Attention Shoppers


 

Great news recently from
your favorite financial news network: Several
U.S. manufacturers have recently announced their
intentions to decrease the number of discount
coupons they circulate to consumers. Some
promised to lower prices as well. Cheaper goods
and no more time with scissors. A good deal,
right?

In her essay
"Revaluing Economics," Gloria Steinem
reminds us that it was John Kenneth Galbraith who
coined the term "consumption manager"
and pointed out that a generation of middle-class
women were being trained for the explicit purpose
of keeping the capitalist economy going. They
were being trained as professional buyers. Also,
"the family of higher income…sets the
consumption patterns to which others aspire. That
such families be supplied with intelligent,
well-educated women of exceptional managerial
competence is thus of further
importance…."

Indeed, it takes time to
spend money and set consumption standards. And if
Dad is going to be in the factories and offices
of America earning the bacon, someone will have
to take charge of redistributing said bacon back
into the economy. It is no accident that
supermarkets and department stores are
consciously, and openly, designed to be appealing
to women.

At the same time, studies
show that the average American family spends 8
hours a week shopping, an increase of 400 percent
since the 1950s, due in large part to the
increasing size and complexity of supermarkets,
department stores, and malls.

My husband Joe and I are
late thirty-something and early forty-something.
One thing that attracted each of us to the other
is our shared tendency toward social rebellion.
Among other leftist labels we could apply, I am a
feminist; he is as anti-sexist as possible.

Joe was a bachelor for
decades, and has even cared for older relatives.
Perhaps because of his vast domestic experience,
he and I have never had to discuss a fairly
equitable distribution of household chores. From
the beginning, we shared housecleaning and
laundry equally; I do a bit more cooking these
days only because he has a heavier
outside-the-house workload; he takes the trash
out more often and haggles willingly with
mechanics about car repairs.

Fairly equal. So why am I
doing all of the shopping? For some reason,
feminism has not yet gone to the market.

Eight hours a week
shopping. When I read about the increase, I
thought about my own busy schedule. As a
dedicated coupon-clipper, sale-flyer-reader, and
bulk-buyer, I pride myself on what I thought was
a fairly clever subversion of Madison-Avenue-run
capitalist supermarket structures. I have done
the work of differentiating between what I need
and what I’m being teased—by my
upper-middle-class neighbors and by
advertising—into wanting. I have eliminated
completely the use of shopping as a recreational
activity. I was certain that my average would be
well under eight hours.

I started clipping coupons
when our "circumstances" were
"reduced," as they used to say. And I
could not get him to stop buying brands, which
are the only things you can get coupons for
anyway.

My freelance schedule is
fairly flexible, and I prefer to shop during a
weekday because the aisles are clearer and I can
linger over prices, calculating in my head the
best deal available on a can of Light Red Kidney
Beans. Often I encounter a truly professional
Market Maven, as Mavens prefer weekdays too. Her
cart is loaded carefully and she balances a big
notebook of coupons, a battery-operated adding
machine, and lists she is marking with a red pen.
Ask yourself if you’ve ever encountered a
man doing this in a supermarket.

But when you get that can
of Select Baby Peas for a nickel—regularly
priced at an absolutely ridiculous 97
cents—it’s like flipping the
middle-class bird to every big boy CEO at once.
Yeah, we sure showed them.

But wait: something else is
going on here. Despite our wonderful domestic
equality, if we need a hotel reservation, Joe
would prefer that I make it. After all, I do have
a stack of guide books for every discount hotel
chain in the 48 states. If we need to send a mail
order gift to someone—in my family or
his—guess who looks through the equally tall
stack of catalogues and makes the call? Guess who
calls 800-FLY-4-LESS to reserve the airline
tickets? Guess who decides it’s time to
switch our long-distance carrier? Guess
who’s in charge of transferring credit card
debt to a cheaper interest rate?

It’s as if this
intelligent, independent, capable man has, in the
space of the last year, developed a severe
allergy to 800 numbers. When I consider asking
him to take more responsibility here, all I can
think of is that his lack of patience will cause
him to spend more money than we need to spend.
Can’t have that.

Turns out that when you
factor in everything I do during the week to
spend money or plan to spend money, including
paying the bills, I am spending about 11 hours on
consumption management tasks. Joe, who loves
cooking, food, and going to grocery stores, comes
along shopping sometimes—but I estimate that
he spends an average of maybe two hours per week
shopping, usually with me, usually from a list I
have made.

Which is a pretty
incredible inequity in what is otherwise a fairly
equitable division of labor. How can this be? It
seems clear to me that both he and I have been
suckered.

So now they’re going
to cut back on the amount of coupons they
distribute. I smelled this coming last year. Post
Cereals conducted an extensive advertising
campaign to announce that they were lowering
their prices and would be offering fewer coupons.
They cited the expense of coupon distribution as
the reason, and that only 2 percent of coupons
are redeemed anyway.

Funny. If it’s true
that only 2 percent of coupons are used, and if
it’s true that producers distribute coupons
to attract consumers, then why didn’t they
stop using them long ago?

Does anyone else find it
odd that manufacturers apparently got together on
this announcement? Or that this amazingly minor
bit of news was covered by most of the cable
business shows? How many coupon clippers watch
these shows? It’s not us girls <D>they
were talking to.

I have enjoyed this little
game I have played against Corporate America. Joe
rolls his eyes when I stack coupons, but I
continue despite the ridicule, confident in the
idea that I am costing Capitalist America 92
cents.

Score one for us, right?
Wrong. For one thing, I don’t really rob the
Big Boys of all that much money. During the month
I kept track of the time I was spending, I also
calculated how much money I saved. On food, I
saved about $15 with coupons and another $20 by
stocking up on often-used items which happened to
be on sale. Deduct $5 for the cost of the Sunday
paper. Hell, $30—that’s just the cable
bill. Basic cable, at that.

By offering me that
discount, the grocery stores and producers I
frequented found in me some business they
otherwise would not have had, right? Wrong. Sale
flyers and coupons don’t really attract new
business. I would have gone to that store anyway.
There are only so many food stores in any one
neighborhood, after all. If Tropicana Premium is
on sale at one store, it’s on sale at the
others too, or soon to be. Then what the hell are
these things for?

Sale flyers, coupons, and
contemporary designs of supermarkets are used to
entice women to continue their work as
consumption managers.

On some level, I knew this
all along. I knew that when I was using a coupon,
the Big Boys wanted me to use it. While I was
rewarded with the feeling of having gotten one
over on them, they too were clearly getting
something for their 92 cents.

It was a win-win
relationship, I thought. Wrong again. What
they’re getting for their money is the
creation of a marketplace complexity that forces
every household to designate an expert. By
forcing households to appoint a consumption
manager, the Big Boys assure that consumption
will continue. It’s clear that, despite the
fact that we live in what some now refer to as
the "post-feminist" age, the Big Boys
still expect women to be that expert. Coupon
lay-outs are always addressed directly
<D>
to women. "His snoring is your
problem," asserts a coupon ad for an
anti-snoring pill.

Of course Joe is going to
tune this out. It’s not even addressed to
him. In fact, it insults him.

I see the results of the
decrease in coupon distribution already. My
Sunday coupon flyers are stuffed more and more
with mail-order ads for cheap Wonderbra rip-offs,
and featherweight vacuum cleaners so expensive
they don’t even put the price in the ad.
"I lost 87 pounds fast. Without
dieting."

For some reason, the Big
Boys are leaving the game. They’re pulling
the financing on the competition. They save the
money, we save the time. Another win-win, right?
Can’t be. Let’s review.

Contemporary supermarket
design has forced U.S. women to spend half again
as much time shopping as they used to. Galbraith
asserts that economic growth requires a steady
increase in the workload of the consumption
manager.

Sixty-five percent of
married women work outside the home these days.
Tighter and tighter schedules explain why fewer
and fewer middle-class women have the patience
for coupon clipping. Despite women’s
tightening schedules, the middle class has seen
its standard of living stagnate since 1960. Many
middle-class households now work two and more
jobs for the standard of living once provided by
one.

Clearly, a designated
consumption expert is even more necessary, since
people have little time to shop these days. But
since the economy, the new supermarkets, and
contemporary social circumstance have all worked
to make shopping more challenging anyway, coupons
are no longer necessary to complicate,
artificially, the marketplace. The Big Boys have
finished their brainwashing. We have now
internalized our gender-specific roles of
consumption manager, and its corollary, the
consumption incompetent. Corporate America
correctly perceives that it is no longer
necessary to finance the enforcement of these
roles through coupons.

The first step toward the
subversion of this gender-specific capitalist
manipulation is an awareness of how both men and
women are being exploited. With obvious
hardware-store exceptions, the current
supermarket drives men away by making them feel
inexpert, leaving the field free for women. Women
have less social power overall and are thus more
easily maneuvered by a false reward for an expert
knowledge which is inaccurate, and obscures
actual marketplace mechanisms. Thus, men defer
these tasks, and women volunteer for them, even
claim to prefer doing them.

With this awareness comes
choice. In Joe’s and my circumstances, I may
still clip coupons. But I may choose to subvert a
consumer system that is forcing a predetermined
behavior upon me, and opt out of the game
completely.

Makes you think: Imagine
what would happen if all the consumption managers
went on strike for a week. Anyone game?

H. Kassia Fleisher is a
freelance writer from Chicago.