The Brand Variety Game – Choice or Compulsion?


Anyone who shops for groceries at Coles would have noticed the diminishing brand variety over the last few months – or you may be oblivious to it, if you only buy the brands that remain on the shelves. I used to whinge about it, and swore I would never shop there again, until I reconsidered the situation.

I admit I’m a bit of a brand loyalist, and I ran in to the nearest Coles one day to grab a couple of specific items in a hurry, and left with none of them. A lot of the products they had previously stocked were gone, and most items were down to two or three choices – Coles’ brand and one or two other well-known brands (Schweppes, Arnotts, Unilever etc.). And, you guessed it, most of “my” brands were no longer on the shelves. Hence, my boycott. (Apropos their choice of stocked brands, Schweppes also make the Coles-brand version of their soft drinks, and perhaps it is a similar story with other “low-variety” items.)

Then, the other day I found myself back inside a Coles store out of convenience, and I began rethinking the whole brand variety issue. Now, if I had a choice, I wouldn’t shop at either Coles or Woolworths – but financial and geographical restrictions don’t give me that choice. If I could, I would also grow all my own food, but renting an “urban” dwelling doesn’t allow me to do that either – and I’d still have to buy toilet paper somewhere. So, Coles or Woolworths it is.

And now, back to the brand variety issue. Here I was whingeing about lack of brand variety, or more specifically, losing access to my favourite brands. Then I realised my hypocrisy. For a long time I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that a major reason the world is in the economic and social turmoil that is the 21st century, is the ridiculously unsustainable proliferation of consumer CHOICE. I’m not going to get into a socio-political argument about post-war western society and/or human rights (if you’re heading off on the last tangent, flamboyant consumerism is not a human right). Suffice to say, over the last few decades western society has progressed from a rational “making-do” mentality to an irrational “entitlement” mentality. We want – nay, we EXPECT – to have everything available to us all the time.

Once upon a time, things like pineapples, mangoes, or oysters were luxuries – you only got them when or where they were available. Even ice-cream was considered a treat not too long ago. Now, not only are these things a part of daily life, but retailers have to increasingly find more and more extravagant versions of things to satiate the clamouring, entitled public. This whole scenario has HUGE social, economic and environmental repercussions that give me a headache to think about. (For more on these issues see the links to my other posts below.)

So, here we are in 2012 – Coles is reducing its brand variety, and I was starting to sound like one of the spoilt whingers on The People’s Supermarket (incidentally, I hope for the day when more of these independent, local grocery stores outcompete the big guns). Now, I don’t wish to condone the dictatorial behaviour of these brazenly-branded retail monoliths, as I don’t believe in monocultures of anything. But they may have some sort of rational point. Once upon a time, supermarket customers didn’t have so much choice. You went to the supermarket and bought milk – local, fresh milk. You didn’t have to choose between organic, low-fat, cream-top, slim, trim, lactose-free, or all those other ones with odd names that make you not entirely sure that they’re actually milk. You couldn’t buy every fruit and vegetable all year – it was only what was in season, and what grew in your region.

This is a tricky subject to talk about. In many cases, too much choice of product is damaging our health, society, economy and environment. Most people, in an emergency, would quite easily make do with less being available, even without their first choice of products. But reducing brand variety for economic or environmental reasons is not a panacea – not everybody is just plain spoilt. Some people have genuine health or lifestyle concerns that may require specific products, or simply prefer the quality of a certain product – if these aren’t considered mainstream, or economically viable, supermarkets knock them off the shelves. Is this fair? How much Choice should we be entitled to? Where are the boundaries between genuine right to choice and blatant extravagancy? Most importantly, just how much does excessive choice affect the environment with more packaging, more use of resources, more habitat destruction and, ultimately, more waste?

Some questions are hard to answer with concision. But we can be fairly certain, in these times of economic uncertainty and environmental devastation, that we are more than capable of adapting to less choice. And it’s not just a matter of putting up with second-choices and being unhappy about it. Humans have an amazing ability to adapt and learn skills. If you don’t like the choice of bread on the shelves, make your own. If your favourite jam isn’t available anymore, track down some excess fruit and boil up your own batch. If the biscuits on the shelf aren’t to your liking, find a recipe book and bake some you do like.

Remember, supermarkets are a fairly recent invention – for centuries before they existed, we grew and made most of our own food, sewed our own clothes and made do with what we had. This is true choice – making things how you want, when you want them.

Nothing from a supermarket can compare to home-baked cakes.

© Manu Saunders 2012

See also: Supermarket EcologyRenewable Food, Land of Plenty

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