“Consumer society gives people choice. ” Discuss this claim. UK society in the past has been described as an industrial society with social classes being defined around a person’s employment status. Consequently, only those who were very wealthy and had surplus income were considered consumers. However, with developments in technologies, an increased amount of workers in “white collar” jobs and shifts in living costs, the term “consumer society” is one which suggests our contemporary life styles are represented by the purchasing of products and services and how society interprets the choices made available.
This essay will look at discussing the extent to which a consumer society gives people choices, examining social, economic, and geographic factors in relation to theories and concepts raised by social scientists such as Zygmunt Bauman, Thorstein Veblen and Warren Susman. It will use these theories to evaluate the real choices offered by supermarkets, which play a major role in modern day consumption. For many, consuming is not only about essential purchases to live, but also buying into a favoured lifestyle and gaining a desired social kudos with an ability to consume.
Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of seduced and repressed consumers illustrates inequalities and differences created by a consumer society. Bauman suggests “We live in a consumer society where divisions are entrenched not by class, but by the economic ability to consume” (Hetherington, 2009, p. 25). Seduced consumers not only have access to finances to make certain purchases, but also knowledge of what commodities will gain them access into their preferred social status and how to obtain such items.
In contrast, repressed consumers may find the choices offered to them somewhat limited due to constraints such as lack of finances, geographical placements, disabilities or lack of knowledge about consumer trends. Within Bauman’s concept of the seduced, lies the theory of Conspicuous Consumption, the result of studies done at the end of the nineteenth century by Thorstein Veblen (Hetherington, 2009 p. 31) into the product choices made by those wishing to display to others a rising social status.
This theory is not out dated when looking at contemporary UK society. Lottery winners and reality TV stars are modern day examples of people who experience a swift change in the consumer choices offered to them and typically start consuming in a way which now reflects their new found wealth. There are those however who consume in such a way to reflect their individuality to others rather than as a display of their ability or inability to consume. The concept of the performing self, suggested in the 1970’s by Warren Susman (Hetherington, 2009 p. 2) can be related to contemporary shopping habits when considering people who consume to display their moral or ethical opinions, (for example only purchasing eco-friendly, fair trade or organic products). These concepts can be considered when discussing consumer choices offered by Supermarkets which have undoubtedly become a growing part of UK retailing. Tesco alone have 2000 stores in the UK out of its 3700 stores worldwide (Competition Commission, 2008 cited in Allen, 2009, p. 73) and a 60% market share of grocery shopping in some towns within the UK (The Guardian, 2007 cited in Allan 2009, p. 77).
The pro-supermarket argument would describe the success supermarkets enjoy being directly related to their acute commercial awareness and understanding of the 21st century shoppers’ ideals. Richard Dodd of The British Retail Consortium suggests“…supermarket growth has been driven by customers…because of the things that supermarkets do well…and that’s about range of goods, price, service and things like accessibility…” (‘Evidence in social sciences’, 2009, track 1). Supermarkets can seduce custom through product offerings and monetary savings, appealing to many who may feel repressed with their consumer choices due to lack of finances.
The growing presence of supermarkets within town centres has resulted in 94% of the population having access to at least 3 different brands of supermarkets within 15 minutes of where they live, (‘Evidence in social sciences’, 2009, track 1) bringing financial savings and product choice to those who may have before been restricted by geographic’s and lack of transport. On first glance, the offerings of a supermarket may seem positive and convenient but to some the dominance of large supermarkets can have a negative impact on society and possibly not offer the vast choices to consumers as the retailers may like them to believe.
Helen Rimmer of Friends Of The Earth argues that a growing dominance of supermarkets on the high street has resulted in a decline of the number of independent retailers by 30-40%, therefore reducing and restricting consumer choices. (‘Evidence in social sciences’, 2009, track 1) Rimmer also suggests that product choice is narrowed by supermarkets, stating that “during the height of the British apple season, there were hardly any native British apples on sale in the supermarkets, whereas in the maller local shops there was a much greater chance that you could find locally produced seasonal fruit and vegetables. ” (‘Evidence in social sciences’, 2009, track 1) When considering the choices offered by supermarkets it is important to look beyond the items we ultimately end up taking home, and analyse the global supply chain supermarkets use to keep manufacturing costs down and maintain low retail prices. The 2006/2007 investigation conducted by War on Want accused some supermarkets of “boosting profits at the expense of some of the most vulnerable workers in the world…” (Allen, 2009, p. 5) The accusation is looking at the global supply chain as a zero sum game, where one side of a party sees considerable sized gains whilst the other has to accept losses. The investigation found that workers in countries such as Bangladesh are made to work in a substandard environment for a below liveable wage, leaving workers with a choice of accepting the conditions or dealing with the possibility of no employment at all.
It is reasonable to expect the supermarkets to counter-claim that a positive sum game is the end result of the global supply chain, where everyone involved in the arrangement end up with gains higher than zero. They would argue that although the wages paid are low compared to that of the UK minimum, it is relative in relation to what would be paid as standard in Bangladesh before the arrival of such large companies. To conclude, the patterns of consumption have changed over many generations alongside developments in technology, transport, social ideals and more availability of funds to obtain desired commodities.
Therefore, it is fair to agree that choices are available for those who have an ability to consume, which reduce in relation to the number of repression factors individuals face. The choices made by people with an ability to consume can be influenced by personal, ethical views or an image the consumer wishes to project of themselves to society just as Veblen and Susman show in their studies of conspicuous consumption and the performing self. The choices available for consumers when looking at the roles retailers play are somewhat different with many dimensions to consider.
It is entirely possible that an individual can make a conscious decision to shop in one place rather than another, but the question of choice needs to be revisited when considering the monopoly supermarkets have in the retail market. It is also necessary to look at the internal workings of the big companies to see if they offer choices to those who make their vast empires possible or if the repressed situations of workers allows retailers to take advantage of these circumstances to make savings which in turn are passed on to their customers who keep the cycle of consumption in motion.