Photo:  Seuss

Peter Klein has an interesting post today about the history of the supermarket.  The supermarket succeeded against small grocers in part because they offered shoppers an anonymous, impersonal experience, he suggests, based on some recent research by historians examining shopping in post-war England:

“The nostalgics don’t even have their history right. A big research project at the universities of Surrey and Exeter is currently studying shopping in post-war England… Supermarkets were often welcomed by younger and working-class women. A retired secretary interviewed by the project recalled, as a young bride, asking the butcher for a tiny amount of mince. ‘Oh, having a dinner party, madam?’ he sneered. A woman who bought anything expensive or unusual risked disapproving gossip, spread by shop assistants. The project found press advertisements promoting the anonymity of supermarkets, as well as their convenience.”

Given that privacy in our purchases was a draw of the early supermarket, it is interesting how that tradition is both preserved  and eroded in interesting ways by the contemporary supermarket.

I’m in Buffalo, New York this month, and have been doing some of my shopping at Tops and Wegmans, two popular mid-Atlantic chains.  At least superficially, they offer a great deal of the same anonymity of the early supermarket.   They’re open late (and often round the clock), and many have self-service checkouts.  Not even the pimply teen at the cash has to see what you’re picking up.  Go in the middle of the night to a supermarket outside of your neighbourhood, and use the self-scan aisle to check out, and your shopping habits are free from prying eyes.

At least, superficially.

One of the interesting things I’ve found here is the aggressiveness with which loyalty-card systems are promoted.  Of course, in Canada, there are loyalty cards.  The cards are used to build loyalty (as their name implies; I prefer to shop at Metro because I earn Air Miles, or Loblaw because I earn PC Points), and to promote particular products (double points on Oreos!)

But here, the Tops and Wegmans ‘club’ cards are required to get ‘discount’ prices on an extremely wide range of items.  In many cases, the posted prices in the aisle are ‘club prices’, with the considerably-higher non-club prices indicated in small print beneath.  The use of the loyalty cards with just about every purchase (the cards, of course, are free) means that grocers can track every last detail of your buying habits:  What you buy, when you buy it, how you respond to sales, and so on.  This has always been the case to some degree, but you could always skip the tracking when you paid cash rather than with credit or debit.  By making it uneconomical to not use your ‘club’ card, the grocers can now track even your cash purchases.  The primary use of the loyalty cards is not to build loyalty directly:  It is to generate data.

It’s an interesting dynamic:  The original appeal of the supermarket, as Peter notes, was anonymity.  In the contemporary supermarket, we have an experience that is highly impersonal but not in the slightest bit anonymous.