Canadian Journal of Sociology Online November 1998

Kim Humphery.
Shelf Life: Supermarkets and the Changing Cultures of Consumption
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 270 pp, Cloth $US 64.95, Paper $US 24.95.

This book satisfies on a number of levels. It offers a very good history, in the Australian context, of the rise of the large, modern, corporately owned supermarket. It does an excellent job of demonstrating the relationship between indigenous developments in the food provision business in Australia and its relationship to developments elsewhere, especially Great Britain and the United States. “American commercialism was to be an early influence on the construction of retail cultures, and many of the retail forms that were in place by mid-twentieth century were to be taken directly from the United States” (35). The author takes some pains to argue that there is more here than the Americanization of Australian food provision, and while there is, Humphery demonstrates over and over again the overwhelming influence of the American supermarket. The latter not only serves as

The supermarket is a forerunner of what in a forthcoming book I call the “new means of consumption” or “cathedrals of consumption” (Ritzer, forthcoming). Malls and superstores are included under the heading of the new means of consumption and Humphery makes it clear that he sees the supermarket as their ancestor. He also demonstrates that the supermarket had the key characteristics- magic, fantasy- of the cathedrals of consumption. However, he also shows how over time it is difficult to maintain the fantasy and for many the supermarket has become a very mundane environment. This is a dilemma faced by all means of consumption- how to maintain that sense of fantasy in the face of the fact that such magic tends to be lost with the passage of time. Another problem faced by means of consumption is how to remain fantastic when ever more fantastic sites are being created. Supermarkets face that problem when they are surrounded by palatial malls and even more sensational mega-malls that combine shopping malls with amusement parks. More theoretically, Humphery is attuned to the conflict between rationalizaton and enchantment that confronts supermarkets and other means of consumption. On the one hand, supermarkets certainly rationalized the retail food business making it, for example, far more efficient. Humphery stresses over and over the role of “science” in the coming of the supermarket and in its evolution over time. On the other, the supermarket was also very much about “the dreamworlds of retailers” (208). All of the new means of consumption, as well as their immediate predecessors such as the supermarket, must deal with the conflicts that exist between creating rationalized and fantastic settings for consumption, as well as the need to adequately balance the two.

Humphery not only identifies and discusses the history of an important site of consumption, but also deals with the place of the consumer within such sites. He relies on a series of lengthy interviews, oral histories drawn from a group of older residents of a Melbourne suburb. (He thereby complements the macro-level data drawn from the history of food service in Australia with this micro-level data to provide a nice macro-micro approach to understanding supermarkets.) Not surprisingly given the state of the sociology of consumption, he rejects the idea that consumers are controlled by the supermarkets. I think he is right, although he probably underestimates the power of supermarkets (and implicitly other newer sites of consumption). For example, he discusses many of the ways in which supermarkets are designed to get consumers to behave the way the retailer wants them to such as putting high-demand goods at the perimeters of the store and encouraging “an anti-clockwise movement through the store so that the customer could hold the basket in her left hand and select goods with her right” (86). He also rejects the voguish idea that it is the consumer who exercises power over the supermarket (and other sites of consumption). Consumers are not passive dupes in such settings, but that does not mean that they are in control. Obviously, control and resistance (although he was actually unable to find any resistance among the people he studied) exist in some dialectical relationship within these settings. In rejecting these as alternatives, Humphery offers another approach “in which people stand back from the market, feel anger at its presence, refuse to participate or, at the very least, question its relevance to other aspects of their lives. This process of standing back is...a process...`thinking through’, of imagining an `outsidedness’ and an oppositionality which is embedded in a process of `distancing’ rather than participation. It is this outsidedness, and people’s attempts to actively delimit the areas of their lives that are commodified, which has been almost completely ignored by the celebrants of the resistant consumer” (11). While I am not sure of the power of this alternative view, I am pleased to see Humphery try to stake out another alternative to the false choice between control and resistance.

Another theme that runs through this analysis is the relationship between gender and involvement in supermarket shopping. This is an unavoidable issue when discussing supermarket shopping, or any consumption for that matter, but I am less enamored of this aspect of the book than some of the others discussed above. It seems to be done more perfunctorily and does not have the theoretical force of the book’s other major themes. Humphreys returns to an old-fashioned shop, one for which many may think they are nostalgic, but he finds it uncomfortable and uninviting. There is no going back. We have quickly adapted to the new forms; they have become familiar and comfortable. But the pace of change is rapid and still newer forms (shopping for food via the Internet) are just around the corner.

George Ritzer, Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, forthcoming, 1999.

George Ritzer
University of Maryland
November 1998
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