Volume 5, Number 1 (January 2008)
Author: Dr. Hillary J. Shaw
Man has simply cancelled his metaphysical contract and made another more perilous and collective one with things.1
I. Introduction: Mall-Addiction
The twentieth century has witnessed a fundamental change in the spatial organisation of retailing. Beginning in America (1916), spreading to Europe from the 1960s, and then to almost every other part of the world, consumers began increasingly to patronise out-of-town supermarkets and malls abandoning local shops and the city-centre. These malls, termed “drugstores” by Baudrillard, seduced shoppers through the wide choice of goods they offered, through offering a safe, comfortable, controlled, and predictable environment, and through intense advertising. This comprised advertising of both the goods within the mall and of the mall itself:
The ‘drugstore’ is a model of a polyvalent commercial complex offering consumers the freedom to design their own everyday environments through the accumulation and combination of homogeneous elements. This deluxe banality is semiurgical: the participatory sign-work of consumption (shopping, using customer services, seeking entertainment in the climate-controlled interiors of malls) equates maximal comfort and satisfaction with the maximal exclusion of the real, the social, and history.2
In the 1970s European malls were either historic institutions such as London’s Burlington Arcade, built in the early nineteenth century, or were post-war reconstructions of destroyed city centres such as Plymouth or Dresden. Like the early supermarkets, these malls were town or city centre phenomena, co-existing with nearby independent stores.
It was not until the 1980s that European urban centres began to see a shift in the centre of gravity of retailing to out-of-town centres, these new retail malls becoming the new “city centres” and rendering older historic urban centres peripheral.3 Today prospects for in-town retailing appear finely balanced. Major supermarket chains are returning to the High Street, and some historic towns have successfully marketed themselves as tourist-retailing centres. Large “sub-urban” grocery retailers continue to gain custom whilst many neighbourhood stores are closing.
With the passing of four decades since Baudrillard’s System of Objects (1968) and The Consumer Society (1970) it is time to look again at some of his analysis in light of four decades of change. How has the consumer been further seduced by, or become addicted to, Baudrillard’s “drugstore”? Has the hyperfunctionalism of consumer culture described by Baudrillard completely taken hold or does the consumer retain some ability to choose between hypermarkets and local markets. Supermarket shoppers almost always have a choice to shop elsewhere, but has the overbearing presence of the hypermarket, and the choice of goods therein, rendered that choice illusory, a mere hallucination of the hypermarket? Hyperfunctionalism meets reversibility (at least at the local level) when we consider the consumer realm forty years on.
II. The Enduring Cultural Supremacy of Consumption
In The Consumer Society Baudrillard refers to the 20th century retailing innovation of the edge-of-town shopping centre as the “drugstore”. Baudrillard’s premier example of this type of retail institution is the Parly 2 centre, just west of Paris. Parly 2, described by Baudrillard as “the biggest shopping centre in Europe”, offers not only a choice of some 200 shops but also sport and leisure activities, a library, a place of worship, and even housing:
The drugstore can become a whole town… ‘Art and leisure mingle with everyday life’ and each group of residences radiates out from its swimming pool, where the clubhouse becomes its focus. A church built ‘in the round’, tennis courts (‘the least we could do’), elegant boutiques and a library.4
This modern-day drugstore “lumps together all categories of commodities”5 in a culture of mass consumption so that consuming has itself become a cultural activity. Furthermore, consumption has become, not just an economic activity but the principalactivity of the economy, as exemplified by President George W. Bush in a statement made after the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Centre: “we can’t let the terrorists stop us from shopping”. This pronouncement is quoted by Trevor Norris6 , who explains, in the accompanying endnote, that “Bush later said the idea came from a letter from a child who knew that the ultimate repudiation of terrorism is: “people are going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, worshipping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and football games”. From this statement outlining key facets of the American way of life, Bush chose the one factor which synthesises all aspects – shopping.
III. Shopping and Leisure As Social Control
For the wealthy, shopping has always been a necessary corollary activity to consumption because the affluent leisured classes by definition did not physically produce their daily needs, let alone their wants. The elite patricians of Classical Rome had slaves for that purpose, freeing their time for trips to shopping malls similar to the one discovered by archaeologists on the edge of the Roman spa town Aquae Sulis, now known as Bath. Aquae Sulis boasted, not only hot baths and a retail mall but also theatres and places of worship; a 2,000 year old forerunner to Parly 2.7 Beneath the patricians, the plebeians also experienced a conflation of consumption and leisure; the “bread and circuses” of Juvenal. However plebeian leisure was at least in part state-regulated. The rulers of the militaristic Roman Empire saw sport and athletics as essentially a means to maintain the citizenry’s fitness for war.8
Nineteenth century Britain, another militaristic power, organised shopping, sport and leisure in a similar manner to classical Rome. London’s wealthy elite could shop at malls like Burlington Arcade, a highly-regulated retail mall with security guards. These security guards, known as “Beadles”, enforced rules designed to maintain an orderly shopping environment.9 The term “mall” itself derives from a nearby thoroughfare, Pall Mall, a street renowned as far back as the 18th century for both shopping and leisure activities.10 Baudrillard11 notes Marx’s observation on how retailing, exchange value, had subsumed and superseded all other order, especially cultural and ecological:
The busiest streets of London are crowded with shops whose show cases display all the riches of the world. …but all these worldly things bear odious white paper labels and the laconic symbols £ s d. This is how commodities are presented in circulation.12
Meanwhile the sport and leisure activities of the proletariat were seen by the Victorian ruling elite of Britain as a means of controlling these lower classes.13 Football (soccer) was once a rather anarchic village game,14 but both the sport itself and the rules according to which it was played, were seized upon by the Victorians, codified and used to “drum into [schoolboys] rough martial values”.15
By the twentieth century consumption was not – indeed could not – remain the preserve of the wealthy alone. Baudrillard points to the financial crisis of 1929 as a point where “production was no longer essential, selling was”;16 likewise, “to consume is to resume production”.17 Even before the 1929 Crash, Edward Bernays played a key role in co-opting the potential discontent of the working class masses, which might have led to Communist Revolution in the West. Without their awareness or consent he diverted their aspirations into consumption. Objects were organised into “a signifying fabric: consumption is the virtual totality of all objects and messages ready-constituted as a more or less coherent discourse”.18 An active citizenry was “replaced with complacent consumers and passive spectators”.19 Workers’ holidays could increase in duration and the working day shorten, but now leisure time was as vital for the economy as production time, so long as leisure largely equated to consumption. The workers would perceive the opposite; leisure time alienated from work time,20 thus they consent to the commodification of their free time. Shurmer-Smith, for example, describes the increasing commodification of football, the world’s “beautiful game”.21 In fact the industrial proletariat works hard at their free time, for “as consumer[s] they are haunted by the fear of missing…..any kind of pleasure”.22 Leisure, and especially its subset sport, reinforces “the belief that discipline, effort, and skill are rewarded by economic success and, moreover, that the existing societal hierarchy is the product of fair competition”.23
Baudrillard likens the all-pervasive values of marketing to a virus which, akin to many other pathogens, alters its host’s behaviour. Like leukaemia, this “virus of consensus” grinds down our immune system, making us ever less resistant to the sign-values of consumerism24 . Shortly after Baudrillard wrote this, marketers actually began using “viral marketing”, producing advertising videos so catchy that consumers would pass them on to their friends around the world via the Internet or mobile phones. Now the anxious consumer not only works hard in their leisure time supporting the retail economy, they also do the advertiser’s work of promoting this economy.
Some US consumers are so overcome by this all-pervasive consumer “virus” that they cannot recognise the ‘use-value’ of goods when such goods are presented “naked”, freed from consumption signs. Baudrillard notes the case of a US department store, occupied by an anti-consumerism group who then invited people to take what they wanted. Most customers were stupefied, unable to figure out what they needed or wanted.25
Consumption therefore appears to rule triumphant as we enter the twenty-first century. Even art, one of the fundamental attributes distinguishing Man from Animal, is now adapted and subverted to fit the “nature of the market”.26 The sign-universe of consumption now constitutes our entire (yet virtual) environment, supplanting an older ‘milieu’ of physical species and nature.27
Modern shopping malls, increasingly presenting themselves also as leisure centres, incorporate images of both artistic places and of nature itself. Malls may even contain trees; not plastic trees but real trees, fully grown, rooted where nature could never have placed them. The White Rose retail mall, near Leeds, has its arboreous decorations regularly watered and pruned every three weeks by a corporation from Sheffield. Neither drought nor flood ever threatens this mall-forest. Nature, safe and controlled, is moved indoors, and consumers are sheltered from the outside environment of concrete car parks and asphalt motorways.
IV. The Real Supplanted by the Hyperreal
Consumption has “moved from a means towards an end – living – to being an end in its own right”.28 Gabriel et. al. further state: “There is an extraordinary fixation within consumerism on ever-increasing ranges of manufactured products, when natural products are disappearing at an alarming rate”.29 One might include within the concept of ‘natural’ the idea of “authentic places”. Relph30 defines “authentic places” as places “founded on a complete conception of man and his relationship to the gods and nature”. “Natural” places in danger of being superseded by consumed artificial alternatives then include man-made locations such as Paris, the Taj Mahal, and New Orleans, as well as, the Brazilian Rainforest.
Environmental disasters such as drought or flood may at least partially destroy New Orleans or the Brazilian rainforest but the consumer can experience replicas of these places in retail malls or in “consumption cities” such as Las Vegas. Las Vegas, the “absolute advertising city”,31 contains replicas of the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower. Regional shopping malls such as the Trafford Centre near Manchester, UK, contain arcades modelled on New Orleans, and shoppers can drink coffee and savour snacks in a rainforest-themed café. Ironically, the production of the coffee they drink may have
contributed to the destruction of the original authentic rainforest. As Aldous Huxley so presciently wrote in Brave New World (1932) “Primroses and landscapes…have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy”.32 Malls are today’s factories of consumption and their production lines, the rows of shop tills, are similarly rendered idle by love of real nature.
Baudrillard wrote of the “real” New Orleans; the Trafford Centre images are “the reflection of [this] profound reality”; this is the first stage of the creation of a hyperreal image.33 Successive stages of the creation of this hyperreality involve the “masking and denaturing of profound reality”; the “masking of the absence of profound reality”; and finally the image “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever, it is its own pure simulacrum”. A visitor to the Trafford centre sees a sanitised, denatured New Orleans, devoid of the poverty-stricken areas where low paid but key workers like cleaners and security guards might actually live. This triumph of the signs of consumption over the reality of function extends to the objects bought as well as where they were bought – Baudrillard cites an early example, the tail fins on earlier American automobiles.34 These were not symbolic of real speed but a “sublime and measureless speed”. In practice their weight slightly reduced the speed attained by the car to which they were fitted. More recently, in Los Angeles in the 1990s, school officials were concerned at the obesity of students eating too many Pizza Hut pizzas. The US Government wanted students to eat US Department of Agriculture (USDA) – formulated “healthier” pizzas instead. However the Pizza Hut meals had a certain cachet or “coolness” within the school precincts. The only way to achieve a healthier school diet was to covertly substitute “USDA formulated pizzas for the usual [Pizza Hut] branded pizzas. The response was nil…[the students] were basically eating the brand”.35 In an example of consumerism yet further removed from reality, an advertisement from the HSBC, the “world’s local bank”, combines the idea of “greenness” and “money” in a fictitious rainforest image of a £-shaped lake that nature could never have created (figure 4).
V. Observing the signs of mall-addiction
A consumer may visit “New Orleans” at the Trafford Centre, or choose from the selection of many malls within a few hours drive from home. Each mall will provide enormous product choices. According to Gabriel et. al. “choice is itself a fantasy, an illusion, but like all illusions it serves as a mechanism of control”.36 Control within the mall manifests itself at several levels, according to Baudrillard. Firstly, the consumer is seduced into visiting the mall in the first place, lured, not only by the cornucopia (or Pandora’s Box) of choice, but also by the leisure facilities it offers, from cafes to cinemas and sports facilities. Secondly, the “wide” choice has been pre-determined by others, producers, retailers, and especially by marketers. Thirdly, the Mall is as controlled an environment as the original Burlington Arcade. Rules, written and unwritten, govern what shops may locate there, what activities may be undertaken within the Mall’s precincts, who may be admitted or denied admission, and at what times they may enter or not enter. Beggars may be ejected, because they do not seem likely to consume and, worse, may put others off this imperative duty. Even pensioners may be targeted. Hutton reported on a Luton shopping mall where security guards “prevent old people from resting too often on the few benches because, the manager says, market research had shown that the general public was particularly distressed by the sight of old people sitting down”.37 “The consumer is free, and allowed to remain [in the Mall], just as long as he (sic) consumes”.38
Manipulation of time is a fourth means by which malls and hypermarkets control consumers. Many consumers in the Mall are cash rich but time poor, and to them “time is a rare and precious commodity”.39 However clocks are conspicuous by their absence within malls, and most supermarkets. Many supermarkets have an ornamental clock on the outside, but once the consumer enters this “drugstore”, there is little to remind him or her of the passing of time and the plethora of consumer goods to distract them from it. The Trafford centre goes one stage further with the destruction of natural time and the creation of timeless mall-time. One ceiling in the Trafford Centre imitates the natural rhythm between day and night but over a twenty minute cycle. Time therefore becomes spectacle, entertainment, anything in fact but a natural cue as to when it might be an appropriate moment to cease from shopping and partake of other natural diurnal activities. The mall exists in a perpetual present, the perpetual “now” of consumption, all historical signs made artificial. As Baudrillard commented: “The past in it’s entirety has been pressed into the service of consumption”.40 We have imported this system into our living rooms, with the abolition of the clock from our mantelpiece.41 The clock which was once the focal point of living rooms has been replaced in this role by the television – an advertiser for not only mall products but the culture of mall society. It is appropriate that shoppers have welcomed and brought into their own home some of the control aspects of the mall, because Baudrillard has added a fifth level of control of the consumer. A level of control that involves the entire residential area around the mall.
VI. Hyperfunctionalism: The “Whole City” Becomes A Mall.
Baudrillard wrote “A drugstore can become a whole city”; similarly, “the drugstore can become a whole town”.42 Not that a map of the northern urban centres of Britain is ever likely to show “Meadowhall”, “White Rose”, or
“Trafford Centre” as the principal urban centres of what we know to be Sheffield, Leeds, or Manchester where these malls are respectively located. However, the mall is well-placed to depose and replace the retail function of the older city centre. The “authentic” High Street, which has organically developed over centuries based on Norman markets, mediaeval trade guilds, or ancient trade routes, may then visibly begin to die – its retail premises becoming charity shops, cut-price “everything a pound” shops, or closing altogether. This has happened to east Sheffield and to Dudley, which now find themselves orbiting Icarus-like too close to the shining stars of Meadowhall and Merryhills. Wrigley et. al. write:
Since Meadowhall opened in 1990, trade in [Sheffield] city centre appears to have fallen by more than one third and the entire northern third of the CBD, the Haymarket / Castle Market area, has been devastated. Streets are lined with boarded up shops, whitewashed windows, and down-market discounters. Several charity shops occupy what were prime retail sites until the late 1980s”.43
In Canada, Keniff describes the same mortification of the former shopping area of Toronto’s Yonge Street, in response to the opening of the Eaton Centre:
The construction of the galleria [Eaton Centre] sucked the life from Yonge Street, slowly changing it into what Mayor Mel Lastman once described as an eyesore: a stretch of discount stores, run-down buildings and businesses of questionable repute.44
Alternatively the original city centre may live on, apparently thrive, but as a “zombie centre”, with many shops but few of the basic retail functions necessary for everyday life. Zombie centres are rich in comparison-goods boutiques selling electronic goods, greetings cards, clothes and jewellery, abundant in banks and cafes; but sparse in grocery shops, bakers, butchers, and post offices. Some zombie centres appear to thrive on tourism-related retailing, but as a spokesperson for the Countryside Agency put it, “you can’t eat sugar candy or picture postcards every night”.46
For the everyday retailing, the purchase of food and other basic consumer items, people may visit a suburban hypermarket, many of which have been branded as “neighbourhood centres”. The hypermarket has become, according to Baudrillard, a “nucleus”; regarding the relationship between this nuclear hypermarket and the original city centre, Baudrillard writes: “The city, even a modern one, no longer absorbs it. It is the hypermarket which establishes an orbit along which suburbanisation moves”.47 The supermarket or neighbourhood centre lies at the physical heart of many British suburbs, especially those constructed since 1990. These centres often contains one large retail grocery hypermarket with a guaranteed local monopoly; also a Post Office and some smaller stores offering services the hypermarket does not care to offer, such as dry cleaning, shoe repairs, and key cutting. The neighbourhood centre also might incorporate a pub and café, with a play area for children, completing and perpetuating the association between shopping and leisure in a safe but controlled environment. Where a supermarket does not have its own satellite housing estate built around it, the supermarket may construct its own. Tesco is building 2,000 homes in Woolwich, south east London, for freehold sale around a new Tesco supermarket there and has built flats above several of its London stores, some let at “affordable rents” to Tesco staff.48 This recreates the “company-tied housing” erected by many Victorian industrialists such as Sir Titus Salt, for workers. What has changed today is that what are being constructed are not production towns of early modernity like Saltaire but postmodern “consumption towns”.
Supermarket manipulation of the built environment naturally also includes the superstore building itself. The hypermarkets and malls often attempt to recreate a physical simulacrum of the traditional shopping environment that has been lost largely because of the retail dominance of the superstores themselves. Supermarket premises are embellished with structurally irrelevant gable ends, to resemble oversized tithe barns. The supermarket’s external clock mentioned above may be placed in a structurally superfluous tower, with gabled or pointed roof, to resemble a rustic village church clock. In industrial Sheffield the retail mall’s imagery is different, but still reminiscent of an earlier age of localised production and selling.
The Meadowhall Centre near Sheffield has statues based on the old metalworking industrial past of that city, a past that has been eliminated by the same economic forces of globalisation that helped produce Meadowhall itself. Perhaps Baudrillard’s thought on the process of “pressing the past into the service of consumption” achieved by the various shopping villages constructed across Europe, generally built on green-field sites where no previous village ever existed. Nevertheless, the designers of these “villages” have done their best to simulate traditional rural shopping, albeit in a “zombie” form. These villages also resemble the pseudo-alive city centres mentioned above in that they sell clothing and fashion goods but no bread or milk. As with supermarket buildings, the cottage gables and shop awnings of these Potemkin Villages are superfluous, and the shopper population is made up of prosperous city dwellers. We have then simulacra of former peasant villages but now without the peasants (figure 10):
The ‘Chic Shopping Village’ (for Baudrillard the “absorption of masses into humdrum existence of consumption”)49 shown in figure 10 is a retailing-only version of older “model villages”, which were, like today’s malls, designed as a means of perpetuating the socio-economic order, “keeping the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate”.50 In the mid 19th century, Lord Ongley insisted that residents of his model village of Old Warden, Bedfordshire, dress up in a parody of mediaeval rustic garb. One can never actually live in the Chic Shopping Village but at least one may wear, as well as buy, modern clothing there. As Baudrillard, borrowing from Barthes put it: “The system that abandons the meaning yet does so without giving up any of the spectacle of signification”.51 One also thinks here of Baudrillard’s concern that the modern consumer lacks the consciousness of their circumstance in relation to the workers of the 19th century.52
VII. Drugstore Towns and the Hyperfunctionalist Economics of Land Development
The dominance of supermarkets over localities can also be explained by the economics of house building and of leasing retail units. This is an aspect Baudrillard had not yet witnessed when he wrote his first two books. Local authorities have the power to order housing estate developers to provide shop units, if the housing development is over a certain size, typically 2,000 homes.53 Interestingly, the people who buy these houses do not shop locally in sufficient numbers to support the shops component of the development. On new housing estates where small retail units were built, the viability of these shops was questionable. A Lincolnshire, house builder commented: “even if the house builder has to build shop units, will they be let? In Grimsby shop units were empty for years, then knocked down, never used, and houses built there instead”.54 Across the River in Hull, the story was similar. A Hull housing developer stated:
In Victoria Dock [a housing development of 2,500 units], there had to be shops. They tried to make a village community in there. [But] everyone goes to the out-of-town supermarket. If the development is big enough to justify shops, there isn’t a villagey feel to it, so they still use the supermarket. Most people who buy our houses are out a work during the day, and won’t pop down to the local shops. Most of the big housing estates are empty during the day. It would be marvellous to have local shops but the shopkeeper has to earn a living. I can’t see people moving away from out-of-town supermarket shopping”.55
The same developer noted the case of a new housing estate in Beverley where a six-shop parade was built, but:
…only the fish and chip shop has done well. All the other units are empty or turn over fast. A shop opens, then closes soon, and is empty for a while again. There was a tiny little supermarket had a go, but he had six cans on the shelf, it just didn’t work. That’s a big estate in Beverley, but it had a Morrison [a branch of the UK’s fourth largest Supermarket chain] up the road”.56
The general consensus among house builders is that large housing developments have to be built around a supermarket, or built with no shops at all, in which case the residents would obtain their weekly shopping by driving to another supermarket. No builder saw any economically viable way in which small independent shop units could be economically viable on these new housing estates.
VIII. Hyperfunctionalism and Hypermarkets
Supermarkets have established a virtuous circle of increased size, larger economies of scale, and cheaper prices, which leads on to further gains in market share and expansion of trade. Wrigley et. al. writes, concerning a major UK supermarket chain:
Throughout the 1980s, Sainsbury’s pre tax profits rose at never less than 20 per cent per annum. …as a virtuous circle of heavy capital investment in new store development, IT systems, distribution / logistics, and supply chain management.57
Additionally, the major supermarket operators: “…were able to counteract the market power of their suppliers to extract ever greater discounts and concessions and reshape supply relations to their favour”.58
The mark up in a typical large supermarket is in single percentage figures, but a small shop may be forced to mark up its goods at 50% or even 100% of the wholesale price in order to generate a living wage for its proprietor. Furthermore, the wholesale price faced by a small shop is likely to be significantly higher than the price a large supermarket chain has negotiated with its suppliers. In a suburb of Birmingham, a small independent corner shop paid £12 a box for tins of tomatoes, but a nearby Sainsbury’s store paid £2 a box. This translated into retail prices of 80 cents per tin at the small shop and only 5 cents at Sainsbury.59 In Leeds, a shopper in Beeston said the local independent shops “charged 85 cents [in 1999] for a bag of sugar, two or three times Kwik Save supermarket price”.60 A study of food prices across Lincolnshire found that village shops were “on average 46 percent more expensive than the supermarkets on the cheapest range of goods”.61 Consumers may therefore decide that the hypermarket is worth patronising not because they are captivated by it but for the rational reason that, due to large economies of scale, it is cheaper than local shops. These are contemporary examples of what Baudrillard once referred to as the “hyperfunctionalism” of the culture of consumption.62 A representative of a pensioner group in Scunthorpe (not an affluent town) said:
…money is tight and elderly people are going to use the supermarket [rather than a more expensive corner shop] by whatever means they can. Aldi, Lidl, Netto, they don’t have the range of goods that Tesco and Safeway have but they’re very, very, inexpensive. If [the corner shop] is going to cost you £2 or £3 more than the supermarket, you’re going to try and get to the supermarket.63
The hyperfunctionalism of consumer culture provides incentives for consumers to choose supermarkets over small shops, such as a wider choice of products and a possibly higher level of customer service. These incentives are explored in the following section.
IX. Hyperfunctionalism as Convenience
The commercial success of the supermarkets is due not just to lower operating costs but to higher customer spending. The higher customer spending is due to a wide range of goods being sold, offering all the convenience of “one-stop” shopping. In turn this wider product range leads to a higher percentage of “value-added” goods being stocked, including pre-prepared oven ready meals and other household time-saving products. This results in what Baudrillard describes as “the consumers free time being sold back to them”.64 The marketing of such time-saving foods can also be regarded as an outcome of the hyperfunctionalist consumption leading to a cash-rich but time-poor lifestyle. Supermarkets provide many other services for their customers, including free and relatively safe car parking, clean bright aisles, a free phone taxi link, and a generally good level of customer service. Shoppers disadvantaged by age or disability may find supermarkets offer much in the way of practical help that smaller shops cannot, besides lower supermarket prices. A pensioner group in Scunthorpe commented:
…the supermarkets employ designers to ensure their shelves are top notch [accessible to the disabled, pensioners etc.] whereas the small shops can’t afford this. People knock supermarkets but they have specially adapted baskets for wheelchairs, the aisles are wide enough for wheelchairs to go down, they’re all well lit, heated, air-conditioned, supermarkets give a lot of thought to their elderly people.65
The large supermarket chains have ploughed some of their large profits back into providing an enhanced shopping experience, one that is easier for disadvantaged groups of consumers such as the elderly or disabled. Of course this enhancement is carried out not for altruistic purposes but to gain yet more trade and profit. However this does not mean that small shops cannot compete with supermarkets, nor even that these two types of retailer must exist in conflict with each other. In certain cases, small independent shops and supermarkets can be mutually complementary. Hyperfunctionalism has its limits.
X. Contra Hyperfunctionalism: The Survival of Smaller Shops
There are numerous cases of small independent shops successfully resisting the erosion of their trade by supermarkets, or even profitably co-existing with them. The smaller retailers usually achieve this by offering something the supermarket cannot. That “something” may be a tangible good, for example a specialised range of goods that the supermarket chain, seeking large volume lines with economies of scale, will not stock. An independent butcher thrives in a neighbourhood shopping centre location in west Leeds, just 10 metres from the entrance to a large Morrison supermarket. Customers visit the butcher for more unusual meats such as ostrich and goat, which are not sold by Morrison. Rural grocery shops have managed to stay open, despite the threat of loss of trade to the nearest supermarket, by offering specialty lines, such as local crafts, or unusual vintages of wine.66 In other cases, the “something” offered by the smaller shop is intangible, a degree of customer service. The International Journal of Retail Distribution and Management67 cited the case of an independent video store in Memphis (USA), which survived competition from the Blockbuster video chain by expanding its selection of films. This shop also required its staff to spend several hours a day watching these videos in order to be able to give advice to customers on films. Small shops may offer a speedier counter service; independent grocery shops can survive within a hundred metres of a large supermarket, because the customer can nip in and out within five minutes and is willing to pay a higher price on a small purchase to save their time.
In some cases the supermarkets can promote the commercial viability of small independent stores. Smaller UK towns often host a smaller High Street version of the out-of-town supermarket chains such as a Tesco Express or a Somerfield. These supermarkets may have a beneficial effect on other nearby independent High Street shops, via the “claw-back of trade” effect.68 The claw-back of trade effect means the presence of a local branch of a supermarket on a High Street causes some shoppers to relocate their shopping to the High Street shops, in preference to a more distant supermarket.69 In contrast, Monbiot notes Wal-Mart’s (itself both an incredible proponent and product of hyperfunctionalist consumer culture), discovery that “a town with a population of just 4,500 is just large enough to support a gigantic out-of-town store, as long as most of the competition is eliminated”.70 Wal-Mart’s policy appears to confirm, at least in North America, the Baudrillardian idea that the drugstore can become a whole city, at all scales from the Regional Centre to the smallest rural market town. However this targeting of small towns by Wal-Mart may rather be a symptom of the vulnerability that Wal-Mart felt from the competition offered by other low-priced supermarket chains. Graff comments “Since Wal-Mart feared competition from other discount chains, most of the early Wal-Marts were located in very small towns, too small to interest competing discount retailers”.71 In other words, an apparent aspiration by a major supermarket chain to exterminate any competing independent shops may actually be a sign of perceived market weakness within that supermarket company.
In recent years a number of British towns, including Saxmundham and Sheringham, have been celebrated in the media as the smaller combatants in a sort of “David versus Goliath” battle against the supermarkets. The storyline is of a small market town, with its selection of independent shops now threatened by the possible entry to that town of a large supermarket. Media readers are given the alternative of a lively eclectic range of independent stores, or a “cloned” High Street dominated by a few globalized retailers. Or, worse, a dead or “zombie” High Street, full of charity shops and discount stores.
The commercial reality is rarely so black and white. In the case of Sheringham, Tesco claims that 70 per cent of shoppers currently buy their groceries outside the town, precisely because it has no supermarket. Even some local independent shops agree there is a need for a supermarket in Sheringham, to capture the claw-back of trade effect.72 Saxmundham successfully prevented Tesco building an out-of-town supermarket in 1996, although the town had a town centre Somerfield. In 2004, Tesco was still absent, and the Somerfield still present. Despite concerns that Somerfield, another chain store, albeit much smaller than Tesco, would take trade from other High Street shops, the number of independent shops in Saxmundham in 2004 was exactly the same as in 1996.73
XI. Consumer Resistance to Hyperfunctionalism
Clarke et. al., describing the typical shopping habits of the British shopper, state that consumers:
…may do their big weekly shop at Sainsbury’s, use a local Tesco for top up shopping every two to three days, buy weekend treats at Marks and Spencer and use specialist outlets for particular goods like organic bread and fruit.74
Britons may do 80 per cent of their shopping in the four biggest supermarkets but also like the idea of local shops close by, especially in a rural setting. Several Lincolnshire estate agents said that house prices were up to 15 per cent higher in villages that still possessed a grocery store and post office, compared to those villages without a shop.75 However many householders liked the idea of a local shop but wanted others to actually patronise it sufficiently to keep it open.
Forty years after Baudrillard’s The System of Objects and The Consumer Society there is much evidence that the hyperfunctionalism of consumption has deepened in ways which affect all our lives. Consumers however appear both to be captured by the supermarket phenomenon and able to resist it. Much debate on whether consumer autonomy is a fact or ephemera assumes this dual position cannot be true. Clarke writes “The positions defended in this debates are invariably frozen and polarised: the consumer is either sovereign and all-powerful, or a passive dupe devoid of all volition”.76 Clarke also brings to our attention the statement by Baudrillard that “advertising is not all-powerful”.77 Monbiot implies that shoppers have a false choice, they have only a simulacra of choice, stating
…we are faced with a profusion of minor choices and a dearth of major choices. We can enter a superstore and choose between twenty different brands of margarine, but many of us have no choice but to enter the superstore.78
However it seems many of are determined to preserve some choice other than to enter a superstore, even if we do the bulk of our shopping there, for economic reasons of price and time-value. An ICM poll reported in The Guardian reported that, 81 per cent of those polled agreed that “supermarkets make buying food cheaper and easier”, 58 per cent said “always try to buy food produced locally”, and 72 per cent “worry more about the quality of food than they used to”.79 Hyperfunctionalism tends to work against itself especially in terms of consumer fears about pollutants and safety in an interesting example of what Baudrillard would term “reversibility”. Consumers seem aware of this hyperfunctionalism as 70 per cent of those polled agreed that “supermarkets have become powerful, squeezing producers and limiting choice for customers”. The supermarkets will naturally try and sell us high quality food, even locally produced food if that is what shoppers demand. This poll could be seen as confirming the dominant position of supermarkets, but it also reveals a consumer desire for the choice of smaller shops, a desire that many of us translate into buyer action, for at least a fraction of our purchases. There is a deepening hyperfunctionalism but it is also meeting a certain resistance.
Consumers behaviour today is complex. Gabriel et. al. assert the consumer’s capability to screen out the “noise” of proliferating commodity signs and single out, and subject to personal interpretation, the objects they wish to consume.80 , much as one might listen to and interpret music against a noisy background. This screening out may also apply to the stores. Some stores may be heavily advertised but the consumer retains the ability to choose which store they patronise on grounds of personal preference. Wrigley et. al. report on how less affluent shoppers in Leeds chose a nearby Netto over a new Tesco deliberately to avoid the temptation to overspend in the latter store.81
Supermarkets, rather than influencing consumer shopping habits, may feel they have to respond and adapt to consumer desires and concerns. The large grocery chains are keenly aware of the increasing importance of Corporate Social Responsibility issues, in areas ranging from diet and health to the environment and Fair Trade issues, as well as competition-related issues such as the viability of small shops and ‘clone High Streets’. Booths supermarket, a local chain in the north-west of England, commented:
We will not put a café in our stores if we were petitioned by the local café owners not to, like in Kirby Lonsdale. We would have damaged public relations and lost politically if we had denuded good cafes from Kirby.82
Town centre property landlords may also wish to maintain a selection of independent shops rather than allowing supermarket chains to take over. The Mercers Company, which owns much of the Covent Garden area of London, is resisting letting to chain stores and instead is “wooing independent shops by offering them incentives such as a 15 per cent rent reduction”.83 Michael Soames, the Mercers Company’s surveyor, was reported as saying “If we allow Covent Garden to be another high street, we would be competing with every other street in Britain. People will just stop coming”. The individuality of Covent Garden’s retail offer, resulting from its unique mixture of independently-run shops, was recognised as a strong commercial advantage.
Hyperfunctionism meets reversibility as consumers work to subvert the mechanisms of globalisation and use them against global corporations. The same information technologies that provide the communications essential to global corporate activity has also provided the Internet and email as vital tools for organisers of global boycotts.84 The Internet can empower individual consumers, enabling them to support some retailers and shun others. If individual consumers act en masse together, the effects on large retail chains can be potent. When retailers have to rely heavily on the Internet to reach customers, “Who actually controls distribution in this type of world”, asks Bill Gossman in The Economist;85 the answer being, “the individual does”. Supermarkets may be powerful retail entities, but an alliance of the public, non-mainstream media, small businesses, retail landlords, and local politicians can be more powerful still, at least at a local level.
Every system secretly nourishes an evil spirit [reversibility] that would ensure that the system were overturned.86
Hypermarkets have attained a powerful commercial situation, achieving a near-monopoly of grocery sales in certain areas. This position of trade dominance may at least partly be explained through the hyperfunctionalist logic of food prices and land demand as much as by the warm glow of consumer seduction. Consumers have shown they have the desire and the will to resist when they think appropriate; using the large retail chains to best self-advantage. As Nagel states:
You can’t shop Wal-Mart without becoming a Wal-Mart shopper, but that is not to say you remain a Wal-Mart shopper once you enter the Gap [a clothing store]. The meaning we intend in these spaces is a conjoining of what we want from those spaces and how the spaces affect our perception of fulfilling those wants; however we ultimately constitute or enact its meaning.87
Most consumers who can access a supermarket can also physically access independent shops. We still have a choice as to whether to see the hypermarket as a total consumer panacea or as just one alternative retailer amongst many.
The hypermarket chains may be powerful but they are not all-powerful, rather they are keenly aware of their vulnerability to a number of threats. Such threats may take the form of competition from discount chains (as in the case of Wal-Mart) or commercial discrimination against them, by Covent Garden property landlords. Even where supermarkets hold the balance of power, the need to take into account reversibility [which can emerge in Corporate Social Responsibility issues], or risk the loss of trade to competitor grocery chains, forces the large hypermarket operators to defer to the needs of less powerful actors in the commercial arena.
Some consumers may be enchanted by the idea of a hypermarket that seeks to sell them everything they could ever consume within their lifestyle, and more besides. Others see the hypermarket as an institution offering convenience and lower prices to be used where economically appropriate; at other times independent shops will best fulfil their consumption needs. Most shoppers see the hypermarket as a highly convenient and very competitively priced retail institution, but not as the only choice they have for purchasing their daily groceries, or other commodities. To summarise, consumers may use, at times heavily use, Baudrillard’s drugstore, but most consumers are not necessarily addicted to it, or to the drugs it sells. The very system which tends toward hyperfunctionalism also tilts toward reversibility.
About the Author
Dr. Hillary J. Shaw is Senior Lecturer in the Business Management and Marketing School at Harper Adams University College, Shropshire, UK, where he teaches economics and food retailing. Hillary specialises in research into “food deserts” and has developed a methodology, for use by health and governmental agencies, to identify areas of dietary deprivation within the UK.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. “Review of Uwe Johnson’s: The Border” (1962). In Gary Genosko. The Uncollected Baudrillard. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE 2001:36.
2 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (1970) cited in Gary Genosko, McLuhan, Baudrillard and Cultural Theory, Lecture Six: More McLuhan Than McLuhan, 1997, http://cc.msnscache.com/cache.aspx?q=8278041853787&lang=en-GB&mkt=en-GB&FORM=CVRE
3 – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981), University of Michigan Press, 1994:77
4 – Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society (c 1970). London, SAGE, 1998:28.
5 – Ibid.:27
6 – Trevor Norris. “Consuming Signs, Consuming the Polis: Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard on Consumer Society and the Eclipse of the Real”. In International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, (July 2005): http://www.ubishops.ca/BaudrillardStudies/vol2_2/norris.htm
7 – The Daily Telegraph, Out of town shopping malls pioneered by rich Romans, 28 December 2004:12.
8 – Neil Ravenscroft. Recreation, Planning, and Development. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992:9.
9 – Ben Weinreb, Christopher Hibbert, (Editors), The London Encyclopaedia, Macmillan, London, 1993:110.
10 – Ibid.:595. Pall Mall began as an entertainment and sports arena; the road name derives from an Italian croquet-like game called pallo a maglio, or ‘ball to mallet’.
11 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London, SAGE, 1998:26.
12 – Karl Marx. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971:87. £ s d represent, in order: pounds, shilling and pence.
13 – Neil Ravenscroft, Recreation, Planning, and Development. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992:10.
14 – ‘Archaic’ football survives today in traditional village games such as the ‘Haxey Hood’. This is a village ritual sport still enacted every 6 January (‘Twelfth Day’)in the village of Haxey, North Lincolnshire. Ostensibly linked to a visit by Lady de Mowbray in the 14th century, elements of the ‘Hood’ such as the Fool or Harlequin, the smoking fire, and traditional chants betray far older pagan origins going back to prehistoric bog burials.
15 – The Times. Brutal truth behind beautiful game. March 28, 2005:10.
16 – Jean Baudrillard, Utopia Deferred, Writings from Utopie (1967-1978), Semiotexte, New York, 2006:162
17 – Ibid: 162
18 – Trevor Norris, Consuming Signs, Consuming the Polis: Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard on Consumer Society and the Eclipse of the Real, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, July 2005: http://www.ubishops.ca/BaudrillardStudies/vol2_2/norris.htm
19 – Ibid
20 – Jean Baudrillard, Utopia Deferred, Writings from Utopie (1967-1978), Semiotexte, New York, 2006:42
21 – Pamela Shurmer-Smith, Doing Cultural Geography, Sage, London, 2002:30.
22 – Jean Baudrillard, selected writings, edited by Mark Poster, Polity Press, 1998:51
23 – Neil Ravenscroft, Recreation, Planning, and Development. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992:18.
24 – Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories II, Duke University Press, 1996:51.
25 – Jean Baudrillard, For a critique of the political economy of the sign, Telos Press, 1981:204
26 – Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories II, Duke University Press, 1996:51.
27 – Jean Baudrillard, For a critique of the political economy of the sign, Telos Press, 1981:200
28 – Yiannis. Gabriel and Tim. Lang. The Unmanageable Consumer. Sage Publications, London, 1988:7.
29 – Ibid.:30.
30 – Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness. London: Pion, 1986:67
31 – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). University of Michigan Press, 1994:6
32 – Aldous Huxley. Brave New World. Flamingo, London, 1994:91
33 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). University of Michigan Press, 1994:6
34 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (1968). London:Verso, 1996:59. See also jean Baudrillard. “Tail Fins and Lighters Polished by the Sea: Stylization, Manipulability, and Envelopment”. In International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 3, Number 2, (July 2006): URL
35 – Greg Critser. Fat Land. London: Penguin, 2003:48.
36 – Yiannis Gabriel and Tim. Lang. The Unmanageable Consumer. London: SAGE, 1988:38.
37 – Will Hutton. The State We’re In. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995:219.
38 – Thomas-Bernard. Kenniff. A Revaluation of Public space in Toronto, July 2005:10, downloaded 24/1/2007: http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:6eET8qxJaa0J:www.tbkenniff.com /assembly/documents/essay.pdf
39 – Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society (1970). London, SAGE, 1998:153.
40 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (1968).London: Verso, 1996:84.
41 – Ibid.:24.
42 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society. London: SAGE, 1998:28.
43 – Neil Wrigley, Michelle Lowe, Reading Retail, Arnold, London, 2002:224
44 – Thomas-Bernard Kenniff. A Revaluation of Public space in Toronto, July 2005:10, downloaded 24/1/2007: http://18.104.22.168/search?q=cache:6eET8qxJaa0J:www.tbkenniff.com/ ssembly/documents/essay.pdf
45 – Editor’s note: In the summer of 2007 the birds were taken down.
46 – H Shaw, The Ecology of Food Deserts, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2003:117
47 – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 2000:77
48 – Daily Telegraph. “Tesco submits revised plan in battle for Sheringham”. February 5, 2007:B2.
49 – Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1978). New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:39.
50 – Guardian II. “the olde worlde order”. May 4, 2002:10.
51 – Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976). London: SAGE:99, n. 3.
52 – Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, (1970) London: SAGE, 1998:86.
53 – Hillary Shaw. The Ecology of Food Deserts. PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, 2003:142.
54 – Ibid.
55 – Ibid.
56 – Ibid.:143.
57 – Neil. Wrigley and Michelle. Lowe. Reading Retail. London: Arnold, 2002:32.
58 – Ibid.:54.
59 – Hillary Shaw. The Ecology of Food Deserts, PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, 2003:87.
60 – Ibid.:167
61 – F. White. Village Shops Healthy Eating Project Briefing Paper, published by The Community Council of Lincolnshire, July 2002.
62 – Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, (1970) London: SAGE, 1998:109.
63 – Hillary Shaw. The Ecology of Food Deserts, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2003:89
64 – Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society (1970). London, SAGE, 1998:153
65 – Hillary Shaw. The Ecology of Food Deserts, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2003:164.
66 – Ibid.:101.
67 – International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management (No author credited), Summer 1995, Volume 23, Number 6, Retail’s David and Goliath:iii – iv.
68 – Hillary Shaw, The Ecology of Food Deserts, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2003:89.
69 – N. Wrigley, M. Lowe, C. Guy, S. Wood, and H, Shaw. “Relocalising Food Shopping”, University of Southampton, 2006:6.
70 – George Monbiot. Captive State, Macmillan, London, 2000:200.
71 – Thomas O. Graff. Unequal Competition Among Chains of Supercentres: Kmart, Target, and Wal-Mart, The Professional Geographer, Volume 58, Issue 1, 2006:57.
72 – Daily Telegraph Business, 2007, Tesco town go-ahead would counter criticism, 22 January 2007:B5.
73 – Guardian II. “The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker”. June 28, 2006:6-9.
74 – Ian Clarke, Alan Hallsworth, Peter Jackson, Ronan de Kervenoael, Rossana Perez del Aguila, and Malcolm Kirkup. “Retail competition and consumer choice: contextualising the ‘food deserts’ debate”, pp. 89-99, International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management’, Volume 32, Numbers 2 and 3, 2004:93.
75 – Hillary Shaw. The Ecology of Food Deserts, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2003:144.
76 – David B. Clarke. The Consumer Society and the Postmodern City. London: Routledge, 2003:49.
77 – Ibid.: 55.
78 – George Monbiot. Captive State. London: MacMillan, 2000:16.
79 – The Guardian. “Nation of reluctant supermarket shoppers”. November 23, 2006:29.
80 – Yannis Gabriel and Tim Lang. The Unmanageable Consumer, Sage Publications, London, 1998:65
81 – Neil Wrigley, Daniel Warm, Barrie Margetts, Michelle Lowe. “The Leeds ‘food deserts’ intervention study: what the focus groups reveal”, pp.123-136, International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management, Vol.32, Nos. 2 & 3, 2004:131
82 – Hillary Shaw. The Ecology of Food Deserts, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2003:104
83 – Sunday Times Review, Free us from these chains, 17 October 2004:17
84 – Hertz, The Silent Takeover, Arrow Books, London, 2002:192
85 – The Economist, A Survey of Consumer Power, 2 April 2005:5
86 – Jean Baudrillard. The Lucidity Pact Or, the Intelligence of Evil. London: Berg, 2005:127.
87 – Chris. Nagel. “The Gap in Being – Phenomenology Goes Shopping”. Journal of Mundane Behaviour, Volume 1, Number 3, October 2000:335.