Down down, keeping 'em down: the tyranny of the supermarket

THERE are a few of us who have lived long enough to recall pulling up to a service station, known then as a garage, and having an attendant hurry out, fill our tanks from the bowser, check the oil and the water, clean the windscreen and often inquire whether he should inject air into the tyres.

THERE are a few of us who have lived long enough to recall pulling up to a service station, known then as a garage, and having an attendant hurry out, fill our tanks from the bowser, check the oil and the water, clean the windscreen and often inquire whether he should inject air into the tyres.

Then he'd take payment, hustle back inside and return with the change. It is near unimaginable now. Quite a few decades ago smart operators and oil companies discovered motorists were perfectly capable of filling their own tanks and checking their own oil and water. And with no need for a bowser attendant in the driveway, customers could come in and pay on their own two legs, thanks. The self-service, no-service, service station was born.

A few years ago, driving across the USA, I was astonished and confused to discover that you couldn't even fill your tank without paying first. You could swipe your credit card at the fuel pump, but as a traveller without a credit card with a five-digit PIN that would work on the bowser, you had to approach the attendant behind his or her heavily fortified security screen, estimate how much you thought it would take to fill the tank and hand over the cash. Only then would you be permitted to siphon fuel.

It's catching on in Australia now, as American ideas usually do.

There was a time, too, right up until the 1960s and, in many country towns much more recently, when if you wanted bread, a steak, a cabbage or a can of soup, you went to different shops where attendants were likely to give you at least half a smile before asking what you might like to purchase, pulling the required items from the shelves, wrapping them and passing the time of day as the business of paying was worked out. Why, our family's local shopkeeper was perfectly content to "put it on tick" and you'd pay the account at the end of the month. And if you needed help, the shopkeeper was more than likely prepared to carry your stuff out to the car.

Hugely inefficient, of course. All those quaint labour costs, time wasted and dead money waiting for future reconciliation.

The extreme end of this lack of productivity - a word that wasn't around when little shops and full-service garages existed on street corners everywhere - was to be found in the Soviet Union. With the old USSR creaking at the seams in the late 1980s, I found myself trying to purchase a couple of food items at a state-owned market in Moscow. As a foreigner, I could have gained entry to a special store known as a Beryozka, where unthinkable luxuries like chocolate and champagne and Western cigarettes could be obtained without the indignity of mixing with the locals.

But I wanted to experience what it might be like to be a Muscovite. It required standing in a long queue to purchase a slip of paper granting the right to stand in another long queue to finally take delivery from an unsmiling attendant the item that you might desire, assuming it was available in that time of shortages of everything. The Soviets had a policy of providing work for everyone, so if two or more market employees could do the work of one, the policy was met - even if the requirement of consumers was not. The state monopolised everything, and that was that.

The can-do entrepreneurial West, which is to say America, hadn't any time for that sort of commie rubbish. The old corner store of misty memory started giving way to early forms of supermarkets early last century in the US and gathered pace in the 1930s after a place in Queens, New York, called King Kullen opened its doors. According to Wikipedia, the US Food Marketing Institute in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution and with funding from H.J. Heinz settled arguments about the real "first" by nominating King Kullen after defining a supermarket as "self-service, separate product departments, discount pricing, marketing and volume selling".

Australia had to wait until the 1950s when every family that could afford it bought a car. Business visionaries figured big stores and big carparks were just the ticket. People could drive to one location, fill up their own trolleys, queue up to pay for everything in one go and pile it all in the boot of their family autos. The first serious supermarkets opened in 1960. Coles set up in Balwyn and Woolworths in Warrawong, a suburb of Wollongong in NSW.

Now, as everyone knows, Coles and Woolies (Safeway in lots of places in Victoria) are everywhere, cornering between them 70 per cent of the entire grocery market. There's no duopoly like it in the developed world.

You're as likely to get assistance from a smiling attendant in one of these places as you are likely to find a bowser boy these days ready to clean your windscreen and fill your tank.

But supermarkets are convenient and the price, as the saying goes, is right. In a lot of them now, you don't even have to queue to pay a check-out worker. Self-service credit-card machines take care of that. The whole experience can be as impersonal as attending a public dunny.

Still, in a free market economy, the public and regulators have been prepared to overlook the loss of gentler, slower and often more pleasant little stores on the basis that consumers get a better hip-pocket deal in big supermarkets. In a world of rush, where just about everyone works long hours and watches the household budget with trepidation, supermarkets with their wide choice of products suit the modern consumer lifestyle.

But what of the other side of the equation? With such market power, the two big chains have long been accused of screwing suppliers - farmers, meat producers, dairies, market gardeners and the rest - by offering another kind of choice: meet their demands on price, take a loss every now and then, or jump off a cliff. Want your product on the shelves? Pay Coles or Woolies up front, or lose the chance to sell anything at all.

Few suppliers have been willing to put their names publicly to such accusations, fearing for their livelihoods. I knew a man who spent his savings and his energy gearing up to grow, sort and supply vegetables, only to have one of the supermarket chains discard him. He was caught in the perfect bind: if he continued making losses to meet the demands of the chain, he'd be ruined; if he lost his contract, he'd go bankrupt anyway. He died instead.

Finally, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has offered anonymity to those who feel they have been bullied and forced against a wall, and it is reported 50 of them have come forward.

The big companies, of course, deny they're doing anything wrong, and their efforts are all in the service of consumers.

It's pointless to mourn for bowser boys in garage driveways and storekeepers offering payment on tick. Those days are gone, and may not have been so golden as nostalgia would lead us to believe. Consumers paid more for all that service.

But if the equation has morphed into lower prices and cold efficiency for the many being reliant upon stand-over tactics by the flinty-eyed, what have we won?

Could it be that the customer is not always right, whatever market orthodoxy might insist?

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