Posted on June 14, 2012
An Open Letter to
Bottom Dollar Foods
When Bottom Dollar Foods arrived in Pittsburgh, it immediately became my favorite grocery store. A discount supermarket that carries name brand items in addition to its store brands, it has also got reasonably-priced meats and excellent produce. Disappointingly, my shopping days at Bottom Dollar may be numbered, however, if my recent experience there turns out to be the start of a trend.
As I was about to check out, I noticed that the 5-cent plastic shopping bags that normally hang near the registers were missing. The cashier informed me that the store had run out of them, at which time I noticed that other shoppers were packing their groceries in cardboard boxes, or else buying those allegedly planet-saving cloth handbags, which are of little use if you’ve got a whole cartload of items. I decided on option number three, which was to put back all my groceries and walk away.
I do not for a second believe that this came about by happenstance. Never in my life had I been in a supermarket that ran out of plastic bags, until after those bags were declared to be evil by those who presume the authority to make such determinations. If you are test-marketing their absence to see if your customers are willing to undergo a degree of third-worldification in exchange for feeding their conceit that they’re “saving the planet,” then count this letter as an emphatic “no” vote.
I realize that the city of Los Angeles has just banned the use of plastic grocery bags, but Pittsburgh is not Los Angeles, and I really couldn’t give a flying organic raspberry whether or not Julia Louis-Dreyfus approves of my shopping habits. There may be those who look to their supermarket for personal validation, but I, for one, would rather have a convenient way to carry home all the things that I’ve bought. That may not be very ego-inflating, but at least it’s practical.
President Obama’s regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, has a word for what you’re doing. He calls it a “nudge.” Nudging is when you try to exercise control over somebody else’s behavior by positioning your preferred outcome as his least inconvenient option. A store that had innocently run out of plastic bags would have warned its customers of that fact as soon as they entered the building. Telling us only at the register, once we’d already filled our carts, was a classic, textbook example of a nudge.
When Sunstein is the one doing the nudging, he thinks of himself as the “choice architect” of the people he nudges. You are not my “choice architect.” I’m your customer, not your subject for social experimentation. As long as we both understood that arrangement, everything between us had been fine.
At the risk of bruising your self-esteem, Bottom Dollar Foods is not exactly avant-garde. The soy milk and whole grains crowd will never give you any more than patronizing approval of your politically correct efforts. Then, they’ll be off to their local Smug-Mart to buy their sustainable, free-range, rainforest-approved, glacier-saving, cannabis-flavored peanut butter, and laugh behind your back while calling you things like “bourgeois” and “gauche.”
Louis-Dreyfus claims that once plastic bags are outlawed, 90 percent of the customers will start bringing their own containers with them when they go shopping. I find that highly improbable, and suspect instead that a boom in grocery store construction is about to take place a few miles outside of L.A. city limits. Let’s just assume, however, that she’s right. Are you prepared to lose 10 percent of your customers?
Mind you, she’s talking about places where consumers’ only options are to tolerate this inconvenience or leave town. In a city that size, that’s often not a realistic choice at all. In the Soviet Union, where people had no choice either, they were willing to stand in line for hours just to get toilet paper that could scour the finish off a car, but that doesn’t mean they were content with the situation.
Here, we have no citywide ban. If I can’t count on bagging my groceries at your store like a normal member of Western civilization, I will not have to resign myself to carrying them in a giant basket balanced on top of my head. I’ll simply go to another supermarket, a couple minutes away, and walk out carrying all the bags I need.
That’s the problem when you start nudging people. They won’t necessarily move in the direction you’d hoped.
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