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Found Object: Big Cheese

[Crosswalk, January 24, 2000]

A few weeks after Christmas the mega-vast-o-giant-super-warehouse-store is nearly empty. A few shoppers linger in the dog food and vacuum cleaner aisles, looking diminutive as fairies. Whole acres of luggage and appliances are deserted, and the vacant cement floors are smooth and clean. I expect to see a tumbleweed roll by.

The immense scale of this place is even more apparent now that it’ s empty. There is something humans love about large anything. In his fascinating 1957 study of consumerism, "The Hidden Persuaders," Vance Packard described the appeal of the huge.

"An Indiana supermarket operator nationally recognized for his advanced psychological techniques told me he once sold a half ton of cheese in a few hours, just by getting an enormous half-ton wheel of cheese and inviting customers to nibble slivers and cut off their own chunks for purchase….The mere massiveness of the cheese, he believes, was a powerful influence in making the sales.  ‘People like to see a lot of merchandise,’ he explained….A test by The Progressive Grocer showed that customers buy 22 percent more if the shelves are kept full. "

But Packard’ s next sentence draws a conclusion that startled me: "The urge to conformity, it seems, is profound with many of us."

Is that what this is all about — conformity? Are we consoled by the repetitive sameness of all this merchandise, and comforted to purchase membership in the herd? A few days ago I was in a store the polar opposite of this one, an upscale chain-store boutique full of doodads and decor. Most items were displayed with a chatty framed memo several paragraphs long, a "personal touch" no doubt generated by a marketing committee. The aim was to give the buyer a sense of uniqueness, but this illusion faltered as I looked at, not just one adorable reproduction of a 1950’s era tin-toy car, but twenty-five boxes of them. Give me a genuine, rare antique tin car — or give me an aisle thirty feet high of peach-colored towels, not one of them pretending to uniqueness.

I shuffled down the wide main boulevard of the warehouse, past a display of soap taller than I am, past some buffalo-sized televisions, under the dangling halogen lights and the faint notes of  "In the Mood." In the frozen food aisle there was something unexpected — a long red plastic bench. It was set parallel to the walk-in freezer case, so you could sit and watch the meat.

I sat down. A block of chicken kabobs, a block of meat balls, a block of something "served in finer restaurants."  There wasn’t much to see, except ice crystals forming on the cellophane, and paper price cards trembling like autumn leaves in the frigid breeze. "Steak-Umm Sandwich," read one, "You Pay 9.99. " I looked down the length of the bench and wondered what circumstances the store designers had in mind when they installed it. When do nine or ten people have to sit down and watch frozen meat simultaneously?

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