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Supermarkets... and you.

It is often said that the balance of market power is shifting to retailers. This is true only to the extent that retailers know the demands of their customers. An old industry truism holds that 'the consumer is king.' Food retailers today would update that saying to 'the consumer is dictator.' The market power of consumers is strong and growing stronger… consumer demand is increasingly driving decisions about products and services...
—Food Marketing Institute, Food Retailing in the 21st Century—Riding a Consumer Revolution

A veritable who's who of brand marketers is tapping into the expanding market of college students with the intent of setting up lifelong relationships… students are often considered the prize targets…
—Supermarket News, It's Academic

Millennials represent a golden opportunity in a time of economic darkness...
—Progressive Grocer, Consumers Lean on Loyalty

How do you attract college-age kids to your store? Stock up on low-price, grab-and-go foods; use social networking and other high-tech marketing; keep an eye out for the hippest new products; and emphasize community tie-ins with “green” causes that appeal to younger generations...
—Natural Foods Merchandiser, A new naturals consumer

To catch increasingly short attention spans—and the insatiable demand for novelty—marketers today need... a steady stream of new products...
Taco Bell Market Research, 1999

Publix, Ahold and Kroger... remain allegiant to the old guard leadership of Florida agriculture — an industry that’s averaged a federal slavery operation every other year since the mid-1990s. Acting together, we can change that.
Supermarkets ignore slavery in Florida tomato supply

In July 1958, TIME Magazine published an article describing the "New Assault on the Consumer" taking place daily in the aisles of then-pubescent supermarket chains:

"To U.S. merchandisers, the key to bigger sales is a new pseudo science that analyzes the U.S. housewife's whims with equal parts of salesmanship, psychology, hypnotism and common sense. Its name: impulse buying. The idea is not new, but with the rise of self-service supermarkets, super drug and variety stores, there is a greater incentive than ever before to encourage shoppers to throw away their shopping lists and buy more than they ever intended.

Despite all talk about price as the great determinant, low cost is the major factor for barely 16% of all shoppers; studies also show that another 16% shop only for heavily advertised brands. In between ranges the vast middle ground of shoppers, fair game for the motivational researchers, who take dead aim with all the analytical gimmicks under the supermarket sun. They claim, for instance, that the undecided mass of supermarket shoppers —they call them 'emotionally insecure'—really do not know what they want when they enter a store and often are not sure what they have bought right up to the cash registers...

Most supermarket chains have merchandising committees to figure out ways to present and sell the best of the 150 new products flooding into the market each week. Once, grocers could depend on personal service to push a product; today, with the rise of the self-service market, the business has about 1,500,000 fewer clerks than it would otherwise need. What sells is what appeals to the shopper's impulse: the color, the size, the shape, even the shelf position of the package. Years ago, only comparatively few companies worried about their labels. Now all do..."

(emphasis added)

Take a way a couple of the anachronistic giveaways, and this article could just as easily have been written yesterday. It describes, in fact, a formula that the supermarket industry has been using—to great profitability—for decades. (This 1985 Publix training video depicts a particularly "emotionally insecure" shopper.)

Food justice writer and activist Raj Patel describes this phenomenon as the "Supermarket Racket:"

"The moment you step in a supermarket, you're in the belly of the new giants of the food system. The moment you step in a supermarket, you surrender a great deal of freedom. Everything about a supermarket is engineered. Everything. I mean, the smell in the air. Why is it that supermarkets have bakeies in them?... It's because the smell of baking bread makes us buy more stuff. And why is it that the milk is always at the back?... because it's the single item that we're in supermarkets most often to buy.

So there's a 'golden triangle' between the entrance and the milk and the checkout, where corporations bid to have their products facing you at eye level, or at cart level if they're going for your kids... you go into the supermarket for milk and you find yourself coming out with a ton of other stuff that you never expected to buy, that you didn't choose necessarily to buy when you went in, but you chose it as you walked past... you call it choice, when you're being manipulated into buying something—we're told to call that choice..."

Indeed, side-by-side with using their voluming purchasing power to demand the lowest prices possible for things like tomatoes, this is the formula behind much of the supermarket industry's profits (as depicted in this all-too-realistic scene from the satirical How to Get Ahead in Advertising and detailed more recently by food scholar Marion Nestle): convincing us that shopping there is good for us, good for our communities, and good for the planet.

But what does this have to do with us, directly, as young people?

As the “target market” of the fast food industry and as students positioned to hold our educational institutions accountable, youth played an indispensable role in bringing about each of the groundbreaking Fair Food agreements secured by the CIW over the past decade. Through tireless organizing and education on our campuses and in our communities—rooted in the concept that young people and students are objectified and exploited by the very same corporations that exploit farmworkers—we were a driving force behind some of the largest victories against corporate greed our generation has seen.

But does this analysis still hold true today as we turn toward the supermarkets?

All indications are yes. Youth and students are a valued demographic to the industry due to our buying power, concern for social responsibility and sustainability, role in family decision-making around food, and the industry's desire to solidify brand loyalty at an early age. Kroger and other supermarket chains, for example, are present on social networking sites in an attempt to reach a youth demographic.

More specifically, here are some choice quotes about us from the industry and those who study it:

"A veritable who's who of brand marketers is tapping into the expanding market of college students with the intent of setting up lifelong relationships.

Sampling is emerging as their key promotional tool to build brand awareness and create loyalty among college students as they embark on their lives as independent shoppers, apart from mom and dad…

Four-year, full-time students are often considered the prize targets, but two-year college students who work during the day may actually have more disposable income…

The time to get consumers to change brands is when they are young and in college. If you can get them in college, you essentially have captured a customer for life'…"

—Supermarket News, It's Academic

 

"Only 9% of supermarket shoppers are between the ages of 15 and 24, while 72% are between 25 and 64, says Supermarket News magazine. But younger shoppers are still important. Since shoppers establish brand loyalty at an early age, if a chain draws consumers into its camp when they're young, they're more likely to be loyal through their lifetime…"
—Investors' Business Daily, Marketing to Young Shoppers

 

  • "Advertising can take advantage of the spirit of volunteerism typically found in Millennials: campaigns can be built upon the urge that young people manifest in making direct and meaningful connections with the surrounding community.
  • Millennials are much more prone to be influenced by peer-to-peer networks than by “push advertising”: this generation has grown immersed in advertisements, and use their nearer social references as a guide on what products are really important to them.
  • It is important to bring people together: people of this generation have a growing sense that they can spark change, and the power is shifting rapidly from big companies to consumers, 'armed' with the new communication technologies...
  • Although Millennials are described by older people as being rather 'conservative', in relation to how those people behaved we they were young, it is very important for an advertiser to understand that just because Millennials question less their parents values than previous generation, that doesn’t mean that they are not 'rebellious' as consumers: young people seek novelty, and they are less tied to the past. They are also rebellious, but in their unique way..."

The moral of the story is this: The modern supermarket doesn't exit for everyone to get the freshest, healthiest food in the most convenient and accessible way, but rather to squeeze profits out of every step of the process, from the fields to the moment you walk down the aisles. Indeed, it could be said that farmworkers and consumers form the opposite ends of an hourglass-shaped vision of the food system, with corporations like Sysco, Wal Mart, Kroger and Publix occupying the small, brittle center. Thinking of the food system in this way reveals the connections—and the power—we have as farmworkers and consumers.

One thing is for sure: Untold resources invested in marketing, public relations and brand image management can't hold up against the reality of farmworker exploitation and the alliance between Florida's farmworkers and students and young people across this country.


Supermarket industry—further research & analysis:

PO Box 603, Immokalee, FL 34143 :: (239) 657-8311 :: organize (at) sfalliance.org