November 28, 2003

We Are Where We Shop


Today, according to ancient American custom, thousands of moms and dads will wake before dawn, jump into their cars and drive to the mall. There they will wait patiently in the parking lot for the doors to open. Then they will race their shopping carts through the broad, familiar aisles of our nation's most popular discount stores, filling them with DVD players, wide-screen TV's, Hokey Pokey Elmos something's always on sale. Before noon, if they're lucky, they will emerge triumphant from behind the cash registers with the trophies of their early-morning hunt.

While the most coveted trophies may change from year to year, the ritual does not. During the past century, America has transformed itself into a shopping nation. Since the 1870's the dawn of mass-produced consumer goods new stores, products and promotions have continually surrounded us with visions of abundance and supplied us with the means to fulfill our dreams.

Low prices reflect democracy. Brand names represent our search for a better life. And designer boutiques embody the promise of an ever-improving self. Yet Americans have made a Faustian deal with the culture of shopping, and especially with bargain culture. The retail prices may be low, but the social costs are high.

Consider, for example, Wal-Mart, which is the largest company in the United States based on revenue, with annual sales last year of more than $244 billion. Wal-Mart's reputation for bringing a wide variety of goods to small towns and rural communities gives the company leverage over town councils and planning boards, which are often asked to grant zoning concessions or relax environmental standards. And Wal-Mart's frequent position as the only big employer in town allows it leeway to hire workers at low wages.

But Wal-Mart's strategies aren't exactly new. F. W. Woolworth, who opened his first five-and-dime store in 1879, succeeded by providing a wide array of common household and personal goods at standardized, low prices. During the glory years of the five-and-dime, men shopped there for hardware and stationery, women bought sewing supplies and hair ornaments, and children chose toys and Big Chief writing tablets.

Like Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart in 1962, Woolworth was able to keep prices low by ruthless cost cutting using self-service to reduce the number of sales clerks, paying them low wages and encouraging tight control over inventory. Woolworth also introduced employee stock ownership but only for managers, who, unlike the sales clerks, were all male. And Woolworth fiercely opposed labor unions.

Compared with consumers in other countries, Americans have benefited from these policies. Since the 19th century, the middle class has depended on low prices for consumer goods mainly food, clothing and, until recently, housing to maintain its standard of living. To a great extent, however, these low prices are encouraged not only by the market but also by the government.

Almost every president of the 20th century acknowledged the major role of consumption in the American economy. Bill Clinton supported free trade, which keeps prices low by encouraging companies to make goods in low-wage countries and sell them in the United States. More recently, politicians have joined merchants to encourage Americans to shop their way out of recession, for example, or the trauma of a terrorist attack.

Throughout his career, Sam Walton kept the motto of an earlier entrepreneur, James Cash Penney, above his desk: "Serve the public . . . to its complete satisfaction."

But Walton also expanded the chain with a methodical, state-by-state saturation of local markets putting smaller, locally owned stores out of business. Unlike Sears, Wal-Mart made an effort to appeal to women by featuring health and beauty products. And unlike many department stores, Wal-Mart consistently resisted going upscale. Most important, in the 1980's, Wal-Mart largely abandoned American-made goods for imports and switched from mostly generics to nationally advertised brands.

Now shoppers could find cheap designer jeans and brand-name refrigerators in the same store. This one-stop shopping offered low prices, high quality and convenience an ideal situation for shoppers of modest means. But it also attracted shoppers with higher income levels. Like the upper-class women who shopped at Woolworth during the Depression, they could always find something to buy.

It is social equality of a sort: instead of reducing differences between the classes, we are satisfied to see them shopping in the same discount store. Instead of supporting local businesses, we shop at giant chains. Instead of raising incomes, we lower prices. Americans have accepted bargain culture as our vision of democracy.

When the economy is uncertain, the appeal of bargain culture grows. But low prices are not really a bargain. They may allow us to shop more often, but they weaken our ability to pay the bill.

Sharon Zukin, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, is author of ``Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture.''

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