Postmodernism on the shelf

The chain store is a modern and modernist phenomenon, if anything is. It emerges together with industrialization and the discovery of the masses. In the case of food, this is especially obvious. Before the industrialization of agriculture and food-processing, food was a local phenomenon, if only because it couldn’t be transported or stored for long periods of time. Modern conservation and refrigeration technology solved that problem.

The grocery chain store as we now know it was born. With endless aisles of long-lived goods, canned, frozen, processed beyond recognition. It has recently been pointed out that the diversity of options in your average supermarket is actually only an apparent diversity. Most of the stuff sold stems from one basic source material: corn. Before most of us have even digested the news, grocery chains are already responding.

Already, chain stores diversify even more. Instead of relying purely on the brand name, they now adjust their stores to make them fit in with their surroundings, by a kind of sophisticated social mimicry. If your store is located in well-off, health conscious neighborhood, make sure it doesn’t look too cheap or too uniform.

Build a new building, one that conceals its purpose (mass consumption) as much as possible. Add some useless arches to the facade, so as to make it look less functional. Once you’ve lured potential customers inside, make sure they spend a lot of time in there. Don’t just offer them over-sized carts. No, add cup holders to them and plastic mobiles for the kids, to maximize the ‘shopping experience’.

But now take into account their sensibilities. While it would be too much to ask you to change your entire inventory and replace processed goods with fresh foods, at least make it look like that’s what’s happening. Give produce a prominent place, even if it’s not organic, or local, or in season. Emphasize the ‘Bakery’ even if 80-90 % of your bread sales are in mass produced corn starch loafs with unlimited shelf life. And be sure to add or expand the ‘ethnic’ food aisle. After all, all food is ‘ethnic’ for someone, right? This in particular will help create an illusion of diversity. Ostensibly you are just taking into account the actual ethnic diversity of your customers, but then, who is really going to buy easy-to-prepare Pad Thai? Not the Thai, who presumably know how to properly make it. But be careful with the “Fresh Food” corner – some observant shoppers might actually be prompted to reflect what this says about the rest of the goods offered.

These measures are simply an answer to our newly found need for individualism. We want to consume at cheap mass production prices, but feel like we are treating ourselves to specialty items just right for our personal taste. Maybe we even realize that we are fooling ourselves. There couldn’t be a greater contrast to the self-consciously functional, mass-oriented attitude of modernism.

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