Because English 1 starts off focused on advertisements, which Neil Postman considers our new theology,Â I’m reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell to get me into the mood of discussing our consumer-driven society.
One of the themes of Shell’s book is that cheap goods, which used to be forbidden by law during the fair-trade days before World War II, demand ever cheaper goods, which have brought us to our current state in which “Technology, globalization, and deregulation have made competition a death march.” And since “Many companies have had no choice but to reduce costs almost continuously” and “Since payrolls are the single largest expense of most businesses,” skilled jobs become fewer, livable wages are harder to find, and benefits are increasingly not part of an employment package (51).
This is to say that our desire for ever-cheaper goods is undermining our ability to educate, support, and employ our citizens.
This I think I knew, but I didn’t suspect that cheaper prices go hand in hand with less accommodating service.
I had thought it strange, for example, that the McDonald’s on East Second Street in Benicia didn’t install shades on its southern-facing windows since these windows extend from floor to ceiling, letting the sun heat the high tables right next to the window like an oven in the afternoon when sometimes I stop — I admit to this failing — to get one of those cheap $1 hamburgers.
It used to be that one could sit farther away from window tables in booths along the back wall, but then they remodeled and reduced the number of seats beyond the range of the scorching afternoon sun.
Odd, I thought, until I read Cheap. First there was the Gruen-transfer effect, named after retail-landscape architect Victor Gruen who created in the 1960s the first malls that were designed to welcome customers like a park to their gardens and in some cases even caged birds. For a while this worked, because people who spent more time in the mall ended up buying more, but then people actually began treating malls like parks. Now teenagers wander the malls with their friends and seniors nurse a cup of coffee for the better part of a morning without buying anything more (94).
So Gruen transfer was replaced with the Golden-Arches approach to social engineering:
At McDonald’s and many other fast-food restaurants, the lighting tends to be unflattering fluorescents, and the seats are bolted to the floor at an awkward distance from the tables. The purpose of this is not to prevent theft of the chairs, as many think, but to discourage elders, teenagers, and other undesirables from getting comfortable and congregating for hours over a small coffee, or an order of fries. Discomfort does seem to keep the customers churning; on average, fast-food patrons spend only eleven minutes at their tables. (The optimal fast-food customer — as defined by the fast-food industry — takes no table time at all but does a quickie through the drive-through.) (95)
So perhaps this explains the oven windows as well: in order for a business to sell cheap goods and make a profit, more and more goods must be sold in less and less time, so people who like a business so much for its environment that they want to spend more time than money can kill the business’s bottom line.
Have you noticed that there seems to be more Starbucks with drive-through windows? Does this also explain ubiquitous background music and over-scented stores that encourage us to get our business done and leave?