part-time musings

Tag: consumption

KK goes shopping

Yes, I know, TWO supermarket posts in a row. But in my defense, this isn’t so much a post as a photograph which will serve as a placeholder until I get back to my old ways and have something important to say about Tanqueray. I stumbled across this photo on the interwebs while looking up something on Zambia. It’s a classic representation of a genre of photography that was prevalent in 1960s and 1970s Africa and intended to calm the nerves of foreign investors by showing how ‘normal’ Africa is. Featuring prominently in this genre of photography are pictures of African leaders doing ‘normal things’. Here, for example, is Kenneth Kaunda, shopping in a supermarket. The normality is admirable, non?

*Actually I wish I knew who took the photo and why; if you know, please drop me a message.


Why Westgate?

This is the Westgate Shopping Centre in Oxford. Not the most glamorous of additions to Oxford’s architectural fabric, is it? I was thinking about this shopping centre the other day because I was wondering if the change machine they have outside the Sainsbury’s is still there. The change machine is the only reason I go to the centre which makes me what retail analysts might classify as an ‘outlier’.  This is because I’m in no way tempted by the typical manifestations of modern-day consumerism such Primark, Thorntons, and the sad smorgasbord of mobile phone and sportswear shops that line the route to the change machine.

For some reason this segued into me wondering about the name Westgate. My geography of Oxford is a bit sketchy, but it occurs to me that it’s possible the shopping centre lies in the western part of the city where once there was an actual Western Gate to keep out marauding peasants from the nearby swamps. It’s possible, yes, this deeply-held  commitment to Oxford’s historical past on the part of the shopping centre developers? But then what Dear Readers, explains the wild proliferation of Westgate Centres elsewhere in the world?

There’s one in Ottawa, one in Johannesburg, one in Auckland, New Zealand, one in San Jose, California, in Stevenage, in Toledo, in Zagreb, in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in Ashville, North Carolina, in Nairobi, in Shanghai… (I’m not making this up. I checked all this you know)…  in Cleveland, Ohio, in Harare, in Macon, Georgia, in Merced, California, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in Winona, Minnesota, in Little Rock, Arkansas, in Durham, North Carolina, in Amarillo, Texas, and in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Yes Dear Readers, there are a LOT of Westgate Shopping Centres out there. And because I’m such a thorough researcher and generally over-caffeinated, I of course couldn’t stop there. Next I had to investigate the relative popularity of the name EASTGATE Shopping Centre.  And my painstaking research reveals that in a googlefight, Westgate beat Eastgate by almost 2 to 1.

Oh and if anyone knows if the change machine outside Sainsbury’s is still there, please tell me.

How shoppers helped invent the supermarket

Some research I worked on in 2007 as part of the Reconstructing Landscapes Project has been developed into an article co-authored with Andrew Alexander and published this month by the journal, Enterprise and Society. In ‘Co-Creation of a Retail Innovation’, we examined shoppers’ reactions to the development of early supermarket retailing in post-war Britain and drew on insights from recent research on the role of consumers in innovation to show that more attention needs to be given to the shopper’s input in the debate on retail innovation, including the supermarket.

Shoppers’ contributions to the supermarket innovation are shown to be multi-faceted in nature, incorporating processes of co-production and value creation; processes that were altered in the transition from counter-service to self-service retail environments. Shoppers’ discussions of such alterations were frequently structured around four aspects of interaction; with the physical environment of the store, with the goods for sale, with other shoppers and with shop staff. Continue reading more….


Last month I presented a paper at the Cultural Value of Oral History Conference (CVOH) at the University of Glasgow. The paper looked at our experiences of using oral history interviews in the AHRC Reconstructing Consumer Landscapes Project and I argued that oral interviewing is a method that is particularly well-suited to understanding consumer behaviour.

There has been a great deal of interest since the mid-1990s in understanding consumer society. This has not only seen a procession of academic titles dealing with consumption and the emergence of consumer identities, but there has also been significant mainstream media commentary on the effects of ‘consumerism’ on individuals and society. Supermarkets in particular have been singled out by commentators as being linked to a nefarious ‘growth in consumerism’ in post-War Britain. See, for example, Andrew Marr’s article ‘The Day Shopping Killed Off Politics” in the Telegraph (15 May 2007) in which he discusses the rise of retailers such as Tesco and Asda and argues that

[t]he political visions of Attlee, and Churchill in his romantic-nostalgic mood, were overthrown by the consumer boom of the Fifties.

Despite all this interest in consumption and consumers, there has in fact been very little research into the reactions of shoppers to the arrival of the supermarket – something the Reconstructing Consumer Landscapes Project was designed to address. I argued in my paper that oral history interviewing is a particularly good method – combined with the large-scale questionnaire survey we’re using for the project – for understanding some of the complexities of consumer responses to the arrival of self-service shopping and supermarkets in Britain. I argue that the questionnaire survey and the interviews work together to reconstruct different aspects of consumer behaviour: the survey data provides a longitudinal view of consumer behaviour and, for example, enables us to consider regional differences, while the interview material reconstructs some of the complexity of the social, cultural, and familial context in which changes in shopping behaviour were occurring.

One of the acknowledged strengths of oral history as a method is the way in which interviewees reconstruct the past both subjectively and from the perspective of the present. And I argue that these characteristics of oral testimony mean that we are able to observe what societal changes or continuities interviewees themselves regard as having had significance to their lives as consumers. One of the major themes of the CVOH conference was the extent to which oral interviews empower the interviewee to construct their own version of the past. Unlike some historians at the conference, I don’t believe that only life story interviews (i.e. interviews that discuss a person’s whole life experiences) provide the most accurate and authentic portrayal of the complexity of peoples’ experiences. I argue that interviewees are in fact very good at balancing our research agendas with their own reflections on the past.

I’m currently developing these ideas into a full journal article with the help of my colleagues– so more to follow.