The House Always Wins: Part Two
Part Two: An Absurdist Exposé on The Supermarket Conspiracy that Will Change the Way You Shop Forever! - Navigating the Labyrinth of Consumer Manipulation, Ethical Dilemmas and Two-Faced Discounts
Nothing will stand in my way. I have been to this shopping centre countless times and know exactly where to go and what I am doing. Nevertheless, I immediately lose my way and forget what I was supposed to be doing. I dart up and down the twisting escalators and brightly lit corridors, searching for The Supermarket's entrance, which I swear is this way. No, maybe that way? No…
I'm certain that the shopping centre is like a Minoan maze, shifting around the minotaur lurking on the fifth (or was it the fourth?) floor. Back down I go. No, back up again. Wait, where am I? My phone vibrates. It's wondering if I would like to access the centre's open wifi in exchange for my contact details and personal information.
I politely decline. Instead, I turn to an information screen hauntingly reminiscent of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe it knows where The Supermarket is. The screen suggests I download the centre's app. I politely decline. The screen reassures me that I am, indeed, HERE, but its stylish design disconnects my location from reality. The screen is trying to show an incredibly packed and complicated three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional map, so HERE reveals nothing about my whereabouts to the shops around me. I begin to type The Supermarket's brand name into the search bar, but each letter brings up a new selection of dizzying suggestions. Only once I have typed in The Supermarket's entire name does the screen reveal its location. According to the celestial screen, The Supermarket is tucked away at the end of a narrow corridor in a faraway corner and flanked by other shops offering irresistible bargains. I'll have to struggle through this swarm of eye-catching specialty stores before even attempting to do my groceries.
Why would The Supermarket infest this seemingly obscure location like a parasitic worm hungrily burrowing into delicious intestinal gore? Wouldn't it be better to occupy one with more immediate visibility?
No, apparently. See, The Supermarket knows that humans (or consumers as The Supermarket calls us) suffer from two peculiar (and very modern) psychological afflictions. The first is decision fatigue, which is your brain's limited capacity to continuously make considered choices when overwhelmed by options. Dr Lisa MacLean, chief wellness officer at Henry Ford Health System, defines Decision fatigue as follows.
‘If your brain is worn down, it may cause you to become more reckless with your decision-making or not think things through. [Additionally] you might notice that you get angrier with colleagues and family, splurge on clothes, or impulsively buy more junk food.’
The second is choice paralysis, which often stems from decision fatigue. Choice paralysis is a state of mental inaction that occurs when you are faced with too many options, causing you to default to something familiar or simply throw in the towel.
Basically, every store that spills into my peripheries is forcing my brain to make countless subconscious decisions; to buy or not to buy. This is a calculated gambit by the shopping centre on The Supermarket's behalf. The shopping centre deliberately herds consumers through this commercial cavalcade to lower their defences against The Supermarket's psychological assault. Similarly, the shopping centre grooms consumers for The Supermarket by strategically placing food courts and other sensory cues nearby. This may sound like something you'd hear from someone who also has opinions on 5G, but The Supermarket is the shopping centre's primary revenue stream, so this symbiosis makes sense. This tactic even has one of those smashed-up business buzzword titles. Yes, I am lost within a Grocery-Anchored or Necessity-Based shopping centre. In a telling statement that seems to eagerly anticipate economic collapse, Broad Reach Retail Partners LCC had the following to say about The Supermarket’s absorption of our shopping centres.
‘The need for purchasing groceries will always exist regardless of the state of the stock market and other economic factors. Customers will shift their finances around to purchase the food they need for their families. Whether this means skipping out on purchasing a new TV or narrowing their budget for new clothes, food is a necessity to all customers. Grocery stores make a great anchor for shopping centers because of their consistent demand.’
And even though I know all this, the sushi restaurant, fishmongers, butchers and bakers that flank my passage catch my attention yet push me away. By the time The Supermarket is in sight, I am little more than an intoxicated moth fluttering towards the hypnotic lights within. Decision fatigue and choice paralysis combine and cause me to suppress the surrounding specialty stores, despite knowing they are probably a better alternative. Instead, I buzz towards The Supermarket's glowing entrance, despite suspecting that its fluorescent allure will reduce me to cinders.
The Supermarket's entrance bathes the surrounding area in an angelic (if slightly sterile) glow. Its signage is laced with an intricate array of spotlights and accents that emphasise its branding. The Supermarket's logo is a typical mixture of the food colours that fast-food franchises use to stimulate frivolous spending and nagging hunger pains. But because The Supermarket has focus-tested its personality into oblivion, its distinctive branding elicits the same subconscious obedience as a street sign rather than a sense of creativity.
The Supermakret's fluorescent glare shines from the tiles like a seaman-stained mattress under a blacklight. I squint inside but see nothing beyond the incredibly colourful displays spearheading each row. Impulse purchases and junk food specials spill from these displays, announcing themselves with huge yellow signs. But, aside from the produce section (to which we will come), The Supermarket conveniently obscures its other products behind bustling shoppers and strategic architecture, meaning I have no way to plan my shop before entering the store. This renders a simple in-and-out approach impossible, as I will have to expose my impulses to The Supermarket's tricks while searching for what I came here to buy. Which was… um?
On the subject of architecture, it appears The Supermarket designed its entrance to be as hospitable yet inconvenient as possible. The Supermarket's fluorescent cavity is wide enough to march an army through, yet consumers must squeeze into a tiny bottleneck that leads directly into the produce section. This is overseen by a single, bored security guard and barricaded by a one-way security turnstile. Once inside, it seems the only way to escape The Supermarket is through the understaffed registers. Conceivably, I could also enter through the narrow checkout lanes, but only two are actually open, and they are teeming with consumers. Trolleys and yellow security tape that matches The Supermarket's SALE signs block the other thirteen. Regardless, Several confused shoppers attempt to enter via these closed lanes, only to shake their heads in a self-effacing way that lets everyone watching know they don't usually do such silly things. Even the self-serve registers force exiting consumers to waddle from The Supermarket like dazed-pack camels. Sure, I could technically slip inside through here while the sole teenage employee is preoccupied with the temperamental self-serve checkouts. But every self-serve checkout seems to have taken issue with the bagging area in unison. And I don't fancy squeezing between the writhing mass of increasingly frustrated consumers jostling for the employee’s attention.
My eyes drift back to the one-way turnstile as it sweeps open to welcome a young man with a large backpack, who the security guard ignores entirely.
The Supermarket makes getting in easy. Getting out, on the other hand… I approach the trolley bay beside the one-way security turnstile without realising what I’m doing. It seems decision fatigue has already erased my earlier resolve to take a basket in solidarity with the trolley collectors. In any case, The Supermarket immediately overwhelms me with the catalogues, posters, promotions and other propaganda, overflowing from an inconveniently placed display that feels like something inside a pinball machine. I pause long enough to notice the baskets nestled away behind the entrance. Presumably, The Supermarket puts them here so consumers are encouraged to instead grab a spacious trolley and subconsciously fill it to the brim. Next, I watch an employee dutifully dump another stack of catalogues upon the teetering pile. I eye the employee scornfully. She looks at me as if I have just sneered at her for doing her job and then walks away.
See, I already know a thing or two about these catalogues. I would even say that circulating them and the savings they advertise seems infinitely more important to The Supermarket than ensuring the availability of the products within.
Recently, The Supermarket ran a promotion through these catalogues that briefly allowed consumers to exchange their loyalty card rewards (more on these later) for coveted glass Tupperware containers. Unfortunately, supply issues meant that the advertised containers were soon unavailable nationwide. Regardless, shortly after the promotion ended and The Supermarket had told consumers that their rewards points were essentially worthless, the containers miraculously reappeared on shelves… but with price tags ranging from $20 to $40. Whether this was a familiar display of corporate cynicism from The Supermarket or simply a case of gross incompetence is unknown. But either way, it certainly shows where the Supermarket's loyalties lie and who gets the best rewards. Dr Michael Callaghan, Professor of Management and Marketing at Deakin University made his opinion clear.
‘If this is how [The Supermarket] adds 'value' to its loyalty scheme, is that an admittance that it isn't really doing anything for the customers who use it?’
I take a catalogue from the rack, look around like a teenager about to dive into a porno for the first time and then flick it open. Clearly, The Supermarket is attempting to thread an intensely connective web, as though we totally understand one another because we are in this humanity business as equals. The catalogue wants me to know that PRICES ARE DOWN! and that these savings have been inexplicably PASSED ON TO YOU! These bargains are presented on a white backdrop, framed with eye-catching reds and yellows, and are sporting prices that snare my attention before the products themselves. These random discounts soon overshadow the things I would usually buy and have me preemptively self-justifying bulk magnesium tablets simply because they are 50% off.
Continuing this theme, several charming, family-friendly recipes are scattered throughout the catalogue. Each is accompanied by glossy snaps of presumably well-paid celebrity chefs. I wonder if The Supermarket could offer extra generous savings on its actual products had it not already blown its marketing budget on familiar faces. Indeed, on closer inspection, only one or two products required to make the featured recipes are on sale. This means consumers basing their morning acai bowls on The Supermarket's bargain Greek yoghurt will be forced to pay full price for the other nine ingredients.
I flick back and forth through the catalogue. Overall, I count six pages displaying meats and other deli essentials; there are two showcasing baked goods (which I assume would usually be slightly more diverse, but Easter is looming, so hot cross buns are somewhat aggressively all that's available); seven more pages host junk foods, snacks and soft drinks; another two sheepishly advertise fresh produce and healthy living, with a disproportionate amount of space reserved for a 'BBQ baby broccoli with blue cheese creme Fraiche' recipe that is an 'online only' exclusive; the next nine unfocused pages showcase a mishmash of laundry, cleaning, kitchen and pet care items; these are followed by two pages offering savings on booze; and, finally, the last two pages are stuffed with disparate things that can only be referred to as uncategorised and, oddly, mobile phone plans.
In theory, even cynical savings like these are a plus. But my focus soon shifts from the dollar-cost discounts and the catalogue's general spectacle to the unfocused and excessive presentation underlying each page. I realise that The Supermarket is wearing two very distinct faces. One is the smiling facade, happily presenting consumers with supposedly affordable prices; the other is the sneering con artist beneath, seductively flaunting its wares while also gathering every possible industry beneath its umbrella.
Likewise, The Supermarket uses its catalogues to peddle two very different things to two very different consumers. There are the people with financial concerns who walk through its one-way security turnstile in need of groceries. Then there are the suppliers who pay big money for their discounted products to appear in The Supermarket's catalogue. Who benefits more in this scenario; the consumers who get 70 whole cents off their Eclipse mints? or Eclipse's owner, Wrigley's, who is owned by Mars Inc, who is owned by The Mars Family, who is worth an estimated $127 billion, and who will still be selling above production value despite bending to The Supermarket's terms? Indeed, it's The Supermarket who decides what and when something goes on sale, not the suppliers. But because The Supermarket is often the only game in town, suppliers have little choice but to agree.
This is fine for the big players. For example, while Coca-Cola is regularly on sale, production only costs around 39 cents per can, so even a 50% price drop is a profitable compromise to ensure that Coca-Cola remains front-page-catalogue-news. On the flip side, imagine you're a small independent company with a solid product but slim profit margins and little to no bargaining power. Being forced by The Supermarket to lower your prices just for the privilege of appearing in its catalogue suddenly doesn’t sound so appealing or even possible. Indeed, you may feel like the below supplier, who spoke anonymously on the issue to The Spinoff, NZ.
‘I don't know a single local food producer who is making a comfortable profit in supermarkets. Some might be making a small one on paper. But you compare that to the excess profits supermarkets are making, over a million dollars a day, and… it breaks your heart. It's so frustrating. I am seeing more small NZ suppliers go out of business than enter.’
Sure enough, I flip randomly through the catalogue and see nothing but big brands competing with even bigger brands. But it’s not all brand news. Eventually, I find myself staring at a picture of Don Premium Melosi Boneless Leg Ham. A strange delicacy that is colloquially known as ham. Like everything else in the catalogue that is not immediately recognisable through brand recognition, this so-called Don Premium Melosi Boneless Leg Ham is dressed to impress. Several sumptuous pink slices of Don Premium Melosi Boneless Leg Ham are delicately fanned atop crisp lettuce and surrounded by walnuts, grapes, pickles, bread and sliced guava. Even meats on the offal end of the spectrum are equally tarted up. The cabanossi sticks are crisscrossed atop a fancy plate and surrounded by a forest of exotic garnishes. Basically, chocolate shavings, micro herbs and bushels of wholesome grains surround anything fresh that can't be slipped into a package and then slathered with brand recognition. Here, The Supermarket's catalogue feels more like a strip club promoter than a useful tool to help me maximise its bargains.
And like any sleazy hawker, The Supermarket sustains this noble image by assuring consumers that its products were ethically, sustainably and environmentally sourced, farmed and slaughtered. Only The Supermarket could effortlessly combine green-washing and well-washing within the same streamlined promotion. But while the stamps and emblems that accentuate The Supermarket's virtuous side are on full display, products with a notable lack of accreditation come with no consumer warnings. This reveals The Supermarket's duality. By turning ethical eating into a cost-sensitive decision for consumers, The Supermarket forces us to choose between comparatively expensive yet supposedly ethical products and their presumedly murky counterparts. Why is this the consumer's responsibility? Were The Supermarket committed to sustainability, rather than just maintaining appearances, surely it would turn its immense resources to making morality affordable rather than supporting businesses with immoral practices. Interestingly, you rarely (if ever) see The Supermarket's homebrand products winning any of these ethical accolades. And when they do boast some token gesture, like The Supermarket's supposedly carbon-neutral beef (what?), a controversy inevitably unfolds.
In a nutshell, The Supermarket offsets its environmental impact by investing in green initiatives (usually insetting, which is corporate speak for planting trees) so it can scoop up the ensuing carbon credits like a poker player who has just beat the house. Cynicism aside, this could be an agreeable compromise, but some of The Supermarket's chosen initiatives are undeniably questionable. Take the Armoobilla reforestation site, one of The Supermarket's more contentious environmental ploys, which it advertises as such.
‘[The Supermarket] is also purchasing Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) from the Armoobilla Regeneration Project in south-west Queensland to cover emissions that fall outside the scope of the insetting measures, such as those involved in processing and transporting the beef to stores, ensuring that the range achieves carbon neutral status.’
This sounds very noble, but according to Associate Professor Andrew Macintosh, former head of the emissions reduction assurance committee and current Associate Dean at ANU College of Law, Armoobilla suffered a 5,383ha decline in woodland coverage between 2015 and 2021.
‘What they've done is gone to 'Paddock A' where the livestock have been excluded; and then they've actually drawn lines around the areas where woody vegetation is regrowing and then said, 'look, there's all this vegetation growing here.’
Clearly, Armoobilla is an entirely different can of worms, one we won't sort through here. But my point is that wherever we find such worms gorging on society's decay, then The Supermarket will likely be among the fattest, slimiest and greediest at the table.
See, even if we focus solely on the sentiment behind progressive products like carbon-neutral beef, the catalogue's other suppliers are equally murky. For instance, the Marine Stewardship Council - whose emblem clusters around the seafood pages like a particularly violent herpes outbreak (and despite the unquestionably positive outcomes they have produced) - is a private organisation plagued by controversies. Namely, roughly 75% of the MSC's revenue comes from label licensing. This leaves impoverished yet sustainable fisheries struggling to purchase the rights to advertise the accreditation they have already earned. Meanwhile, the big fish tycoons can easily afford to place accolades on their catches, thus creating a conflict of interest between the Council's mission and the questionable yet highly profitable fisheries capable of financing accreditation. One could argue that these big fisheries have so much money because they exercise such little care.
A member of the MSC's own advisory Council, Rory Crawford, conducted a study of 23 fisheries in 2019 and found that only three were actively working to monitor and minimise bycatch. These are animals inadvertently killed by fishing operations and typically consist of birds and other sea life, some of which are critically endangered.
‘Consumers cannot be fully confident that certified fish comes without impacts on non-target species, from sharks to seabirds to whales.’
The report itself concluded as follows:
‘This study concludes that MSC must strengthen the bycatch elements of the MSC standard at the next full Fisheries Standard Review, to prevent fisheries with unacceptably high impacts from being certified and to ensure that mortality of non-target species in certified fisheries is minimised.’
Believe it or not, I’m not looking to dunk too heavily on the MSC. They are tackling a big and complicated issue and I believe their hearts are in the right place. But my point is that The Supermarket, with all the above-mentioned influence its catalogues wield, could quite easily encourage both the suppliers and the accreditors to meet society’s needs by demanding better practices.
These are just two examples of the many contradictions and moral dilemmas pressed between the catalogue's pages. Why does The Supermarket refuse to take a definitive stance on these issues? Surely, if The Supermarket were as committed to these issues as it claims, it could simply refuse to stock products that fail to meet certain standards, let alone promote them. Indeed, The Supermarket wields enough power through its specials alone to condemn inferior products to obscurity. But perhaps The Supermarket only promotes these (somewhat) ethically sourced items explicitly to guilt consumers into making purchases above their means. After all, the more ethical or green products appear, the more they tend to cost. Therefore, given The Supermarket's reliance on psychological manipulation, this seems like a reasonable assumption.
But, in fairness to The Supermarket, we consumers enabled corporations to monopolise our groceries and abuse our environmental initiatives. We wanted unsustainable convenience. We didn't know this was the cost, but now we do. And despite the subsequent paradigm shift currently taking place, The Supermarket continues to offer nothing beyond the snake-oil salves found within its catalogue. For instance, none of The Supermarket's ethically-washed promotions or initiatives directly addresses the human rights violations perpetrated by its chocolate and coffee suppliers, notably Mars Inc (allegedly). Most are concerned purely with environmental impacts and conservation. And while these are undeniably worthy causes, they are easy ones for companies like The Supermarket and its main suppliers to champion in tokenistic ways.
Most consumers would rather not contribute to mass extinctions, but an extra dollar for a consumer could come at a huge personal cost. In contrast, a couple hundred thousand or even a million from The Supermarket (whose net income has jumped by 17% in the last year) is simply chump change. What if the cost of doing business was just a little more expensive? At the very least, The Supermarket could use its resources proactively rather than just to keep up appearances. I can't imagine that the production and circulation of these catalogues (that you have likely seen clogging stormwater drains) come with no environmental drawbacks.
On that note, with no recycle bins on offer, I scrunch the two-faced catalogue into a ball and toss it into the same nearby trolley where everyone else seems to be tossing theirs. I hold my breath as if I am about to dive into icy water and then plunge through The Supermarket's one-way security gate.
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