Controlling the Supermonster
A reflection on chapter 8 of Raj Patel’s book on the expansion and evolution of the supermarket
By Allie Leiser, Lily Rybarcyzk and Heather Gotttschalk
In “Checking out of Supermarkets,” of Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, we delve into the relationship between the modern day distributer and consumer. This chapter traces the history of the modern day supermarket, from the first King Piggly Wiggly to Wal-Mart and beyond.
In 1914, the Gerrard brothers opened the first self-serving supermarkets in California. By 1916, Clarence Saunder’s took their idea even farther by controlling how the shoppers interacted with the store. The creation of the self-serving supermarket made the shoppers more responsible for what they bought and aided in grocer’s profits: increasing sales while lowering production costs. This evolution into the supermarket as we know it today has created the basis of our consumerist society.
The science of “atmospherics” is one of ways in which supermarkets influence consumption level. This branch of science has developed to manipulate the behavior of the shopper by controlling music, lighting, colors and product placement. Even loyalty cards, which make the shopper feel individualized, provide more benefits for the producer than the consumer through their power to track customer shopping habits. With the invention of the barcode, stores gained the ability to track inventory, reducing labor and time costs, reducing the already low prices.
Patel brings Wal-Mart into focus in his discussion of the employee/employer relationship. Unfortunately, low prices lead to strict and unfair policies for workers such as, low wages and sparse benefits. Employees of the stores aren’t the only people that suffer as a result of supermarkets’ endeavors for low prices; producers are forced to compete against each other under the price control making it difficult for them to generate profit.
Along with the ability to control products, prices and the ambiance, supermarkets can exclude certain consumers. So where can we as consumers go to evade the power of the supermarket? Patel suggests Community Supported Agriculture or Farmer’s Markets, which eliminate the supermarket middleman.
Although this chapter is enlightening about the interworking of the modern day supermarket, it also brings up many fragmented controversial issues. The chapter disjointedly covers historical, economical, political and legal problems caused by supermarkets, offering meager solutions. Patel brings up many issues of industrial supermarkets are brought up and leaves readers questioning their own relationships with the supermarket monster