks ago, a writer posed this question: Why hasn’t it proved economically feasible (and thus inevitable) that grocery store chains move into poor neighborhoods and exploit their desperation for better quality produce and lower-priced food. The real estate is cheap and the customer base is more or less assured. Some respondants opined that insurance and security costs would make it unprofitable, others pointed to “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” business model of most retailers. The most interesting reply pointed to the rebranding of the same goods, groceries, to appeal to different class demographics, the way Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic does. As much as the Republican hacks whose campaigns they fund hate “class warfare,” big corporations love to differentiate by class and exploit class differences for the different sources of profit they yield. Corporations percieve profits in the habitus-driven lengths to which many consumers will go to maintain their sense of themselves and the class inn which they feel comfortable. It’s interesting, though perhaps obvious to anyone who’s shed their “America is a classless society and shopping is where we are all equal” blinkers, how different classes have different vulnerabilities and can be flattered in different ways. If you have ever strayed into one of the “hard discounters” that The Wall Street Journal profiled on today’s front page—Save-A-Lot, Grocery Outlet, Aldi—the differences in the way middle-class and poor consumers are treated will become stark and obvious. If you are middle class, you will feel as though you have entered some kind of grocery store of the damned where there are few shelves and most everything is stacked in cardboard boxes. There are no real brands, only dubious house brands, and all the specialty items you expect are nowhere to be found. It’s like a surreal nightmare when you walk down the cereal aisle and see none of the familiar brands you expect. And it’s depressingn to realize how much our comfort and security in our everyday life depends on the familiarity of the brands all around us. (This is why tourists in New York City seem to like to stay in midtown, where everything is adequately branded with national names.)  You’ll marvel at the interminable lines and you’lll gasp when you are not asked if you want paper or plastic, but rather whether you’re willing to pay 10 cents per bag in order to pack your own groceries. And if you decide not to buy anything, good luck getting out. When I went into Aldi once in South Philadelphia,  just to see what it was after hitting the Front and Oregon Goodwill store, I was horrified to discover that I was trapped inside. A huge gate barred my exit through the way I came in, and the only way out was through the checkout aisles, which were, naturally backed up til doomsday because of the chronic understaffing and the laconic work ethic of the minimum-wage-making employees. This fire-trap is obviously by design in order to prevent theft—one of the fundamental operating hazards for businesses choosing to cater to (i.e. exploit) the poor. In order to escape I had to literally climb over a barricade of cardboard boxes that had been piled up in an vacated check-out aisle.


What was even more striking than my Great escape was that the people in line hardly even noticed me, even as I was scaling the wall. As far as they were concerned, this was perfectly normal, a routine consequence of deciding not to buy anything. As far as they were concerned, being made to feel like a criminal by entering a store was totally natural. Waiting in line twenty minutes to check out was nothing to complain about either. It was the habitus at work: what was real, common sense, natural to the other shoppers waiting in line, was ghastly and unreal to me, an surprise detour from reality into an alternate universe of misery and implied humiliation. What’s really frightening is that the theory of habitus implies that the typical Aldi customer wouldn’t enjoy it being any other way; it would be alien and disconcerting to be treated the way middle-class people are accustomed to be treated in stores. (It’s more likely that a middle-class environment would make poor people expect the harsh treatment they ordinary receive in such places.) The regular Aldi customers were used to be treated as though it was a favor to them that the grocery store even existed. A few posts ago, I argued that anti-customer service would be a good wake up call for pampered consumers, could shake them out of the mindset that shopping is the primary life experience to be had. But Aldi perhaps goes too far. It’s doing the dirty business of reinforcing class difference as commonsense business practice.

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