Sunday, April 7, 2013

Notes on Supermarket Savvy

If Tracy had trouble locating information about the information workers who wrote this article -- I would think they'd be better at making their personal information available -- then it is perhaps understandable that I had trouble figuring out what, exactly, they were trying to add to the discussion with this article. For that matter, it isn't clear which discussion they wanted to be a part of.

Overview – This article encourages us to broaden our conception of print as an object to print as a method of informing. The cover, unfortunately, is much more appealing and meatier than the book.

In their essay on the information-seeking behaviors of supermarket shoppers, Sara Wimberley and Jessica McClean present three sources of information available to consumers since the diffusion of the supermarket: the mass media, the government and the stores and products themselves. All three of these agents work with the others sometimes in concert and other times in opposition.

The problem with the article is that it lacks a case study. It is – especially in the section describing information seeking – entirely theoretical and presents imaginary scenarios where one of two information seeking methods (from Wilson’s information system or from Sonnenwald, et al.’s information horizon) might apply. There is no discussion of how shoppers actually made their decisions or how they regarded the information that was presented by one of the three agents mentioned above. They also add the important aspect of interpersonal, word-of-mouth information exchange, which makes me wonder why they did not give interpersonal information weight equal to that of the advertisements, in-store promotions or government initiatives.

It is difficult for me to determine who the audience is for this article. Historians of business will be disappointed by the lack of attention paid to the development of supermarkets and their attendant systems (and would take issue with the authors’ assertion that “meat clerks” were an invention of necessity created by the supermarkets despite the butcher being a centuries-old profession and having always been dependent on customer service and having served a role as an information supplier). Historians of advertising will wonder why, with hundreds of supermarkets and tens of thousands of stores available (strangely one of the few figures in the piece), the authors did not choose a single advertising case study despite their frequent allusions to the importance in-store signage in bringing information – pricing and nutrition –to customers.

Wimberley and McClean do go into relative detail in describing the unintended consequences of the UPC system rollout – they explain that the attempt to standard pricing instead created a fear of price gouging (187). They also bring in the importance of government regulation, leading off the discussion of UPC codes with a mention of the 1966 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (185). We can bring this into our overarching class conceptions as an example where legal requirements and government intervention forced the adjustment in the use of print among relevant social groups. Other importance pieces of government regulation and supermarket information included the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Food Production Act of 1917.

An increase in product and information availability was followed by an increase in attempts to assist the public in making sense of those products and pieces of information, with the most famous being the government’s reports and research on dietary needs, supplements and requirements. Dietary information has served both as a cause and effect of consumer patterns and third-party information campaigns (188).
The concept of orientation factors into the authors’ discussion in two ways: the act of the shopper assembling and then self-arranging the information gathered from the media, the industry, the state and the public and the practice of engaging with the geographic layout and organization of the stores (195).
The authors attempt to make the case for a consumer-driven market when they assert that “[when] the information found within these shared sources is displeasing to the population affected, social change soon occurs” (192). While their essay is not about social movements, this peek into the sociology of mass society and notions of control does not take into account the difficulties that groups have in engaging in mass struggles – the references to a handful of boycotts aside.

Also of particular thematic interest to us, and what works as a conclusion to this review of Wimbeley and McClean’s piece is the authors’ reminder that “print and media resources.. lack interplay and customized organization” (193). The future of print must be one that engages the “whole audience” in a conversation about how to best collect, arrange and convey ideas that are essential the function of our interactions as members of a society or community.

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