Thursday, October 13, 2005

I'm all lost in the supermarket

After commenting yesterday on the vacuous trends that pervade our culture, I thought that I would continue the marketplace dialogue by offering my take on the trend’s more virtuous cousin – brand loyalty. While trends live in the superficial world of such places as bars and malls, customer loyalty can be best viewed in the sterile and unassuming environs of the supermarket.

A survey commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) indicates that 76 percent of consumers consider a product’s brand before pulling the trigger on the buying decision. At first glance, this might not seem that much different than the roots rockers cum copier salesmen who insist that theirs be a Pabst Blue Ribbon. But it is different. You aren’t on display when you’re traipsing down a grocer’s aisles, and neither are the contents of your cart. A trip to the grocery store is really a quest for sustenance and nobody has time to check out the other gatherers (hunters being unnecessary in a place where the meat is already dead and quartered..) Consumers are so confident in their incognito-ness that even the most prissified or dandified among them will show up on a Saturday morning sans makeup and with hair mussed. So what you buy is your own business, and also a reflection of what you hold dear deep inside.

Wonder bread. Crest toothpaste. Oscar Mayer bologna. These are just a few of the many name brands that have won the undying affection of shoppers. They earned it by being steady and always available. In return, they only ask for a little extra out of your weekly grocery budget, a trade that many consumers are willing to make. But others, like myself, have grown a little cold to the deal.

My loyalty to name brands first began to be tested when my weekly grocery bills started to consistently land in the triple digits. As my family grew, my eye began to wander to the modest store brands sitting somewhat less decorously next to their titled betters. Their lower prices shyly began to beckon me. I discovered that the ingredients were usually close to the same, give or take a heavily-consonanted word or two. In time, my taste buds would no longer notice the difference, but my pocketbook* would.

Soda, or "pop" to you Ohioans, was one of the latest allegiances that I broke with a name brand. For years I had played the field between Coke and Pepsi, but once the soda price wars ended a couple of years back and you could no longer buy a twelve-pack for under $2, I made the inevitable move to store brand soda. I’ve found that Meijer brand diet lemon-lime is a passable alternative to 7-Up, although it lacks the Uncola’s crispness. The Meijer caffeine-free diet cola, on the other hand, has a unique berry taste that has genuinely won me over.

I still patronize some name brands. Although my mac and cheese days are largely behind me, my palette having evolved as an adult’s will, I refuse to rain indignity down on my children by serving them anything less than the Kraft brand. I’ve found that there really is no alternative. My wife, who believes that cleanliness surpasses godliness, insists on Lysol-brand cleaning products to use during her weekly immaculation process. For these, I will pay a little extra.

In the GMA survey, 76 percent of respondents admitted to "chasing a brand" to a different store if it wasn't available at the initial store they visited. This is what most likely prompted grocery stores to seek some unconditional love for themselves by issuing loyalty cards, those credit card-like pieces of plastic that earn the consumer special pricing on select items.

I know that some have philosophical differences with the use of loyalty cards, believing that the very act of entering a store with the intent of exchanging cash for goods entitles one to the store’s best price. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t have a problem participating in their little game. Just as I don’t see the threat to my personal freedom through the use of traffic cameras, electronic voting booths, or DUI roadblocks, I really don’t care if Jewel wants to get a handle on my frozen pizza preferences. I suppose if the local methamphetamine task force breaks down my front door some evening because I purchased more that my allotted share of allergy medicine at Osco then I might change my tune. But for now, I’ll use their little cards. They just shouldn’t expect my loyalty.

At the risk of seeming a cad, I must confess to a brief and meaningless tryst that I had with Cub Foods recently. Flashing my Max Card like a megastore lothario, I picked up five gallons of skim milk and unabashedly took advantage of the seductive sales price of $2 a gallon. I was single-minded in my pursuit and purchased nothing else. Not only that, just the day before I had wantonly done my major grocery shopping at Meijer. I’m clearly not the type of shopper a grocery store wants to get serious with. But if they’re going to brazenly flaunt their sales items in the Sunday paper, then they have to expect guys like me to start hanging around.

So I suppose that the pursuit of brand loyalty can be just as cheap and tawdry as chasing the latest trend. Despite the ugliness inherent in rabid consumerism, I’m a big fan of our free market society. I don’t want to have my goods allotted to me by some "glorious" state-controlled cooperative. Besides, grocery stores are a great place to check out women.**

*I don’t really have a pocketbook, but if I did I would carry it in my waistcoat.

**So I learned when I was single, but a practice that I’ve since discontinued in deference to my beautiful wife.


Anonymous said...

A couple of trends related to brand loyalty that tick me off: 1.) stores dropping items that don't sell in enough bulk, instead of just reducing the amount on display....this always drives me to another store, which is a big PITA, and

2.) Brands tinkering with their success by coming out with "new" or "improved" versions (New Coke, anyone?) If I'm buying a brand at the grocery store, it's either because of the taste (if it's food) or the smell (if it's a cleaning product). Packaging? Marketing? I could care less. Start tampering with the taste or smell, and you lose me.

The brands I like? For pasta, it's gotta be DeCecco, Racconto, or Barilla. If those are unavailable, I'll use Prince. Creamette sucks. For crushed tomatoes, go to Angela's or the Food Mart and get something Italian. Too high-tone for ya? Then use Red Gold. Zatarains makes some good stuff; I really like their black beans and rice. Uncle Bens isn't bad either, and their plain ol' converted rice is the best for oven-cooked recipes. La Brea is good but expensive....I wouldn't feed Wonder Bread to the ducks at Washington Park. Coffee? Well, I've been known to buy beans at the Suns Up, but when I'm at the store it's strictly the better brands (whichever happens to be on sale), and whole bean. Once you get a coffee grinder, you'll never go back.

Stay far away from Azteca tortillas for your Mexican food (unless you like tasteless cardboard); since Springfield doesn't have a Latin store, go to Schnucks and pick up Manny's, or Rosita's. And for tortilla chips, get the cheaper store brands; they taste better---more corn flavor. The name brands are washed out.

La Lubu, proud food snob since 1967!

Anonymous said...

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

Monkey Boy said...

"At the risk of seeming a cad...."

Love that paragraph, especially "megastore lothario."