Supermarkets create the illusion of choice

Supermarkets can be dizzying places, jam-packed with tantalizing food displays and countless products. Many shoppers have tricks for outwitting the stores’ marketing tactics, such as always bringing a detailed list, refusing to shop on an empty stomach, sticking to the perimeter of the store where healthier fresh foods are sold, and making careful brand selections. (See how to shop here.) But it turns out that the supermarkets have created only the illusion of choice for shoppers when it comes to the last technique.

The Food & Water Watch has just released a report announcing that the selection in supermarkets is mostly a mirage. According to a press release:

“The biggest food manufacturers offer multiple brands in each type of grocery, giving consumers the false impression that they’re choosing between competing products when in fact all the sales can go to the same company.”
Many supermarkets have consolidated, resulting in fewer food companies controlling production and sales:

  • In 2012, 53.6 percent of the money that Americans spent on groceries went to the four largest retailers: Walmart (which sold nearly a third of all groceries), Kroger, Target, and Safeway.

  • Consumers are led to believe they are choosing among competitors, when many different products are actually made by the same firm. The same applies to healthy foods; for example, Kellogg’s owns Kashi and Bear Naked brands, even though packaging and websites make them seem independent.

  • Some big retailers charge food producers a fee to place their product in the most profitable shelf locations, and that’s something that small food producers can’t compete with.

    F&WW is calling on the Federal Trade Commission to place a moratorium on any more grocery mergers. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of F&WW, explains: “People are fed up with not having real choice and transparency. It’s time for the FTC to prioritize protecting shoppers over protecting the profits of a shrinking handful of corporations.”

    While I agree that the FTC needs to realign its priorities, I don’t think shoppers are helpless. People do have choice when it comes to buying food, but it requires an extra step that many aren’t willing to take – leaving the grocery store behind. Sourcing food directly from producers is becoming easier as farmers’ markets grow and year-round CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares for vegetables, grains, and meats gain in popularity. (I’ve even seen a CSA share just for sprouts!)

    It doesn’t matter where you live; there’s always a way to combat those grocery store goliaths. Urban dwellers can develop a European-style approach to food, buying small amounts of fresh food daily at the bakery, the butcher, and the vegetable stand. Rural dwellers can go straight to the source, buying fresh farm eggs, local honey, meat, cheese, fruit, and dairy. Consumers' collective dollars actually have a lot of power. It’s a question of where we choose to put them in order to effect change.

    The F&WW report, titled “Grocery Goliaths: How Food Monopolies Impact Consumers,” is available here.

  • Tags: Food Miles | Food Security | Shopping

    Best of TreeHugger