Woolworths and the myth of consumer power

This blog is partly here to unravel the seemingly inexplicable elements of human behaviour and communication.

Many posts so far have skirted around one of the biggest causes of seemingly inexplicable behaviour, without mentioning it outright: power.

I believe that a large proportion of behaviour which otherwise makes no sense whatsoever can be explained with reference to power. Men who wolf-whistle at women in the street despite the fact that this method has never been known to attract a woman; toddlers who take your hand to lead you into a different room before immediately turning round and leaving you there; the colleague who takes more time asking you to do something than it would take her to do it herself. They’re all ways of reinforcing, testing, demonstrating power relations.

Power is the elephant in the room, so we joke about inexplicable behaviour instead. In reality, it’s quite straightforward. The goal of the wolf-whistler is not to attract a woman; it’s to reinforce his status as dominant by reminding women not to get too comfortable in “his” space. The toddler who wants to take you on a pointless journey is testing the limits of what he or she can get an adult to do. And the colleague who makes a fuss over simple things is using demands to reinforce the power relations between you. It’s all ritual and it’s all about power.

Capitalism is the ultimate outlet for the cultural narrative that ignores power and brushes off its manifestations as inexplicable, confusing or boring. The rhetoric in favour of a free market makes it sound as if capitalism is a vehicle for natural justice; good companies make money, good workers get jobs. We carefully maintain the myth that capitalism is about rewarding hard work, climbing the ladder, being competitive, making good. We pretend that it’s a system where customer feedback, in the form of increased or decreased spend, helps businesses adjust what they provide to better suit the needs of the customer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalism is about power. That’s why so many elements of it are inexplicable. It is not, and has never been, about rewarding hard work. It’s about using a system that pretends to reward hard work in order to reinforce power relations between employer and employee. It is also not, and has never been, about giving the customer what he or she wants. It’s about seeing how you can manipulate the customer into wanting whatever you’ve got. Advanced capitalism is about seeing how miserable you can make the customer and still make money out of him or her. Because being able to make someone miserable and take their money at the same time means that you have a lot of power.

The phrase “consumer confidence” plays into the myth that consumers have power, that there is some link between how a company treats its customers and how likely it is to survive the “credit crunch”. The reality is that consumers continue to take huge amounts of crap in return for handing over their hard-earned cash.

I went into a branch of Woolworths a couple of weeks ago. They were offering various deals on boxes of chocolates: two for one, three for two, £2.50 off, etc. Signs listed the types of chocolates included in each deal. It sounds simple, but it was made fiendishly complicated by the fact that most of the brands of chocolates listed as part of each deal were not on sale anywhere in the shop. The chocolates that were part of a deal and available in the shop were scattered all over the shop rather than together on the shelves. Some chocolates were part of two separate deals which were not to be used in conjunction with each other.

In order to take advantage of any of the deals, the customer had to be able to memorise several separate lists, search the shop for items on the lists, mentally eliminate items that were on the lists but not available in the shop and perform other demanding feats of memory and mental arithmetic.

You might ask why this branch of Woolworths was putting certain brands of chocolate into three-for-two deals when it didn’t stock those brands. Some people might suggest that it’s because they made a mistake. Others might say that it’s because the signs listing the deals were created centrally and didn’t take individual shop stock into account. I think the answer is simpler than that: power. Advertising unavailable items is one of the oldest capitalist tricks in the book. Even better if you can offer a juicy deal on the unavailable item. You manage to attract people and make them miserable at the same time. And once they’re in the shop, they’ll probably sate the desire you created by buying something else. You have a miserable, frustrated, paying customer. That’s power. The wild-goose chase is a classic manifestation of capitalist power.

Moving from aisle to aisle on my own wild goose chase, I was slowed by the sheer volume of other customers trying to buy chocolates. We were all confused and stressed, getting in each other’s way, blocking each other’s view of the chocolates and the offer signs.

Woolworths has been in trouble for quite some time, but it’s nothing to do with consumer spending or the lack of it. It’s in trouble because the parent company Kingfisher has made millions of pounds by selling off Woolworths properties and overloading the subsidiary business with debt.

I found out shortly after my trip to Woolworths that it’s now in big trouble, on the verge of being sold off for £1. This conversation on the Money Saving Expert forum is an unintentionally hilarious take on the whole thing. The posters have reacted to the news that Woolworths is in trouble by sharing tips as to how they can continue to buy from Woolworths, circumventing the stock problems in the shops and the website’s usability failures. Bear in mind that this conversation is taking place on a money-saving forum where people are supposed to be helping each other buy less unnecessary crap.

And yet the media keeps bringing up the myth that “consumer confidence” is a factor in Woolworths’ failure, that this hundred-year-old chain could have been saved if only we’d bought more. The thing is, it will be saved. It will be bought up (probably by Hilco) and it will continue to make us jump through hoops in order to buy things we don’t really need or even want.

On my last trip to Woolworths, I had a lab-rat’s pride in negotiating the maze that had been set for me. By combing the shop I managed to find two items that were part of the same deal. I bundled them into my arms, joined the queue… and waited. I waited with a line of people ahead of me and a crush of people surging forward behind me. Checkout assistants blipped purchases through and mumbled totals before sitting, arms folded, waiting and watching without lifting a finger while customers packed their own shopping. They would start blipping the next customer’s purchases through while the previous customer was still standing there, struggling with plastic bags and stuffing change into their purse. Each customer was set up to fail in their task of promptly packing their bags, because almost all their purchases would be blipped through before the previous customer had got out of the way.

After ten minutes I was bored of watching this display of contempt and I was no closer to the front of the queue, so I put my boxes of chocolates back and left the shop without buying anything. But most people in the shop had already invested too much time and mental energy in their purchases to give up at this stage. So they remained, waiting patiently to hand over their cash.

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Explore posts in the same categories: crunchballs, cultural narratives, lies, manipulation, media

2 Comments on “Woolworths and the myth of consumer power”


  1. […] Woolworths and the myth of consumer power: wolf-whistling, Woolies, and wondering what the hell you went in there for. […]


  2. […] said before, in passing, that wolf-whistling is not about attracting women; it’s about reinforcing dominance of public space. It’s about reminding other people: I am the […]


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