Are Retailers Social Engineers?

A few months ago, we published our report for Food Standards Scotland (FSS) entitled “Identifying and Understanding the Factors that can Transform the Retail Environment to Enable Healthier Purchasing by Consumers”.  The report and various summaries along with our brief commentary on it can be found on this blog here.

Reaction to the report can be best described as polarised, both directly to our face and in emails and social media.  There was a lot of support from health professionals and it has been described as thought-provoking and challenging.  Retailers and retailer bodies also found it challenging, but with a different slant, more often (though not always) casting it as misguided and disappointing.

One of the hopes from FSS and ourselves was that if nothing else the report opened up a debate.  And it was in that spirit that I presented the report to the Scottish Grocers Federation Parliamentary Cross Party Group on Independent Convenience Stores.  This Cross Party Group is proving a very worthwhile forum for debates on retail issues and is testimony to the renewed energy, desire, ambition and forward thinking of the Scottish Grocers Federation.  A full committee room listened politely to me, didn’t throw too much and engaged in the debate.

My overheads can be found here.  Not surprisingly the questioning and commentary on this was robust and challenging, but always fair, polite and recognising that diet and health in Scotland remain a big issue and a government priority.  The role of retailers in this is also recognised widely; the questions being over how best to improve diet and health and how other sectors fit into the equation.  As our report is at pains to point out, focusing on food retailers/shops alone and ignoring other food consumption sites and digital opportunities to purchase is not sustainable.  It runs the risk of damaging the very communities policy is seeking to help.

For me, the last question from the group crystallized some of the issues: ‘why do you want retailers to be social engineers?’ The point being made was that asking retailers to focus on health cast them in this role, and it is one they are not suited for.  So restricting unhealthy in-store ‘activities’ and rebalancing towards healthy is social engineering. It is a slightly different version of the ‘nanny state’ argument.

One of the key points in the report is that consumers are being asked to adopt individual responsibility in an inherently unfair context.  With the overwhelming balance of stimuli at the point of decision being towards unhealthy consumption, how can a consumer exhibit personal responsibility, at the point of purchase/consumption?  To that extent, my response to the question is that retailers are already social engineers, but are doing it unwittingly.  More exposure and questioning of the practices undertaken will make this more obvious.

We all agreed on one point though.  This ‘social engineering’ (if it is that) is also practised in sectors beyond retailing and in many cases is embedded in the whole consumption eco-system.  Unlike food retail shops, such other situations (cinemas, coffee shops, pubs, fast food and other restaurants) are actively focusing on super-sizing and upselling.  So you really need that bucket of popcorn in the cinema that is twice your body weight don’t you?  And staff are often rewarded for such ‘additional’ sales.

More positively, the Scottish Grocer’s Federation has for a number of years done a lot of work in Healthy Living and their efforts are underpinning the Healthcare Retail Standard. If you are unaware of the SGF’s positive efforts on Healthy Living then check out their work here.  This is one activity that could do with some super-sizing.

Thanks again to Scottish Grocers Federation for the platform and debate they provided. Their next Cross Party Group is on the proposed uncontroversial (not!) Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). The Scottish Grocers Federation view can be accessed here.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Community Grocer, Consumer Lifestyle, Consumers, Convenience stores, Cross Party Group, Deposit Return Scheme, Diet and Health, Food, Food Retailing, Food Standards, Health, Healthcare Retail Standard, Healthy Living, Independents, Local Retailers, Restaurants, Retail Change, Retailers, Scotland Food and Drink, Scottish Grocers Federation, Small Shops, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Sugar Tax, Waste and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Are Retailers Social Engineers?

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