Tag Archives: commerce

a problem with brands

You may not like to think of yourself as so easily reflected by the stores you shop at, but chances are that frequenting a certain store reflects that you’re among a certain demographic. Take Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Depending on where you’re from, these two stores may seem quite different in who they appeal to — or, from outside a particular range of neighborhoods, they may seem like slight variations on the same healthy kind of brand. Trader Joe’s offers foods that are both healthy and affordable, which is a rare combination that disenfranchised/low-income communities could certainly benefit from. While it may not be as remotely upscale as Whole Foods, I don’t think of Trader Joe’s as a place that one would find in a neighborhood not considered desirable — whether that be because it’s considered an acceptable standard to those who are upwardly mobile enough, or because it’s gentrifying to that.  What Trader Joe’s lacks in an upscale experience, it seems to make up for with a whimsical name that alludes to a bygone entity. This has the same appeal vinyl holds to some people.

I recently read a post that mentioned the Portland African American Leadership Forum’s campaign against a Trader Joe’s moving into a primarily black, low-income neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. There’ve been many pieces lambasting that forum, but this one amounted to the way that just a Trader Joe’s, in and of itself (minus accompaniment by upwardly mobile-friendly development projects) could be good for a lower-income neighborhood. I think the problem is that store brands generally aspire to offer the same experience, specifically to appeal to a reliable customer base. So, any one brand that appeals to people who are upwardly mobile is synonymous with such. Think Starbucks.

If brands weren’t such a single-minded entity, then perhaps they could be tailored to low-income communities — with the obvious benchmark being that any variation on their stores all upheld the same standards. It would be easy to hire the majority of a store’s staff from that specific neighborhood, and let the uniqueness of that store be defined by the community that already exists there. The benefits of a brand’s resources could go a long way, even without their usual logos.

As far as wanting to keep Trader Joe’s out of that particular lower-income neighborhood in Portland goes —  it seems unfair to mention this without mentioning the statistical demographics of Portland (both historically and more presently).  Its reputation attracts the kind of upwardly mobile, primarily white people not so funnily lampooned in that dumb TV show — the kind who are generally thought of as being for diversity.  From what I can tell from Wikipedia and the Portland, Oregon section’s sources, the relatively small African-American communities the area has had seem to have been displaced even more exponentially than most.

Business is business

© Robert Pinero and me _____________________

When I was young, I did the typical thing of going along with my mother when she went grocery shopping.  I never really noticed the way she’d try to stay within a limited budget until the time a cashier was ringing her stuff up, and she was short of the total by one cent.  This was in a chain store she went to all the time, but the cashier wasn’t about to let her slide with that one penny.  Nowadays I find myself thinking that the silver lining of this is that she would never had to walk past the cashier and feel like she’d been a charity case.  But that’s just cynicism on my part.  While I’ve found that very few people really ever do anything for someone else without some sense of personal gain (if only in standing), I can’t disavow the notion that not letting someone slide on one cent one time is pretty bogus.  It’s also, at its most simple level, just business.

I also recall going to a corner store once in a while, and my mother having to put some trifle back for being short a few cents, and the guy behind the counter insisting that the few cents didn’t matter.  And for the sake of someone else, someone who’d never in a zillion years ask someone to give her even a few cents was okay about that–because, to the guy at the corner store, the loss of a few cents to someone who wasn’t trying to chump him off was genuinely trivial.  He did not expect a parade out of it.  For him, business was not business minus any semblance of human consciousness.

This particular decade has certainly seen a strong resurgence of that minus-human-anything kind of business.  That’s certainly the most profitable kind, because, if your business is a part of something that millions of people utilize, little cents add up to lots of zeroes behind dollar signs.  So taking people out of the equation as anything beyond walking wallets is optimal.  Like those guys on Wall Street saw it.  And, of course, that way of thinking has really ensured a better world for everyone . . .

This profit-maximizing kind of thinking extends itself well beyond the businesses people must use to get their basic needs met–all the way to the arts, where the idea of coming up a little short is supposed to be different.  The arts all have their own measuring sticks when it comes to what’s good and what’s not, but, at a certain level, subjectivity is a mark on all of them.  Subjectivity–being a human consciousness thing.  So the more business-driven art is, the more its qualities are measured in currency.  Currency ends up driving all the art that’s put up and heralded in front of you as art or literature.  The value of any piece needs to be at level as such that being a cent short is out of the question, and in an arena where currency isn’t just about the literal monetary kind, the value of an artist’s background and demographic also come into play.

It’s just funny; you grow up being taught many works of art that, for all of their virtues, don’t usually engage you all that much.  And even when you don’t love them, you can maybe see what someone else saw in it enough to bring it to light.  The fact that such things abounded lead many people to think that completely catering to the lowest common denominator, mainstream or otherwise, wasn’t the bottom line with art.  I think about writers and artists whom were published decades ago whose backgrounds and subjective lack of appeal to mainstream currency means they’d never get much off the ground these days–and, as far as a percentage of what was being put out there, they were still only a tiny bit of art-related industry output.  But still, their lingering presences on the printed page speak to a time when art as a business wasn’t quite so soulless–or maybe when there was enough for folks to let their souls be stirred a little beyond business.  Nowadays, creators have to know how both they and their works are measured, unless they’re naturally such that they have/are exact change for what they’re going for.

I’m not the biggest fan of The Sin City movie that came out in 2005, but a character had two good lines that stood out to me, and forgive me if I’m paraphrasing them: “These are the all or nothing days.  They’re back.”