Tuesday, 20 December 2011

On Consumer Choice... and the Lack of it

“British are more powerful shoppers than ever before, at work they are becoming less independent”.

He describes how the number of choices in a McGonnagal’s menu has gone from a few items in 1984 to some 49 or so dishes today.

But, he argues, the other side of this picture is worker’s loss of autonomy. In other words, today’s workers have less and less choice over what they do.

Aditya is missing a key piece of this puzzle, and without it the picture doesn’t make much sense: : why would the increase of menu options in a McGonnagal’s relate to the decrease in agency for workers?

What Aditya is missing is that this increase in consumer “choice” goes hand in hand with decrease in consumer “choice”. Yes, you read that right.

It is true that McGonnagal’s menu now has a bazillion choices, but the important question is: who many alternatives are there to McGonnagal’s?

I wasn’t in Britain in the 80s but I’m pretty sure that back then there were far more independently owned restaurants, cafes and “chippies”. Keep in mind that one single independently owned business is a “one of a kind”, while yet another McGonnagal’s is another example of the same thing.

If we were to mathematically compute “choice”, then each independent business would count as “one”, while McGonnagal’s as a whole brand would count as “one” as well. McGonnagal’s may have thousands of restaurants, but they all sell exactly the same thing. 

But forget about computing “choice”. The fact that I was having the same meal as Aditya while living in a different continent approximately 9 thousand miles away tells us all we need to know about the presence of “choice”.

The political meaning of “choice” isn’t “how many combinations of McGonnagal’s ingredients are there in the menu” but rather “how many alternatives are there to McGonnagal’s”.(And if you wanna get really political, the question is actually "who owns these businesses").

Incidentally, for a lot of poor people, the answer is increasingly “none”. There aren’t many places in town for the poor to go to relieve their hunger. Ok, I’m exaggerating: there’s always Burger Ming.

Speaking of which, yesterday I passed a coffee shop that is no more. It was open last month, though.
And in entirely unrelated news, another “Costa” has opened its doors, this one next to the Students’ Union. How nice. Now young people can pay their fees while learning the skills they will need for future employment… of barista, that is.

Aditya is right of course when he speaks about the loss of autonomy for workers. People have less and less “choice” or (“voice”) over what they have to do in their workplaces.

But how does that relate to McGonnagal’s menu choices?

Simple. Whereas before you had a McGonnagal’s, and a coffee shop, and a Chinese restaurant, and a chip shop, and a bakery, now you have… just a McGonnagal’s. Oh, and a PlanetsBucks, of course.

And what do those two have in common? They are humongous, global brands with thousands of venues.  

It’s easy to understand why the larger a company is, the less power workers have over what they do.

For instance, if you work for a small Chinese restaurant and you want to change a recipe, all you have to do is talk to the cook and/or owner.

If you work for a McGonnagal’s and you want to change a recipe… well… you can’t. Those decisions are taken thousands of miles away, somewhere in the US, by someone so up the food chain that you would never have access to them.

And it’s not like you could just change a recipe and get away with it. Because brands like McGonnagal’s require that every product is the same everywhere. They call it “brand consistency” and it matters, for some reason, that everywhere in the whole planet people are tasting exactly the same burger as everyone else.

Brands like McGonnagal’s and PlanetsBucks get larger at the expense of smaller businesses; that’s why their menus grow. This can only mean that people are working for them instead of opening their own shops.

And the larger these brands get, the more hierarchical and “top down” workplaces get.

The same story repeats itself on every aspect of the economy, so you can apply the same idea to your area of choice. For example, the number of magazines at the supermarket rack hides the fact that they are all owned by a few companies.

* I know that according to “journalistic” standards I should refer to him by his surname, “Chakrabortty”, but “Aditya” is such a nice name!

1 comment:

Aditya Chakrabortty said...

Dear Mary,

Thank you so much for reading my piece and making such a thoughtful response to it. You are quite right: all this choice is not quite what it seems -- try asking for a salmon and mango salad in McD's, for instance, and all you'll get is a blank look -- and often replaces wider and more interesting choices from other retailers. I cut that first point from my piece for reasons of space (i wanted to get onto work) but rather wish i'd left it in. Oh well.

Anyway, thanks again for your engagement -- and the compliment on the name. Please do keep in touch.

All best wishes,