Megastore Shopping: The Unpayable Price

I’ve heard for years from my oppression-conscious friends that I shouldn’t be shopping at Wal-Mart because the big-box store exploits people. It pays its employees way less than they deserve, and while I got that, I couldn’t get past the fact that prices there are way the best in town. So typically I’d slink into the store several times a year, grateful that I wouldn’t run into any eyebrow-raising friends (because they, of course, wouldn’t be caught dead shopping in Wal-Mart).

I also habitually shopped in Target, Fred Meyer and Home Depot, avoiding the small franchises that sell the same things. I liked the idea of one-stop-shop.

Then something happened that made the megastore issue come home to me. I began to notice that when I shopped in Safeway, a big-chain discount supermarket in the Western United States, I was finding more and more of the brands I’d been buying for years disappearing. I visited other supermarkets and found the same thing. For some mysterious reason, the big chain stores had decided to drop these products.

I also noticed that Safeway and the other super groceries were carrying their own “generic” brand of the same products they had bumped. Instead of getting to choose between four brands of canned corn, for instance, I now was being forced to choose between one (maybe two) and the Safeway brand. Safeway’s brand was always cheaper, of course.

Safeway also recently began its own line of organic products, so the other organic brands are slowly disappearing from the shelves. Normally organic customers would continue supporting the private organic brands, but Safeway has cleverly disguised its products to avert that. Instead of calling the line “Select Organic” (Select is the generic name they use for all their other products), Safeway named its organic line “O.” If you examine the packaging very carefully and happen to have a magnifying glass on you, you might get a glimpse of the word “Safeway” buried in tiny print in an obscure corner.

I actually bought “O” products for a year before I realized the brand belonged to the superstore. Cloaking their identity as the source of “O” is clever and deceptive. It tricks organic shoppers, who wouldn’t typically buy a conglomerate’s organic brand, into doing so unknowingly. It’s kind of like hopping into bed expecting to find your husband there and encountering a different man in the dark who’s hoping you won’t recognize the switch. Thanks, Safeway. It really is ethical of you.

So I started piecing things together. The supermarkets put ma-and-pa groceries out of business half a century ago. Now the megastores they’ve morphed into are putting food brands out of business. If this trend continues unstopped by consumers, the big chains soon will have a monopoly on food products. In that position, they can sell food at any price they wish. They also will have no incentive to produce food of flavor or quality because there’ll be no companies left to compete with.

I came to see that if I keep shopping at Safeway, with its friendly staff and appealing natural decor, I’m supporting a giant that eats up little companies and my freedom to buy the brands I desire, disguising itself all the while as a good-guy store that shares my values. This really is the bad guy in the bed – not only malicious but a deceiver.

Needless to say, I’m no longer sleeping with Safeway. Now I shop at the only food store in town that is not owned by a conglomerate: the local natural foods co-operative. It costs slightly more to buy there, and I’m willing to pay the difference for the privilege of having multiple brands to choose from. As a consumer, I need to do my part. Every dollar I spend at Safeway helps wipe out food brands.

Now I understand the reason for boycotting Wal-Mart and avoiding big-box stores: they put the same kind of pressure on small and medium-sized businesses that mega grocery chains put on the food industry.

It’s a dangerous thing to allow consumer products, particularly food, an essential of life, to rest in the exclusive hands of the megacorps. Consumers are then at their mercy. Shopping at volume discount stores is penny-wise and pound-foolish. It’s saving a few bucks a week at the cost of no longer controlling market price and quality with our buying decisions.

What if communities started co-ops, not only for our food but in other categories, and went back to the old ways of supporting local merchants? What if we all turned our backs on the superstores? What if only a third of the population did? The big guns would fall apart without us. I can’t think of anyone that better deserves it.

Bronte Baxter

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