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Wake-up call

Good Samaritanship ain't the bottom line


We are admonished to beware of "slippery slopes,” the implication being that at the bottom of the slide, disaster awaits. But slippery slopes can be serendipitous. If, for instance, a supermarket chain acted out of character and became, in effect, almost a lobbyist for consumers, and this bizarro idea became a template for corporate pro-consumerism, ordinary folks would volunteer to grease the slope.

But could it happen?  

Carrefour is a French multinational supermarket chain with almost 14,000 stores in more than 30 countries. To protest PepsiCo's "unacceptable price increases,” they have pulled many of their products off the shelves not only in France, but also in Italy, Spain and Belgium. These include Pepsi, Lay's chips, Quaker cereals, Lipton teas and many others.

They reject the claims of consumer goods companies that these hikes are attributable to exorbitant salaries, commodity values and energy costs. Carrefour has also exposed the stealth of "shrinkflation,” which we have all noticed in the States as well. That's when a box of cereal, for instance, is filled mostly with air, but the physical size of the package and the price are unchanged.

According to ABC News, PepsiCo has "raised prices by double-digit percentages for seven straight quarters, most recently hiking by 11 percent in the July-September period. Its profits are up.... PepsiCo also has said it's been shrinking package sizes to meet consumer demand for convenience and portion control.” 

Aw, so that's it: they are accommodating our health needs and assisting us with the disciplining of our appetites. How socially conscious of them! Excuse me while I barf. 

Deceit and "truth in advertising" laws go "hand in glove" and that hand is up to much mischief. They coexist because consumer protection, at least in this country, is largely theoretical.  France, at least, seems to be somewhat ahead of the curve. 

CNN reports that prices of "food commodities such as cereals, sugar and vegetable oils have fallen over the past 12 months. The food price index for December published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Friday was 10 percent down on the same month in 2022. For 2023 as a whole, the index was down nearly 14 percent on the average level the previous year.”

Yet the manufacturers in Europe are blaming market pressures and the war against Ukraine for the ills and insults to consumers.

Is it accurate to say that Carrefour (which once sold zebra meat and whose board of directors once diverted a portion of their dividends to "be used to finance solidarity actions for the company's employees") is fighting for consumers? Or are consumers just enjoying the collateral benefit of an initiative that the company has taken primarily to somehow suit their "bottom line"?   

When some take the lead, others will follow. In the UK, Tesco took Kraft Heinz's ketchup and baked beans off the shelves until their prices simmered down.

France, unlike the U.S., seriously regulates the retail sector and mandates annual negotiations over price. If there is no deal with suppliers by the end of this month, according to a new law, supermarkets may face fines in the millions. By advocating for consumers through coercion, if necessary, the French government believes they are protecting their economy and in a sense their culture. 

The New York Times calls Carrefour's action a "broadside, encouraged by the French government, to try to strong-arm manufacturers,” noting that inflation has fallen faster than had been estimated.  PepsiCo's chief financial officer, Hugh Johnson, reflects with a smarmy and foggy understatement: "You see some orientation toward value.” Would he reply to Oscar Wilde's "Some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing" with "There's a sucker born every minute"?

To our detriment, the U.S. prioritizes our competitors and doubles down on most-favored nation treatment for our enemies.

"The French supermarkets are quick to de-list people,” notes James Walton, an economist specializing in grocery distribution. In the U.S., we believe in de-platforming and canceling the careers of dissident thinkers, even when the "dissidents" are mainstream, and the censors are outliers. We should start re-platforming self-interest in our economic policies and practices.

We need liberty, not libertarianism.

By looking the other way and in effect giving price gougers a green light in the name of free enterprise and entrepreneurship, we are more likely to see supermarkets (or oil companies and health insurers, et al) gang up with impunity against dependent consumers, than band together and put themselves between the exploiters and their quarry.

Could Carrefour's model be replicated in the States? Walmart is starting to at least talk. And Stew Leonard Jr., CEO of his namesake chain, has expressed pro- consumer sentiments and has earned a reputation for walking the walk.

Corporations will never renounce their overarching quest for riches, but they may put their avarice in hiatus mode for long enough to dupe consumers into believing the companies are doing their share to fix economic injustice. Whether it's under duress from regulators or the centerpiece of a publicity campaign to show they are "giving back" to the community of consumers, they will never take a moral position against price increases if it would set back their bottom line.

Except in our imaginations, we will never, as long as their profits are unaffected, see big-box stores or any kind of retail chains or other commercial enterprise that rakes in money from patrons, act as an ombudsman or enforcer on behalf of those patrons who are paying unwarranted surcharges because of suppliers' price manipulations. 

The retailers will just pass on their added costs and direct their patrons' complaints elsewhere. That's the real world in the here and now. Not a fairy tale, a lost “Twilight Zone” episode or a projection of End Times rapture.

But could we be on the cusp of a transition to a new reality? When ancient flights of fancy about underwater ships gave way to modern submarines, science fiction became non-fiction? Can embrace of economic justice undergo a similar transformation?

Costco gives us hope. When workers at one of their Virginia warehouses voted to unionize recently, Costco's CEO and president did not get nasty about it, like Amazon, Apple, Starbucks and others reportedly did under similar circumstances. Starbucks' mouthed commitment to progressive values does not include worker empowerment and compliance, as not a single branch among almost 400 has a contract, despite having unionized more than two years ago. To their credit, at least, disabled employees, the few they have, are not paid less, which is commonplace among non-unionized shops, as The Chief recently reported. 

Although Costco has provided the template bromide about their being one happy family that can resolve its challenges internally, they weren't defensive or accusatory. Instead, they stated "We're not disappointed in our employees; we're disappointed in ourselves.”

It sounds sincere. But you can't necessarily judge a sound by its timbre. But corporations have something in common with corpses: the lack of sentimentality. 

Corporations are people, some fool trying to sound original once opined. If that's true, then their DNA does harbor a Good Samaritan gene. Corporations will not take a bullet for their customers, patients or clients, and neither will they play monkey-in-the-middle between their suppliers and their consumers.

But wouldn't it be nice if they did? Maybe it would spread. It might then be a slippery slope. After all, slopes incline upwards too. But it's a daunting climb.

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