Who’s in Your Wallet- America’s Extractive Industry Still Very Much Alive

  • April 26, 2017

America’s extractive industries, including fishing, timber, and mining, have receded in relative importance during the past century. Whenever I venture into stores, however, I realize the nature of the extraction has merely shifted venue.

Multi-floor department stores, for instance, have escalators set up in such a manner that you can’t simply keep going down or up; usually you have to exit one escalator, walk around a bit, and take another escalator to the next floor. By doing so, you are exposed to more merchandise. Some stores are so brazen to remove the panels shielding the escalators’ workings, so you seem to be on a conveyor belt similar to those found in mining and manufacturing. In the department store case, of course, the vendor is hoping to extract money from your wallet or purse.

I have nothing against extraction; I even like to buy stuff, despite a widespread reputation for frugality. What I find ethically dubious is the marriage of science and marketing. Supermarkets are notorious for, shall we say, strategic placement of merchandise.

The larger supermarket chains hire consultants to advise them on the best way to relieve customers of the money. A staple tactic is placing candy, gum, and magazines near the cash registers in order to inspire “impulse” purchases. These items work well as impulse purchases, as their cash value is relatively low and require little inducement. Readers might swear they are impervious to such tactics, but they should try an experiment. Before entering the store, write down exactly what you plan to buy and then compare your list with what you actually purchased.

These small purchases are the equivalent of an individual miner placing for gold in a stream; the bigger attempts at extraction occur elsewhere in the stores. Consultants view a supermarket differently than do customers. The perimeters of the store appear to be the prime areas for selling merchandise.

A recent wrinkle in the tussle to extract more dollars out of consumers is to place candy in a main aisle near the entryway of a store. Another stratagem is to place cereal in the vegetable section—I kid you not.

Grocery stores also exploit the parent-child relationship. A harried parent, perhaps stopping at the store after picking up the children at day care, finds that the store managers have placed the sugar-encrusted cereals on the lower shelves, eye-level for children. Parents face a war of attrition; childish voices repeatedly pleading, “I want that,” combined with frayed parental nerves create a selling opportunity for the store. My dad occasionally took my sister and me grocery shopping, so I know what I’m talking about.

Are these actions ethical? How much manipulation is permissible? The libertarian spirit within me argues that consumers have self-control and reason on their side; then again, as an aging bachelor, I have not experienced the pleadings of small voices wanting the latest cartoon-inspired box of sweetened, baked-grain cereals. Would a store gain customers, among parents at least, by establishing a “parent-friendly” store? But would such a store be equally manipulative?

Clearly product placement within a grocery store matters. Companies with national brands sometimes offer smaller grocery stores suggestions on how to boost sales for a particular department; such suggestions, of course, are self-serving to a degree. The larger producers can offer cash inducements to stores for particularly valuable shelf space. These inducements may impede smaller producers from placing their products in an advantageous location.

The grocery store, therefore, becomes a contested terrain. What is fair in allocating shelf space? What is the reputable store to do? In any event, the next time you are tempted to buy the sweet stuff, stop and ponder whether your money is being extracted.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.

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