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Supermarkets Only Create an Illusion of Choice, But You’re Not Helpless

Supermarkets Only Create an Illusion of Choice, But You’re Not Helpless

Written by Katherine Martinko

Supermarkets can be dizzying places, jam-packed with tantalizing food displays and countless products. Many shoppers have tricks for outwitting the stores’ marketing tactics, such as always bringing a detailed list, refusing to shop on an empty stomach, sticking to the perimeter of the store where healthier fresh foods are sold, and making careful brand selections. (See how to shop here.) But it turns out that the supermarkets have created only the illusion of choice for shoppers when it comes to the last technique.

The Food & Water Watch has just released a report announcing that the selection in supermarkets is mostly a mirage. According to a press release:

“The biggest food manufacturers offer multiple brands in each type of grocery, giving consumers the false impression that they’re choosing between competing products when in fact all the sales can go to the same company.”

Many supermarkets have consolidated, resulting in fewer food companies controlling production and sales:

  • In 2012, 53.6 percent of the money that Americans spent on groceries went to the four largest retailers: Walmart (which sold nearly a third of all groceries), Kroger, Target, and Safeway.
  • Consumers are led to believe they are choosing among competitors, when many different products are actually made by the same firm. The same applies to healthy foods; for example, Kellogg’s owns Kashi and Bear Naked brands, even though packaging and websites make them seem independent.
  • Some big retailers charge food producers a fee to place their product in the most profitable shelf locations, and that’s something that small food producers can’t compete with.
  • F&WW is calling on the Federal Trade Commission to place a moratorium on any more grocery mergers. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of F&WW, explains: “People are fed up with not having real choice and transparency. It’s time for the FTC to prioritize protecting shoppers over protecting the profits of a shrinking handful of corporations.”

    While I agree that the FTC needs to realign its priorities, I don’t think shoppers are helpless. People do have choice when it comes to buying food, but it requires an extra step that many aren’t willing to take – leaving the grocery store behind. Sourcing food directly from producers is becoming easier as farmers’ markets grow and year-round CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares for vegetables, grains, and meats gain in popularity. (I’ve even seen a CSA share just for sprouts!)

    It doesn’t matter where you live; there’s always a way to combat those grocery store goliaths. Urban dwellers can develop a European-style approach to food, buying small amounts of fresh food daily at the bakery, the butcher, and the vegetable stand. Rural dwellers can go straight to the source, buying fresh farm eggs, local honey, meat, cheese, fruit, and dairy. Consumers’ collective dollars actually have a lot of power. It’s a question of where we choose to put them in order to effect change. The F&WW report, titled “Grocery Goliaths: How Food Monopolies Impact Consumers,” is available here.

    This post was originally published in TreeHugger

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    Photo Credit: Thinkstock

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    3:10AM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

    Thank you

    3:04PM PST on Mar 3, 2014

    It's bad when two or three companies own 75% of all the products in the stores! But if you shop at Trader Joe's, or the smaller grocery stores like Sprout's, then you will find the smaller and unique companies.

    2:52PM PST on Mar 3, 2014

    I like Farmer's Markets in the warm months, but I have to go to the grocery because they close in the winter. But, the grocery we go to is NOT Wal-Mart, Kroger, Target, or Safeway.
    It's a local store and they get a lot of organic foods!

    4:13AM PST on Dec 26, 2013

    And they just buy out the competition. Kroger moved into our area buying out two of our major store chains. Now we have fewer choices and they are putting fewer choices on the shelves, simply by choosing not to sell this or that they drive it out of the market. But they have filled their stores with liquor and wine! Now about 25% of the floor space is devoted to liquor, and they cut down on the vegetables to do it.

    3:16PM PST on Dec 24, 2013

    Thank you

    8:54AM PST on Dec 24, 2013

    Interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

    6:41AM PST on Dec 24, 2013


    4:56AM PST on Dec 24, 2013

    I didn't know that. Thanks for sharing.

    3:16AM PST on Dec 24, 2013

    To many choices are also a bad choice.

    8:28PM PST on Dec 23, 2013

    In this David vs. Goliath story, filmmaker Dave Gardner dares to challenge a system hooked on growth. He takes on millionaire real-estate developers, economists, the Pope, and media moguls who spin pro-growth propaganda.

    Gardner’s efforts to wean his hometown from growth addiction launch us into an examination of the most critical global issue of our time. GrowthBusters challenges our beliefs linking growth with prosperity and fulfillment. It explores how our attitudes toward economic, consumption and population growth prevent rational responses to evidence we’ve outgrown the planet. Interviews with leading thinkers, animation and humorous skits debunk the “grow or die” myth.

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