March 14, 2013
Site #2: Category Management

1.
In the mid-1980’s, Schnuck’s had a problem. The regional grocery chain based out of St. Louis, Missouri, with about 60 stores at the time, was in a competitive price battle with Kroger, then the country’s second largest grocery store chain. Economies of scale were not on their side.

At the time, much of the conventional grocery market was witnessing stagnation, as markets became saturated and revenue growth leveled off essentially at the pace of population growth (today, conventional format stores are in slow decline). Regional and local chains like Schnuck’s were going out of business. In a situation like this, few options exist for grocery stores: introduce new features and profit centers to stimulate growth or find efficiencies in the existing system. Schunck’s was about to pursue some hybrid of both.

While Schnuck’s battled Kroger, Brian Harris, then professor of marketing at the University of Southern California, was developing a novel idea to transform the business of food retail. Up to that point, despite the development of numerous technologies to help manufacturers and retailers produce products, ship them around the world, monitor their movement, merchandise, market, sell and track sales, the practice of figuring out exactly what products to sell in the aisles of the supermarket and especially where to place each product on the shelf was a bit of a mystery. Part art, part science, part tradition and part intuition, planning shelf space was an under-developed field.

What if, Harris thought, a discipline could be created? What if retailers could figure out a smarter way to chunk the store into a series of categories? And what if each category could be managed in such a way to most efficiently and productively organize products in the store, shelf by shelf? Instead of relying on tradition and intuition, what if retailers could be a bit more scientific about their decision of what to stock and where to stock it?

Harris called this new discipline category management.

The relationship between Schnuck’s and Harris emerged in the late 1980’s. To Schnuck’s, the category management theory sounded good, and the regional chain was seeking tactics to fight the national giant. They had, after all, always considered themselves as a state-of-the-art operation, and this new discipline looked like the future of the industry.

It began in the baby food aisle. Harris’ program pointed to a strategic positioning of certain hot sellers in prime shopping areas. Sales jumped 20 percent, and soon Schnuck’s was employing the discipline in every other category of the store.

From the outset, category management was more than just a new technology. It also prompted a major culture change at the retailer.

“We reviewed our buying and merchandising teams to see what type of people would fit into a category management program,” said Randy D. Wedel, senior vice president of marketing and merchandising. “We knew then what we know today: we need people capable of taking on far broader responsibilities than the old buyer-merchandiser type philosophy.”

By the 1990’s, Schnuck’s had 25 category managers on staff, and over 150 categories in their stores.

Soon after, though not solely due to category management, Kroger decided to leave the St. Louis market. The regional David had beaten back the national Goliath. Schnuck’s understanding of its local market, leveraged through Harris’ system, had helped the chain win, category by category.


2.
The barcode, though first conceived of in the late 1940’s in response to the needs of the food retail industry, was not implemented on a widespread basis until the late 1970’s. An innovation for industrialism’s inventory management systems, there are still many areas of the retail world where the barcode, however ubiquitous, is still not used to its fullest capacity—such as in many urban corner stores and “mom & pop” convenience stores.


Point-of-sale (POS) scanning technology, combined with the barcode, would come to generate enormous amounts of new data for food retailers in the 1970s, giving insights that would come to drive tactical decisions. This also created potential opportunities for improving shelf space management, assortment, promotion and pricing decisions. By the mid-1980’s, space management systems were created for personal computers at the store level—“Apollo” and “Spaceman” were two of the first programs.

But what Brian Harris was proposing was something more expansive than looking at barcodes and data sets. Harris proposed a new business discipline in food retail (or really, retail in general). What Harris found at Schnuck’s was a test pilot willing to combine technological innovations with a new business ideology.

3.
The revolutionary idea behind category management was how food retailers would conceive of categories inside their store. Instead of managing a varied collection of products, they would now think of the store as a set of product categories, and manage accordingly.

Each category would need to be strategized differently. People don’t shop for snacks or soda the same way they shop for meat or produce. In those prior categories, brand is more critical; in the latter, freshness is often the driver.

And with category management, instead of one storewide marketing plan, food retailers now fragmented their overall strategy, making each category its own business, with its own consumer research, pricing strategies and performance goals.

The growth-share matrix, first created by Bruce Henderson at the Boston Consulting Group in the late 1960’s, is instructive as a guiding logic for this practice. BCG, the famous global management consulting firm (whose then Vice President Bill Bain would go on to create Bain & Company in 1973 and Bain Capital in 1984 (where Mitt Romney famously developed his strategic business skills)), worked for many of the biggest holding companies, conglomerates and big corporations of the 1960’s and 1970’s, providing data-driven advice on where to best allocate their funds, what industries to get into or out of and eventually, what companies to buy and sell. This was not completely dissimilar to the corporate raider ideology of private equity capital firms (like Bain Capital) that would come to define late capitalism.

Imagine a simple chart that maps market growth rate on the y-axis and relative market share on the x-axis. Certain companies, industries or product categories have higher or lower potential market growth rates. Consider the explosive growth potential of Apple, or of yogurt (especially driven by “Greek Yogurt”) over the course of the 2000’s. High growth rate is nice, though it’s not the only way to assess a potential asset. Market share can measure a reliable and consistent revenue stream, such as a company like P&G, or a category like milk. Companies and categories with high growth rates and high market share, like Apple, are considered “stars” in the growth-share matrix. Companies and categories with low growth rates but high market share, like milk, are considered “cash cows.” There is great consistency among the cash cows, so a company can milk these assets over the long term. High potential growth rate but low market share assets are labelled “question marks.” They could turn into an asset of great value or not, it’s hard to say. And low potential growth rate combined with low market share makes an asset a “dog” in the matrix. Apologies to the pet owners out there, but we always knew Mitt Romney wasn’t much of a dog-lover anyways.

By combining the barcode, computer systems and this new logic of strategic capitalism, category management reinvented the grocery store as a different kind of economic machine.

4.
Over the course of the 1990’s, every national, regional and even most local grocery store chain adopted the category management discipline. This was an era of grocery store consolidation, as more and more regional chains were eaten up and local chains went out of business, an extinction phase largely brought on by the increased sophistication of the major players. This movement towards more sophisticated technologies, like category management, also created a solid career for Brian Harris, who left academia to form the Partnering Group in 1990.

But at a certain point in the 1990s, Schnuck’s, and all the other grocery stores out there, realized that its new army of category managers was still not big enough or powerful enough to face the daunting task of optimally organizing an entire chain of stores, with tens of thousands of products.

So, they began allocating the category management task to their suppliers, the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies. And as the CPG industry also consolidated itself through mergers and acquisitions in the 1980s and 1990s, an increasingly smaller number of companies began allocating space for an increasingly larger number of grocery stores.

The result was a massive homogenization of the grocery store industry. CPG category managers, more interested in best practices than the competitive concerns or need for differentiation among grocery stores, tended to create the same space allocations for every chain. What was in their best interest was to reduce the variety of CPG options on the shelf, and so smaller regional or local CPG companies were pushed to the deepest margins of the larger chain stores.

5.
An old veteran grocery executive once told me a kind of industry joke.

“Take any grocery store executive,” he said, “and put a blindfold on him.

“Then take him anywhere in the country to a grocery store. Keep the blindfold on, and bring him into aisle 6 of the store.

“Take the blindfold off.

“And then ask him to figure out which store he’s in.”

Chances are, he can’t.

March 3, 2013
Site #1: A Corner Store In South Los Angeles

I have been quite busy in the past three months. But this has to begin somewhere, so I’m starting here. I have come to envision this year’s project as a series of sites that I encounter, both physical and discursive. Each is also a site of connections, and I’ll continue to pursue loose strings and draw out relationships just as in prior Cultural Analysis posts (as always, the stranger the better, at least as relevant to my odd mind). For Readers, if you find a connection to consider, please feel free to leave comments or send me an email. Thank you.


1.
Corner stores in urban areas are a major source for food transactions, especially in places with a dearth of grocery store options, like South LA. But these places increasingly can be read and understood through multiple lenses.

Corner stores are businesses, typically owned and operated by local proprietors. Few convenience stores exist in South LA. Many of the best-selling food products in these corner stores are stocked directly by consumer-packaged goods companies, like Frito Lay or Coca-Cola, and these store represent an important profit center for them, even if it may not be their largest profit center internationally.

Corner stores are also artifacts of a food retail landscape long ago left behind by the evolution of retail innovation, though their historical form and shape remain intact to differing degrees.

And in recent years, the inner city corner store has become the focus of social change efforts, as nonprofits and government agencies attempt to reinvigorate this food retail space as a beacon for health and nutrition.

2.
The $1 Warehouse sits on the corner of 60th & Vermont, at the end of a strip mall and across the street from John Muir Middle School. This is the heart of South Los Angeles, just one mile from where the 1992 riots erupted at the intersection of Florence & Normandie. Today, the area is mostly Hispanic (around half the population in 1992 was Hispanic, though the riots were mostly represented in the national news media as African-Americans rioting against white civic authorities and Korean-Americans), though you wouldn’t always know it from the neighborhood’s food retail and restaurant options.

While similar regions of South LA have been labelled “food deserts” due to lack of access to healthy food and the problematic health conditions of local residents, this community has no shortage of food sources. The $1 Warehouse is two blocks from two relatively new, high quality Hispanic-focused supermarkets, El Super and Superior Grocers. McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, Jack in the Box and several other fast food restaurants are nearby. And other local food destinations, including a burger joint and a donut shop are all located nearby.

The $1 Warehouse is neither a dollar store, nor a warehouse store. It consists of four aisles of food products, cleaning supplies, beauty items and a large number of seemingly random items, like party supplies and empty rolls to fill with dimes, etc. Coolers line the walls, filled mostly with sodas and energy drinks, as well as some milk, cheese, ice cream and juice drinks. A large rack of chips and snacks occupies prime retail territory at the front right upon entrance. The rear left aisle is dedicated to a “cyber cafe,” with 8 or so computers for rent. Behind the checkout counter, pre-pay phone cards are sold, alongside remittance services that make up nearly half of the $1 Warehouse’s business.

3.
Nelson Garcia owns this store, renting the space as a tenant. Nelson is from Guatemala originally, has lived in the LA area for 20 years and has years of experience operating 7-Eleven stores and owning other corner stores, too. He does not speak English well.

Nelson has a shrewd location strategy. $1 Warehouse is next door to a middle school and just a block away from a high school. Students drop by before and after class. The strip mall tenant adjacent to the store is a laundromat, where lingering launderers often stop in for a snack or some extra detergent. A bus stop on the sidewalk out front of the store means that the to-and-from work crowd also find the shop accessible.

4.
Why do I know all of this? Because I have been collaborating with the LA Food Policy Council to help with corner store conversions around South LA, and the $1 Warehouse is our first main partner.

Nelson Garcia wants to create a “brand.” Based on his experiences in the food retail industry, he wants to create a place like 7-Eleven that people remember and seek out. He doesn’t like the name “$1 Warehouse,” which he inherited, and he wants help coming up with a brand name.

But is it a healthy brand? A convenience store brand? A youth brand? A Hispanic brand? A food brand?

Nelson talks about a store that fills the needs of everyone and for all occasions. But decisions need to be made, and trade-offs, too, because $1 Warehouse is only approximately 4,000 square feet. Beyond Nelson’s desire for a brand, the future is unknown.

January 13, 2013
New Year Adaptations

1.
This blog, Cultural Analysis, began in early 2012 with the purpose of giving me space to write about those strange connections that I witness in the cultural world on a daily basis. More generally, (could I be more general?) the 24 posts over the course of 2012 tied together connections, sought obscure clues and explored mythologies. You can read the initial proposition of the blog here.

Thanks for reading, if you were reading, in 2012. Over the course of the year, the site had just over 2,100 unique visitors. Most probably came accidentally, while trying to learn more about “pink slime” or read more  Big Lebowski arcana. I probably didn’t do much to please those readers. But since the average visit lasted 1 minute, if I knock out 50% of the unique visitors, I still figure that 1,000 people coming to read about my ideas is nothing to sneeze at. So, god bless you, or gesundheit. I am grateful to have an audience, however small in comparative internet terms. In the future, I invite you to participate more, by leaving comments, notes or even emailing me with thoughts and reflections.

image

2.
My favorite Cultural Analysis posts of 2012, in no particular order.

The (anti-) social life of parking lots.

The mythology of “Pink Slime.”

Those lines which we do not cross.

How we consume today, and an implicit issue: Is this blog itself part of an impulse to snack and graze on knowledge?

3.
In 2013, I will shift the focus of Cultural Analysis, though not dramatically. I will continue to analyze culture. And I will continue to pursue this cockeyed methodology of odd connectors. I will still explore pop culture mythologies.

image

In August of 2012, my ongoing advocacy and ethnographic work on food retail networks in urban Los Angeles was written about by Kim Fortun in the journal Cultural Anthropology. In her article, “Ethnography In Late Industrialism,” Fortun writes about the precarious situation of cultural analysis in an age of “degraded infrastructure, exhausted paradigms and the incessant chatter of new media.”

I spent some time in the latter half of 2012 wondering, what exactly is cultural analysis of late industrialism? When did industrialism get late? What was industrialism, and what was its legacy? What comes next, and so what? And what does any of this have to do with issues I’m interested in, like the cultural life of food retail?

4.
One phenomenon I am interested in looking at more closely is the slow demise of lingering food retail forms—namely convenience stores, grocery stores and corner markets—in the face of persistent attempts to reinvent, reinvigorate and rethink them. Call the grocery store an “exhausted paradigm” of high industrialism. And call the many innovations, as well as the critical perspectives on the grocery store, “incessant chatter.”

By bringing previously unrelated and unconnected perspectives, cultural forms and projects into relationship, is it possible to create “new idioms and ways of engaging the world…[as well as] futures that cannot yet be imagined”?

In other words, could odd connectors help us reimagine our world?

It seems worth a look. I hope readers will participate in 2013. Happy new year.

November 25, 2012

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who recognize fine gradations and seek to understand the complexity of the world, and those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world.

November 13, 2012
Snack Atlas

1.

Cloud Atlas is a film that strings together six narratives into a 172-minute motion picture. The six stories cover a wide range of different times, places and contexts, from a 19th century ship in the South Pacific to a 24th century post-apocalyptic tropical island.

What string ties together these narratives?  This is the conversation I believe that the filmmakers want us to engage in. This is an “ambitious” film, one with “philosophy” references that might be compared to Terence Malick’s Tree Of Life. I strongly disagree with this interpretation—particularly because I find Malick’s Heideggerian exploration of a singularly traumatic experience (the loss of a child) to be much more compelling than the Wachowski’s flat-footed Matrix redux, which recycles late capitalist, self-obsessed, psychological empowerment pseudo-philosophy (like The Secret, on film)—but I don’t even want to focus on that in this post. That’s not what draws my attention.

What the critical readings of the film have largely missed is how the entire film grazes on its six narratives in small, bite-sized pieces. Few scenes seem to last longer than perhaps three to five minutes (I didn’t bring a stopwatch to the theater, though I did find myself checking my watch), before quickly jumping into a different narrative in a different place and time.

I never felt like Cloud Atlas was stewing a “big idea.” Instead, I felt like I was being force-fed one of these over-indulgent prix fixe “tasting menus” that have become quite fashionable these days. Enough with present-day London, let’s skip to early 1970s San Francisco. Hey, isn’t that Tom Hanks in new makeup? Wow, these directors are so savvy and well-versed in their demonstrations of cultural context mastery!

2.

On October 1, 2012, the world’s third largest consumer-packaged goods company, Kraft Foods, split into two parts. One company continues to be called Kraft. The other took on a new name: Mondelēz.

Kraft continues to carry a large inventory of favorite products, like their flagship Mac & Cheese (“You know you love it”). These products all belong in the “center store” of your local supermarket, the drudgery of your weekly shopping trip. This center store is also increasingly recognized as the place where all bad-for-you-food resides.

Meanwhile, Mondelēz has become the world’s first global snacking company. They own Oreo, Ritz, Cadbury and dozens of other world famous brands.

The Mondelēz name combines words derived from “world” (Monde/Mundo) and “delicious” (delicious, kind of—okay, don’t blame me). I understand that you hate this name. Many, many commentators have already chimed in to describe their distaste.

And you may also dismiss this as another accounting trick or Wall Street ploy. But Irene Rosenfeld—the former Kraft CEO, the woman who famously butted heads with Warren Buffett on Kraft investment decisions and the world’s 2nd most powerful woman according to a Forbes 2010 list (just behind Michelle Obama, just ahead of Oprah Winfrey)—decided to jump ship and join Mondelēz. Why?

Because snack foods are the largest growing category of foods in the world today. Because more people are snacking more often than ever before. Because snacking has never been more important to the way we live.

3.

Movies are going the way of grocery stores, picked off by the likes of HBO On Demand, YouTube, Twitter, Trader Joe’s and the McDonald’s snack menu. These are not just sources for corporate or processed consumables, these are places for simple solutions.

I’m not saying epic consumption is going away, or that our attention spans have been irretrievably decimated. But these epic phenomena exist in a world of conversation.

Meanwhile, snacking phenomena seemingly exist in a world of impatient interpretation, ridiculousness or anti-intellectual functionality. Why bother even trying to explain what seems to many as merely instinctual or, at the very best, an emergent necessity? These are the shallows, the land of the twits, the hopelessly brainless.

4.

And so I should probably end with a special golden nugget, a stroke of genius that makes all your grazing worthwhile. A connection!

In an age of information over-abundance, the supply-demand ratio of the knowledge economy has been inverted topsy-turvy. As Herbert Simon explained, information consumes attention. And attention is ultimately what is in finite supply.

Value is discovered in those forms that somehow save, create or preserve our precious attention. The infographic, the concise point, the haiku, the sound bite, the gotcha statement, the quick comeback, the snack. All of these things pack dense nutrients into  bite-sized forms, therefore manufacturing value.

The ramblers, the digressers, the boring people, the slow thinkers: they’re not dinosaurs. Rather, they may find themselves, however unwittingly, becoming more highly revered than ever. Instead, it is the sitcom, the nightly news, the square meal, the department store, the middle class and the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese who may find themselves in trouble. Too slow for the new snacker, too shallow for the perspicacious wayfarer. Stuck between a snack bar and a slow-cooked pot roast.

August 27, 2012
Demythologics

I don’t typically just link to a story I think everyone should read, but here’s an exception: a brief New York Times op-ed demystifying the critique of myths, "The Top Three Myths About Myths" by Andrew Cherlin.

Myths used to be about ancient Greeks. They taught us about greed (King Midas and gold) or hubris (Icarus flying too close to the sun). But when authors write about myths today, they mean something more prosaic: a misconception, a statement that almost everyone thinks is true but really isn’t.

Cherlin points out that the common goal of this form of critical “myth-busting” is to manufacture more authoritative insights for the author. Cherlin has had enough of this banal journalism.

I thought this was particularly interesting, too, in light of the new translation of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which I have been slowly moving through. This new translation, published in 2012, includes many essays not included in the first edition, published in 1972. Barthes original texts were published in the early 1950’s, and Mythologies is actually a compendium of serialized cultural critiques he wrote for a Paris literary magazine Lettres Nouvelles. In a way, this new translation, which includes some essays probably deemed “too French” for English language readers, demystifies Barthes.

Barthes had a kind of formula for demystifying the myths of contemporary culture. And he never just makes the kind of debunking list that draws Cherlin’s ire. Rather, Barthes struggles with and explores the myths.

Reviewing this new edition in the New Yorker, Marco Roth writes:

The urge to succumb to the mythic appeal of modern products, including politicians and celebrities, as well as to the stories we come to associate with them, affected Barthes. It takes a certain unabashed enthusiasm to begin an essay on car design “I believe the automobile is, today, the almost exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals,” even as he concludes pessimistically that the auto industry has fallen prey to “petit bourgeois annexation.”

So perhaps that itself is the code of modern myth demystifications then: To always weigh the balance of pop culture fascination and sensible resistance. After all, elevating the automobile to the status of the cathedral is one way to recognize the vehicle’s brilliance. It is also to set the car on a pedestal, and we know what happens next.

Hasn’t some sense of critique always been inherent in myths themselves, even the myths that Cherlin cites at the outset of his article? What Cherlin lacks in his article is a fascination or charm for his subject. He never promotes the myth-buster form or attempts to explain exactly why it has become so commonplace, other than to suggest that we are basically fools to click on such stories and that “it’s important that readers know how to interpret them.”  Isn’t this similar then to the logic of those who would read the myth-busters, to interpret “a statement that almost everyone thinks is true but really isn’t.”

The best of Barthes mythologies are a kind of gentle mockery or critical fondness.

Who will demythologize the demythologizer of demythologizing?

August 9, 2012
Follow Up To “F***ed Up Retail”

In my last post, I wrote about a phenomenon I initially labeled “Fucked Up Retail.” I heard a lot of response to the post, most of them intelligent, some of them critical (and, well, some just silly). The responses led me to write more and try to offer some rationale for what I’m talking about. I felt the smart criticisms warranted a follow-up post, or perhaps several.

For starters, I want to step away from calling this “fucked up retail.” Why? I think there is something frustrating about the retail spaces I’m thinking of. But I don’t think “fucked up” captures the nature of the frustration just right. One tack would be to defend “fucked up” as idiomatic, maybe ironic, perhaps just playful. On the other hand, I don’t want to get into that. Besides, I’ve actually got bigger issues in mind about retail and consumerism that I’d like to elaborate on (believe it or not, I am not some random blogger who simply chooses curious subjects to write about…well, okay, sometimes).

The common thread in so many arguments I’ve heard about the retailers I’m describing is a kind of irritation approaching anger. A critique of consumerism is so widespread and prevalent today it almost seems to nearly rival the impulse towards consumerism in the first place. What’s this all about? Where does the anger come from? It’s as if half of America seems to be working on selling stuff, while the other half is outraged that those people would even try.

I also find it interesting—though often disappointing—that despite its ubiquity in our everyday life, few people have much of a frame of reference for understanding retail, how it works and how these spaces might operate. This is understandable. And yet, there are no shortage of assumptions about how these places work. The typical responses to any and all retail space: They only want me to spend more money here. They will manipulate me. They are creating unnecessary desires.

Is all retail the same? I adamantly argue: no.

As an aside: if you’re complaining there’s “nothing new” about the form of retail I’m describing, you’re partly correct—but only partly. After all, retail has been around for a long time—so has consumerism, product markups, marketing, the problem of luxury, the problem of leisure, pricing, the act of shopping, consumer need creation, consumer desire creation and many other problems and concerns. Further, economic exchange predates all of these things, and may even be foundational to all social relationships (if you believe Marcel Mauss, and I tend to). My purpose is not to spot a trend and tell you “what’s new” or, for that matter, tell you where to shop. My purpose is to describe one corner of the world where people seem to lack a critical frame of reference. And by critical, I don’t mean you’ll need to deconstruct or smash retail. I mean to call awareness to an otherwise implicit realm of the human cultural world.

In terms of newness, the dimensions of these problems keeps shifting, but rarely if ever allow for something entirely new and novel. Besides, if new retail is all we’re interested in, then the only real goal is probably to look out for the next horrible Walmart-like monstrosity with the capacity to strike fear in our hearts and maybe provide another reason to nostalgically lament how things used to be. Instead, I want to look at the shifts, transitions and distinctions among and between retail forms.

A retail space is never merely functional, nor is it always simply an extension of capitalism or the capitalist disciplines of advertising and marketing. This is neither a defense nor an apology for retail, but a clarification. Retail spaces existed long before the contemporary capitalist economy emerged. Additionally, many different expressions of economic activity and economic logic persist today, and many of these do not fit neatly into any ideal category of capitalism (see, for example, Gibson-Graham 2006)

Retail spaces are sites for economic and financial activity. But they are always also cultural products, and inhabit a wide variety of distinctive forms.

A number of would-be critics jumped to assumptions about why my categorization was inaccurate, and even suggested alternatives. Here’s why they’re wrong.

For one, the previously labeled “fucked up retailers” are not like antique shops, exactly because they are new, focused on new products and much more conscious of how these objects relate to one another. Antique and vintage shops can be picky in how they assemble the products they choose to re-sell, but exist within a wider market of selling and reselling old products. They are also enmeshed in the constant question of what is considered “vintage” or “antique.” These are cultural categories and forms that constantly shift and change, which is a fascinating and altogether different subject unto itself.

Second, these are not “hobby” businesses. That label suggests a non-serious, perhaps non-profit and non-business focused endeavor. Also interesting, but not my point. Further, “hobby” is an actual Internal Revenue Service classification, which is very particular and has relevance for income tax deductions (The IRS poses actual questions, however subjective sounding, such as: “Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?” (No = hobby) “Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?” (again, No = hobby)). While many visitors to the stores I’m writing about question whether these spaces are viable businesses, the people who run these stores seem dedicated. This is a kind of project for them. More importantly, they have a clear intention with these places that is much more meaningful and poignant than “hobby.” Outside of the tax code, “hobby” suggests a purely leisure time or pleasure-focused pursuit, ancillary to life. Hobby is about escape from life. The now classic sense of hobby in America has shifted too—away from the archetypal realm of model airplanes, toy railroads, baseball cards and the like—as children and young people divide their attention today with video games, computers and other digital entertainments (does that make the giant retailer GameStop a hobby shop?).

Third, these retailers are distinctly different from massive business organizations focused on volume and velocity, like (especially) Urban Outfitters. This is actually a quite interesting distinction, which deserves more attention.

Slowness is actually embodied in the retail spaces I’m thinking of: in how they’re set up, how they present and arrange objects for sale and how they categorize their products. If you closely compared the way Urban Outfitters anticipates product volume and velocity—through well-concealed storage, and merchandising racks that make it easy to hang, fold and restock—with a store like New High Mart in Los Feliz, Los Angeles—often carrying just a handful of a single item, and frequently arranged or presented in inconvenient and nonconventional ways—you can start to recognize this difference.

(above: New High Mart)


(above: Urban Outfitters. Compare the repetition of product in the two places.)

The distinction becomes much more deeply apparent when you move behind-the-scenes and compare supply chains. Urban Outfitters has a centralized ordering system, whose inventory is tied directly to sales register numbers. Stores like New High Mart have to rely on making educated guesses about what to restock, and the turnover of products may seem almost random. Supply chains are then embodied and inscribed in retail spaces.

This also points to an important dimension of a frustrating retailer, which is time. Over time, these retailers continually shift and change product offering, sometimes in unexpected ways. So while you could argue that they are “unsophisticated” because they rely more on an intuitive sense of what the market wants, you would be missing out on their bigger opportunity to frustrate and gently confuse their audience. The scale of a retail operation like Urban Outfitters inhibits this type of non-profit motive behavior. Month after month, year after year, Urban Outfitters looks and feels remarkably similar. Their product offering is relatively predictable, especially when compared to the unpredictable nature of a store like New High Mart.

One more difference has to do with the seemingly random assortment of little things, knick-knacks, books, noisemakers and other objects that populate these spaces. At Urban Outfitters, books become an ironic joke. So do vinyl records. A pathetic Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, though a hot seller, also doubles as a humorous riff on everyday life, as would-be pranksters thumb their nose at conventional holiday traditions. Even when we embrace the meaningful nostalgia of Charlie Brown, some element of irony always persists in these objects. But this is not necessarily the case with the accessory products and objects at stores like Ooga Booga. Here, I might find a Mike Kelley “Little Friend Toy.” These objects, even when ironic or humorous, do not supercede some “real” purpose of coming to this store. They are its purpose.

Now, I’m not going to defend all Ooga Booga products, such as the Bless Nerd Glasses with Beach print. Perhaps the product is mere nonsense, or perhaps you consider it hipster irony. But I think you’d be hard-pressed not to look at this object and consider its purpose. This touches on a critique of the amount of “stuff” that pervades our daily existence. What is all this stuff, in our homes, overflowing our environment? Do we need all of it? Is it of any real value?

Okay, getting off my high horse now and that critique of “stuff,” let’s say we disregard the meaningful distinctions between objects. Still, the contexts where they are found differ. Let’s place the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree among the ironic knick-knacks category of Urban Outfitters, a mere supplement to their “real business” model focused on relatively inexpensive contemporary clothing. And then compare that placement to the Nerd Glasses at Oooga Booga, where art objects are central concerns. This brings to light another key difference. The central conversation of Ooga Booga is about the problems of contemporary life, while the focus of Urban Outfitters is on providing essentially functional solutions to everyday life.

Perhaps more eyes rolling. But there’s actually something substantive here. That’s because retail is a discipline. And that discipline is organized around the creation of the “category.” Category Management is not just a fancy term, it’s an actual technical expertise. Urban Outfitters uses it. Ooga Booga, I’m going to assume, does not. And herein lies a key difference between the two stores. Changes at Urban Outfitters are motivated within the categories: this type of shirt is not selling well so they stop ordering it, but this novelty coffee table book is selling well so they order more. At Ooga Booga, the entire store essentially is a category. One change always impacts the whole.

Moving Along: What About Value?

Before you pass your wise judgment just yet, keep this in mind: These retailers I’m talking about are not revolutionary, anti-capitalist or even anti-business. We’re not talking about Marxist critique. We could talk about fashion under socialism, or better yet, retail forms in communist Poland (now there is some fucked up retail). What I’m describing merely has to do with calling attention to an issue. There is a question of value that is brought to our attention in these places.

It’s interesting that a lot of people out there get angry about these retailers because they are creating desire and at the same time, they are presenting us with products just beyond our financial reach. Though we live in the age of credit, and we recognize that we can use a plastic card to obtain whatever stuff we want, today more than ever we face an increased and painful consciousness that yes, we really will pay for it later. So the concept of “within reach” has become a sore subject, and a rightful source of our critical ire. One retailer which seems oblivious to this issue is called, appropriately enough, Design Within Reach. DWR sells expensive furniture and household products created by named designers (of course, we need to recognize that every mass-produced object has been “designed,” whether we distinguish a taste for “good” design or not (i.e. people who label things as “design-y” are just talking vacuous nonsense)). DWR has become an object of derision however, because calling an $8,000 couch “within reach” is something of a joke to many people. Or is it? What seems to make this joke so painful to swallow may have more to do with a cultural touchpoint reference. Competitors, especially IKEA, offer similarly “designed” couches for just $800. At what cost, however? How many couches do we need, and how often? What is the value of a couch that could last a lifetime, compared to a couch that seems stylish for just the current style cycle? Look, I’m not trying to make a point about how to live. I’m trying to describe the problem that DWR implicitly touches on—and so does IKEA, too. A couch, however, is perhaps not a good example, because it is perceived as essential. Or is it? DWR has made a conscious decision to not offer a $800 couch. IKEA has made a conscious decision to not offer a $8,000 couch. Both raise problems. The traditional department store strived to offer both options, just in case. Isn’t it interesting that the department store, as a cultural form, is teetering on the edge of extinction?

(One of these couches is from DWR and costs $3600, one is from IKEA and costs $149)

Herein lies the inherent tension of the stores I brought up in the first place: their need to make money and stay in business vs. their message and philosophy, or suggestion about how we might live. To sell an expensive shirt that is truly “valuable”—because of its design, method of manufacturing and/or existence outside of the dominant mode of design/manufacturing/wholesaling/supply chain/retail—this is just one side of the coin. They suggest you do not need many of these shirts: Because how many clothes does someone really need after all? And at the same time, they must keep selling and making money to persist. Is it better to shop at Walmart and buy 10 t-shirts for $100, or go to one of these retailers and buy just one t-shirt for $100? What’s fair? What is more valuable? You must decide. This is actually not a problem of luxury goods, because the vast majority of these products do not fall under that category (true luxury wouldn’t sell t-shirts, and if they did, they would certainly cost much more than $100).

To ridicule these retailers who are arguably attempting to frustrate some part of the logic of consumerism is one thing, and seems more than acceptable. Again, this is neither a defense nor an apology for these retailers.

But here’s the thing. Shopping at Walmart, Target, H&M or any other of the more “reasonably priced” retailers needs to be recognized as a subscription to an idea, ideology, perspective and principle that is just as deeply ingrained and imbedded (I know you’re wearing clothes right now or at least sitting on a chair and reading this on a computer that you bought somewhere, so don’t think you can get out of this one!). We can try to write off these “fucked up” retailers for ripping us off and simply say that they’re smug and pretentious hipsters. But the fact of the matter is that they exist outside of the mainstream logic of consumerism and are trying to push for a different approach to economy. Being smug and re-imagining “value” differently need not be a fixed coupling. The problem seems to arise when shoppers impulsively carry their ingrained consumerist logic into these retail shops, because they’re not quite prepared for a space that might suggest a slightly different way of shopping. Yes, they are still promoting retail and shopping and consumerism. But consumerism is not one thing, it is a plurality—as is shopping, and capitalism itself.

Nothing new here. Small scale retail operations have always existed. But I’m not trying to ascribe intentionality to the retailers themselves. By looking at retail as a cultural form, this actually transcends the psychological motivations of a particular shopper or shopkeeper. And it raises a major point: retail has changed. Retail is not what it was. And I wouldn’t blame many people for not recognizing this shift over the last several decades, exactly because everyday retail is so banal and routine that we sometimes actively tune it out, even while it shapes our lives in a fundamental manner.

Exactly how is something I’ll write about more in the future here. But a brief summary of those important shifts, relevant here is: One, the internet and the emergence of online retailers. Two, the Walmart effect of mass scale retailing and supply chain combinations (and its limitations). And three, the mass proliferation of media and the declining efficacy of traditional advertising.

Much more to say, and much more to write about. Until then, fire away!

July 30, 2012
F***ed Up Retail

(8/1/12 Update: Due to a lot of interest in this post, please check back in a few days for more follow-up on this post. I’ve gotten a lot of great responses, many critical and thoughtful. There’s much more to say on this subject. And if it wasn’t clear from the outset: go “shop” at these stores I’m talking about. They’re very interesting.)

For some time now, I’ve been taking notice of and encountering a somewhat puzzling space in the urban landscape. I tend to call it, for lack of a more precise term, “fucked up retail.” What is fucked up retail?

First, these stores do not appear motivated by profit motives. In fact, visitors may actually wonder how these places “stay in business” at all.

Second, these stores carefully assemble and curate their goods. They often consist of clothes, books, accessories, small household goods or furniture and various objets d’art.

But the third point is the key distinguishing factor between fucked up retail and, say, a museum store like the MoMA Store or a design store like Design Within Reach or even a random art object store like what you find on Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice or near Sunset Junction in Silver Lake.

At fucked up retail, the retail form itself becomes a creative medium. These are not merely shops with interesting products. The store is a kind of product, or experience. And this partly allows fucked up retail to question its relationship to profitability. Fucked up retail frustrates consumerism, because consumerism thrives on retail spaces that are either nearly forgettable (like Costco) or are an extension of the marketing and advertising world (like Anthropologie).

Some Los Angeles examples:

Ooga Booga (Chinatown, LA)

New High Mart (Los Feliz, LA)

Family (Fairfax, LA)

And there are precedents in the art world, as well.

George Brecht and Robert Filliou’s “La Cédille Qui Sourit in Villefranche-sur-Mer” (1965)

Claes Oldenburg’s “The Store” (1961)

I consider these more recent iterations of fucked up retail a more fascinating counterpoint to the cynical consumer appeal of MOCA’s Murakami retrospective show (2007-2008), which centrally featured a pretty standard and dull Louis Vuitton store. Here, retail form is treated as pure luxury desire, an ethics of hopelessness.

At the same time, the humor of fucked up retail couldn’t be more clear than in the case of Stand Up Comedy, a shop I had the chance to visit in Portland. It features a unique assortment of clothing and accessories. And even the electrical wiring was an extension of the store’s concept. Ironically, the store served as the backdrop to shoot a scene from Season 2 of the show Portlandia. The skit, featuring Carrie Brownstein with Miranda July, and called “Two Girls Two Shirts,” takes a version of fucked up retail to its logical extreme. The store has only two shirts to sell, and the two girls who run the store seem to spend most of their time dancing. They pause to ask, “Are we trying to get customers?” The response—“we don’t care”—and the show’s rather smug contention that the store is going out of business very soon, misses the absurd point, I think. The joke of Stand Up Comedy is that there may be much going on in retail than sales volume.

June 25, 2012
The Snack and the Canelé

Instead of posting on Cultural Analysis, I wrote up a more elaborate post on Deepa Reddy’s blog, Pâticheri. Deepa is a fellow anthropologist and Rice grad school colleague. She teaches at the University of Houston, but currently lives in Pondicherry / Puducherry, India.

The post is about “the snack” as a cultural form. Click on the link to get there…

June 4, 2012
Debt Of Apology (an excerpt)

[This is taken from a longer essay on apologies that I’ve been working on, and trying to submit for publication. It’s about “the apology” and this section is called “Equivocations.” It’s a catalog of public apologies I collected in 2011.]

Certainly, a public apology is nothing new. And while I can’t claim to have quantifiable data to support my claim, it feels like the rapidity, hyperbole and interminable nature of these apologies has never proceeded with more momentum. Just consider some of the broader categories of apology over the course of the last year or so.

Public officials and company men arguably issued some of the most shameless apologies of 2011, either for criminal deeds, ethical violations or flagrantly unprofessional acts. Rupert Murdoch apologized because his journalists tapped phones, and sought to “make amends for the damage…caused.” The ex-governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich reluctantly apologized for trying to sell President Obama’s vacated Senate seat, finally asking a federal judge for mercy at the conclusion of his court trial. Finance executive and former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine apologized for losing $1.2 billion dollars of his investors’ savings at MF Global. As he outrageously put it to a Congressional committee, “I simply do not know where the money is, or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date.” These are a few of your classic apologies for those things that clearly should not have transpired or been allowed to happen under anyone’s watch. And then we watch these people recount their inner panic, as they second guess the certainty of past decisions. Here, we may also add the University of California at Davis’ Chancellor, Linda P. B. Katehi, apologizing for an overzealous campus policemen who blasted her own nonviolently protesting students with pepper spray. “I feel horrible for what happened,” said the Chancellor.

Other publicly elected officials acted unelectable, and then insured panicked apologies by attempting to conceal their acts for some length of time. As their cover-ups persisted, the explosiveness of the misdeeds and the absurdities of the apologies rose to new heights. Arnold Schwarzenegger apologized for having a bastard son with his former maid. “After leaving the governor’s office I told my wife about this event, which occurred over a decade ago,” he told the Los Angeles Times. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner apologized for trying to send photos of his wiener to a woman he met on the Internet, but accidentally posted the images on Twitter instead. He then tried to cover up the whole incident, claiming hackers infiltrated his account. In his public press conference, he explained, “Once I realized I had posted it to Twitter, I panicked, I took it down, and said that I had been hacked. I then continued with that story to stick to that story, which was a hugely regrettable mistake.” Simply a cringeworthy series of events.

Politically incorrect miscues continually grabbed our attention, especially when public figures suggested causal explanations or theoretical associations considered unacceptable. The singer Tony Bennet apologized for blaming America for the 9/11 attacks: we pissed off the terrorists, then the terrorists came after us. Feeling the sting of others accusing him of a lack of patriotism, he defended himself, stating, “Nobody loves America more than I do.” Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul apologized for a newsletter he was associated with back in the 1980s that expressed racist and anti-gay messages. Without irony, he had a spokesman explain that, “there were multiple ghost writers involved and [Ron Paul] does not know who penned the particular offensive sections.” These might be categorized as apologies for inappropriate conspiracy theorizing.

Companies and brands regretted their errors, making clear that even organizations can feel the panic of a blunder. Microsoft regretted telling people to buy Amy Winehouse music tracks from their website immediately after she died. The company apologized, “if our earlier Amy Winehouse ‘download’ tweet seemed purely commercially motivated.” Partially commercially motivated, okay, but not purely. Netflix apologized for hiking its monthly rates, changing the name of its mail-delivery service to “Qwikster” and then changing it back to Netflix. The CEO of the company wrote long letters in which he continually struggled to “try to explain how this happened.” Thousands of subscribers didn’t seem to care much about the explanation and quit the service anyway, no matter the name of it. These are big organizations and recognizable, but not terribly beloved brands, so it’s no wonder that these apologies did not generate a high degree of lasting outrage. Yet it’s interesting to learn the amount of second- and third-guessing that goes into any of their strategic decisions.

Though not what it used to be, there’s something about airline travel today that apparently still requires a certain decorum. And while breaching that polite veneer of safety, efficiency and courteousness often now requires apology, it truly requires a fiasco to induce an authentic one. Actor Alec Baldwin artfully apologized for getting kicked off an airplane for refusing to shut his cell phone down after the aircraft’s doors were closed. But his public statement on The Huffington Post only apologized to fellow passengers for the inconvenience. Baldwin refused to apologize to the airlines, and instead sent them up for mockery. Appearing on a Saturday Night Live skit dressed up like an American Airlines pilot, Baldwin promptly apologized to himself for treating an “American treasure” with such impropriety. Meanwhile, actor Gerard Depardieu apologized for peeing in the aisle of an airplane while drunk. Not to be outdone, an 18-year-old US Olympic ski team hopeful named Robert Vietze was accused of drunkenly peeing on a sleeping 11-year-old girl’s leg in flight, and then caused an uproar for his refusal to apologize. A Facebook page was even created to demand his apology. File these under “regrettable behaviors, airplane.”

Offensive remarks about gay people call for immediate apology nowadays, as do many other affronts to formerly discriminated groups who have since found empowerment. The panic induced here is often of the, “I was out of control” or “I was out of line” variety. Kobe Bryant apologized for calling a referee a gay slur during a basketball game. No one actually heard him, but an entire television audience could read his lips. Comedian Tracy Morgan apologized for quite vocally saying he would kill his son if he was gay, apparently a standup comedy routine gone wrong. Kelly Osbourne also apologized to this community. She called the individual with whom her ex-fiance had an affair a “tranny.” Of course, despite her inner turmoil, Osbourne felt inclined to add that her words were taken out of context. Caught up in emotional moments, these figures unfortunately and irresponsibly surrendered to some timeworn targets of derision.

When offending an entire class of people, where does one turn for apology? Interestingly, both Bryant and Morgan directed their apologies to the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights organization. And it now seems to have become part of the Human Rights Campaign’s strategy to exact apologies from public figures, along with other identity-based rights organizations. The pointedness of these apologies also reminds me a bit of a 2010 apology by then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who called fellow liberal activists “retarded.” At first, Emanuel attempted to address his apology to the Special Olympics, but an official at the Special Olympics refused to accept that apology, stating that the organization’s chairman, “can’t do that. He can’t accept an apology on behalf of all people with disabilities.” Later, upon meeting with six disability advocates, the apology was finally recognized. We might be tempted to file these apologies simply under the politically incorrect bucket, but nowadays they really belong in the more complex and evolving category of “inappropriate classificatory interjections, historically discriminated groups.”

And building on that complex and evolving category of apology, Hitler is apparently more relevant than ever. The Hitler apology seems particularly popular and almost strangely ubiquitous nowadays. Movie director Lars Von Trier apologized for saying he could relate to Hitler (“What can I say? I understand Hitler”). Fashion designer John Galliano apologized for saying “I love Hitler.” Country and western musician Hank Williams Jr. apologized for saying that President Obama was like Hitler (though qualifying his apology by stating that he has, “always respected the office of the president”). And chef Mario Batali apologized for saying Wall Street bankers are like “Stalin or Hitler and the evil guys.” In his retraction, Batali explained, “It was never my intention to equate our banking industry with Hitler and Stalin, two of the most evil, brutal dictators in modern history.” Thanks for that historical clarification, Mario. For the most part, these incidents can be categorized as a failure to widen the purview of one’s metaphoric battery. It seems that, for lack of more creative reference, people just parade out Hitler to demean people they don’t like. Nazi references, in general, are ill-advised, as one British MP learned when he had to apologize for dressing up as an SS officer to a stag party. Whether these Hitler apologies are addressed to Jewish people in particular, Western civilization more generally or perhaps even the entirety of humanity is a bit unclear. Everyone still unanimously finds Hitler offensive, and this actually makes a Hitler reference both potent and potentially shameful.