In the past thirty years, we as a social society have moved from being classed as an Industrial Society, where everything was centred on who we were based on what we did for a living to a Consumer Society, where we are no longer thought of in terms of what we do, but more by what we are into and how and why we consume the way we do. Therefore, the consumption of goods and leisure services is considered one of the most important social activities.
The Consumer Society we live in today offers us as consumers a wide and varied choice. Choices of where and when to shop at our convenience and choices of what we want to purchase. Most of the shopping in the UK today is done at the out-of-town Supermarket or Retail Park, where you can purchase just about anything from groceries to cameras, clothes to household furniture. The High Street, however, is still very popular among those who prefer or are unable to travel out of town and there is also the option of catalogue and online shopping.
Prices start at $12
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What we do purchase can be seen as an indicator of who we are. The majority of consumption is about expressing who we are as individuals rather than buying things for their use. People buy certain goods because they have meaning to them or want to belong or fit in. People feel they are measured by their clothes, their cars and even by their houses. Take mobile phones, for example; a regular cheap phone versus the new designer phone that includes all the extras; both phones serve the same purpose, both have a camera, mp3 player and the latest games. The difference is the price tag. People buy these expensive phones to show off to others, as they believe the phone says something about who they are.
Social Scientists better know this behaviour as Conspicuous Consumption. In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899, Thorstein Veblen studied the consumer habits of the rich towards the end of the nineteenth century. Veblen stated that “luxury items that were bought were put on display in their homes so that guests would see the trappings of success on display.” (Hetherington 2009, p. 32) Even though this was observed over a hundred years ago, it can still be seen today with people showing off their cars, holidays and luxury household items such as televisions and computer games consoles.
Upbringing and education can also influence our decisions, as an income and the way goods are advertised. We as a Consumer Society are very seduced by the power of advertisement. If goods or leisure services are advertised in the right way out attention is caught, and the advertising agencies know this. The use of someone famous promoting the latest perfume or sporting equipment seems to work, and we as consumers tend to rush out to buy the latest fashionable items on offer. We are led to believe that we create a lifestyle that matches our identity.
Consumer Society does offer people choices. However, not everybody has the same choice. Not everybody can consume in the same way; some of us have low-paid jobs or simply no interest in being caught up in the game. The Consumer Society of today is very much a Divided Society. This is properly due to restrictions between the elderly and the young, the employed and unemployed. The unemployed are not able to consume in the same way as those with high-paid jobs; the elderly and those without cars will not be able to visit the large Retail Parks. Much of this comes down to Zygmunt Bauman’s 1988 theory of the Seduced and the Repressed.
Bauman divides Consumer Society into two categories, the Seduced who can consume effectively as they have the means and the social circumstances are in their favour and the Repressed who unfortunately is not in the position to consume as the Seduced do, due it be to lack of money, physical or mobility difficulties. For example, a group of friends might exclude a young man without a job from going out nightclubbing with them.
Some of the big Supermarkets sometimes influence the choices we have about where we shop. This is because the big Supermarkets and Retail Parks always seem to be full. Whether people like or dislike doing their weekly routine shop, most people will choose to shop there as they offer a wide range of goods at low prices, and they are perceived by most to be a safe and convenient way of shopping compared to the often overpriced High Street.
Supermarkets have grown in power and size in the past forty years and they influence our choices in relation to what and where we buy. Some would say that Tesco holds the Monopoly in the UK; they now have over 2000 stores nationwide and are increasing their market share. Around a third of the UK’s grocery shopping is done at Tesco. Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s closely follow behind. Most our shopping is usually done in one of these big four, which means, shoppers do not really have that much choice over where to shop, as all four sell the same products at more or less the same price, so it is more of a personal choice over which one of the big four we choose rather than the choices they offer us.
There are many arguments for and against Supermarkets, some people will choose not to shop there, for reasons such as they disagree with what they represent. These tend to be green-minded people who care more about the environment, so they choose to shop at their local organic street markets and support their local farmers. These types of people portray a different message about who they are compared with someone buying the same less expensive goods from one of the big Supermarkets. Many shun Supermarkets as some feel that they offer cheap prices at the expense of vulnerable workers at home and abroad.
Whilst others argue that it is better that these people have a job rather than no job at all. Either way, the debate between the two is still ongoing. Helen Rimmer from the ‘Friends of the Earth’, states that the growth of the big four Supermarkets has made it extremely difficult for the smaller shops on the High Street to survive, and “approximately fifty small shops close every week”. She also states “around the country there’s growing concerned about the dominance of Supermarkets on our High Streets and our town centres”. (Evidence in the Social Sciences (2009) CD 1).
In contrast, Richard Dodd from the ‘British Retail Consortium’ disagrees and argues in favour of the Supermarkets, stating that it is the prices that attract customers, “Ninety percent of people actually use one of the big four Supermarkets at least once a month and welcome what Supermarkets do and use them regularly”. (Evidence in the Social Sciences (2009) CD 1).
Consumer Society seems to favour those with money and those who wish to be part of the in-crowd. Retail Parks and Shopping Centres are becoming more and more popular as people prefer to do their shopping in one place and because they offer more choice at better prices and because they feel safer than on the High Street, this, however, is still an open-ended discussion.
- Hetherington, K. (2009) ‘Consumer Society? Shopping, consumption and social science’ in Taylor, S., Hinchliffe, S., Clarke, J. and Bromley, S (eds) Making Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
- ‘Evidence in the Social Sciences (2009) Making Social Lives [Audio CD 1], Milton Keynes, The Open University.