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This essay
describes the argument that inequality constrains a consumer society. A
consumer society is a ‘society in which the buying and selling of goods and
services is the most important social and economic activity’ (Dictionary.com,
2018). Inequality is defined as being the unequal distribution of valued social
resources within or between societies. This can also be defined as ‘the unfair
situation in society when some people have more opportunities, money, etc. than
other people’ (Dictionary, 2018). Certain social groups and people within a
consumer society are constrained by these inequalities.

This essay will
address the argument that inequality constrains a consumer society by, firstly,
describing how social scientists view the consumer society and secondly will
aim to look at various examples of how inequality constrains people and social
groups. Finally, this essay will look at the supermarket power constrains and
how these inequalities influence smaller businesses.

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For social
scientists, looking at what people spend their money on and the choices they
make in what or how they buy can tell them a lot about the make up of society. During
the post war era retail was very different. Most retailers were small shop
owners and the minority of stores were big retailers with more than one shop.
People had to go to different shops to buy different things, for example, the
butchers for meat and the greengrocers for vegetables. Customers were served
across a counter, with little opportunity to handle the goods before buying (The Open University, 2014a). Nowadays, there has been
a shift from an industrial society to a consumer society (Bauman, 1988), making
shopping a very different experience. People can shop using a click of a button
using the internet, and have their shopping delivered for them If they so wish
to do so.

Sociologist
Zygmunt Bauman (1988) studied inequality in a consumer society throughout his
life. Bauman’s claimed that consumer freedoms dominate through the seductive
appeal of consumerism, which controls people’s wants and desires and that more
of social life is shaped by the marketplace. He argued that there are two types
of people: the ‘seduced’ and the ‘repressed’ (Blakely and Staples, 2014, p.125a).
The ‘seduced’ includes people seduced as much by the product image as by its
use value, people who have ready access to money or credit and people who are
targeted by retailers, whose custom is valued and sought after. The repressed
include, people who are on low incomes and unable to purchase goods, people
whose custom or identities are not values i.e. minority groups. Bauman’s
argument was that a consumer society is divided, and people are therefore
divided into categories of either seduced or repressed depending on their
ability to consume (Learn2.open.ac.uk, 2018). Bauman believed that in society
where people obtain their identities and buy into a lifestyle and those who are
unable to do so due to, for example, financial constraints, will be excluded or
marginalised.

Post-war era,
consumers used to use ‘hire purchase goods’ as a way of buying furniture or
electrical items for their homes. They would put down a deposit and they would
pay an interest on their items (The Open University, 2014b). This was referred
to as the ‘never-never’. However, as ‘hire purchased goods’ and credit soared,
the majority were able to gain this level of credit. In current times and in
this economical climate the level of credit a person can get depends on their
‘credit score.’ A person would need to have a good ‘credit score’ to use hire
purchase goods or obtain financial credit such as a loan or a credit card.
People who have a lower credit score have usually had financial troubles and
maybe defaulted on payments in the past. This causes inequality in consumer
society because now most people are unable to obtain credit and are unable to
participate in a consumer society. Most people who are from poorer backgrounds
have a poorer credit score. This is also seen by people unable to shop in
high-end stores such as Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. They are viewed as
overpriced by consumers, forcing many consumers to shop at low-end stores such
as Aldi and Lidl that they can afford. This means that they sacrifice the
ability to gain premium quality food because the inequalities they face
financially.

Post-war era,
manufactures had the power over retailers. They would price their own products
and all shops would have to sell their product at this price. However, as the
industrial society shifted to a consumer society, so did the power. Power
relations were shifted from manufactures to retailers. This meant that
supermarkets could charge what they liked for their products. The introduction
of ‘own brand’ goods by retailers, such as M, enabled them to circumvent
the rules of resale price maintenance (RPS) which had protected manufacturers
from competition (The Open University, 2014a). It made it possible for
retailers to set prices for their own goods and opened the way to lower prices
and greater consumer choice on the high street.

The
introduction of own brand goods gave a huge amount of power to the four main
supermarkets: Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsburys. The definition of ‘market
power’ is the power to influence market conditions, including independently of competition.
A higher market share gives the main four supermarkets a certain advantage over
independent retailers and smaller chains (Blakely and Staples, 2014, p. 154b). This
shows an inequality in consumer society because larger stores with a higher
market share can negotiate better prices with manufacturers and smaller
suppliers. They can do this by extracting more favourable terms for instance,
bulk buying. Most big retailers are seen to abuse their powerful position by
‘unfairly squeezing suppliers’ margins or colluding among themselves on the
price of everyday products such as milk, butter and cheese’ (Blakely and
Staples, 2014, p. 155b).

Market power of
big supermarket chains make it increasingly difficult for smaller shops to
prosper and make a reasonable profit. This inequality has led to many corner
shops and newsagents to close permanently. Also, the size and ‘financial assets
of the big supermarkets enable them to exert real pressure on local planners
and politicians’ (Blakely and Staples, 2014, p. 156b). Therefore, the most
powerful use aggressive natures to expand and get their own way regarding store
development. Anti-supermarket lobbies argue that they are encouraging
workforces often in countries abroad and migrant workers to work below standard
minimal wages, long hours and unhealthy working conditions.

Social groups’
shopping choices are seen by social scientists as being dictated by the four
big supermarkets. It seems the only people gaining are the supermarkets who
hold the profits and choice to source the lowest prices supplies. Dennis Wrong
described this as a ‘zero-sum market;’ (Dennis Wrong, 1997, p70) where only one
side gains showing inequalities in a consumer society, or in other words; ‘a
situation in which one party’s gain is balanced by another party’s loss. If you
subtract total losses from total gains, they sum to zero’ (Blakely and Staples,
2014, p. 158b).

To conclude,
this essay described the argument that inequality constrains a consumer
society. Consumers do have a choice, but it is very restricted choice for those
of society who cannot take part effectively due to fewer opportunities.
However, persons within society with affluence and the ideals to create a
lifestyle choice, their choice is not governed so strictly, and they have much
more freedom of choice. Large supermarkets and the ‘big four’ play key roles in
influencing our choices as they hold a great deal of power within the marketplace.
Large supermarkets can dictate prices and place a large strain on consumers and
other small businesses. They can constrain a consumer society by their
aggressive dealings with suppliers and manufacturers and many anti-supermarket lobbies
believe that inequality puts many constraints on consumer society.  

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