Sometimes or all the time.
Too much or not enough.
With flare or with shame.
For necessities, for therapy, on vacation.
At Dollar Store or Neiman Marcus or Sears, depending.
We shop at the megastores because they’re cheap and convenient and everywhere and because they’re what’s happening.
(Stewart, 2008, p. 61)
Generalizing consumer patterns globally would be an unforgivable mistake for someone who aspires to write academic papers. Cultures, moral and ethical principles, ways of living, income level, and other various attributes influence what we buy and how we buy it. Someone in a distant Russian province with an income level below a minimum wage has very different shopping habits from a European expat living in Dubai with a monthly income equal to the yearly pay of that person in Russia. Stewart (2008, p. 61) rightly points out, “If you have plenty of disposable income, that’s one thing. If you have no money at all, that’s another thing.”
However, not these differences concern me within the frames of this paper, but the one particular category of buyers. Inspired by Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (1964), today I wonder how shopping habits have changed for females of middle-class consumers in developed countries. Through everyday life theory and perspective, I aspire to know how emancipation (honoring earlier undeniable woman suffrage, here I rather use the term “emancipation” mainly to address the liberation movement of the 1960s – 70s and more recent developments on this front) affected the food-shopping behavior of women. I also consider this work from a socio-anthropological rather than psychological perspective.
Post-war period or the buying power of housewives
“Crisis ordinaries” (Berlant, 2011, p. 10), this is how one could attribute the shopping patterns of American housewives in the post-war period described by Friedan. These patterns, gloomy but at the same time desperately exciting, drove these housewives to more frequently visit supermarkets and spend countless hours in the shopping centers, providing the only opportunity to socialize. Schapker (1966, p. 47) emphasizes, “The availability of the second car to the housewives has brought about more frequent trips to the shopping center and the supermarket.” Everyday life became a prison, catching women in the peripheries of micro- and macro-sociological processes, debilitating personal agency, and burying these females even further into “the everydayness of everyday life” (Hubble, 2003, p. 427)
Pic. 1. 1950 ad for A&P supermarkets “More Family Cars Park Here.” Source: spontaneouslunacy.net
What were those housewives buying during the countless hours in the shopping malls? Friedan gives us a clue. In her book, she argued that housewives derived particular pleasure from looking for bargains and the newest house appliances, be it kitchen and dining utensils or cleaning and household equipment. Growing health concerns of the post-war period, linking nutrition to health provided housewives only more reasons to care for the family by being extra cautious while food shopping. Race for high fats and cholesterol avoidance (Belasco and Horowitz, 2011) allowed females to find a higher purpose. In fact, women made up more than 60% of the general buyers and hence targets of advertising agencies. The number of shopping centers increased dramatically; by 1964, there were 16,000 supermarkets, from 11,140 supermarkets in 1954 (Schapker, 1966). Big corporations only supported and even fueled these trends, emphasizing that a caring mother, a good wife, is not just a housemaid; she holds a special place in society and her own house and should be proud of it.
Was she really proud? Was she really happy?
The concept of “optimism,” despite the odds of prospects of the near and far future, comes explicitly applicable to the women who voluntarily traded their personal development to “The Feminine Mystique” (Friedan, 1964) so vividly depicted in the “I Love Lucy” show of the 1950s. This ideal life had a “perfect” vision, the vision of “the suburban home, with a nuclear family living in a mass-produced home, complete with a picture window, thin walls, and freshly mowed green grass in the yard.” (Norton Center, 2015). However, after numerous interviews and fieldwork, Friedan marvelously unmasked rampant and endemic unhappiness, depression, and dissatisfaction among American housewives. Those who only recently could not imagine a better life than the life of a full-time housewife realized how hopeless their future seems today. Depending on the degree of individual character and aspirations, “even those whom you would think of as defeated are living beings figuring out how to stay attached to life from within it, and to protect what optimism they have for that, at least.” (Berlant, 2011, p. 10) So, again, these women, who dedicated their lives to “The Feminine Mystique” (Friedan, 1964), filled the void by spending more time picking clutters of unnecessary stuff, hoarding it in the cupboards of their houses with the open layout without a single door that could separate a woman from her children even for five minutes. This coping strategy, along with excessive habits such as excessive shopping, binge eating, or drinking, resulted not only in a high advertising readership of food-store promotion (Schapker, 1966) but also in widespread depression and dissatisfaction at that time.
Feminism of the 60s and “Lean In” of today
The late twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century denounced the idea of a housewife as a housemaid in the majority due to women’s emancipation, as females took their place in the working environment, leaving them with much less time to clean, cook, and ultimately do food shopping and collecting shopping stamps for the pleasure and entertainment of it. Sooner or later, women from various social classes were already working, bringing additional income to support growing family consumption or due to a genuine desire for status and recognition, or need for “esteem” as per Maslow’s theory of needs (1943). Food shopping became less entertainment but a necessity as women continued to run house errands while having full or part-time work.
Grocery shopping cannot be viewed in silos as it is linked to all aspects of our lives. “[…] one cannot talk about scandals of the appetite […] without talking about the temporality of the workday, the debt cycle, and consumer practice and fantasy” (Berlant, 2011, p. 105). To understand evolving shopping patterns, one must look deeper into the current daily practices and today’s everyday life of a woman. What is she busy with, this woman of the middle class in a developed country? Is she working? If yes, is she struggling with “Glass Ceiling” on her way to properly “Lean In” (Sandberg and Scovell, 2013)? Does she have a child or two? Can she or her family afford to pay for a housemaid? Reviewing the statistics in detail is not the aim of this paper but rather an invitation to reconsider how we study, address, and view daily routines.
Today a woman has less time for grocery shopping and values practical solutions. She “spends less time on household chores, including cooking, than their mid-century counterparts.” (National Women’s History Museum, 2017) In the US today, women are dominating 70-80% of consumer purchasing decisions and take up 40% of US privately owned businesses. (Forbes, 2019) Naturally, wise time allocation became a modern woman’s primary concern.
Nonetheless, today family traditions are not very different from those of half a century ago. Women still have their “women’s jobs” at home (Koch and Sprague, 2014), being the primary caretakers of children, while most household errands rest on the shoulders of these women as well. Today’s females still do most of the meal planning, budgeting, and grocery shopping (Koch, 2012; Koch and Sprague; 2014). Hence, family food preferences, quality, assortment, and lucrative bargains persist, affecting food shopping drivers. (Blaylock and Smallwood, 1987; Dhuria, Lawrence, Crozier, Cooper, Baird, and Vogel, 2021) However, as housewives earlier in the 20th century did have time to even socialize in the shopping centers, today, efficiency and convenience take crucial places in the ranking of food shopping motivations for modern women. (Koch, 2012; Dhuria et al., 2021) Such efficiency and convenience are provided by modern online shopping technologies, specialized shopping centers (organic, vegan, etc.), and the proximity of these marketplaces. Kohn and Sprague (2014, p. 243) take this discussion even further, emphasizing that “[…] middle-class, professional mothers drew more on the nutrition discourse, while working-class and part-time workers tended to discuss their shopping in terms of efficiency”. Despite working their way up and advancing economic independence, women remain faithful to persistent traditional patterns for grocery shopping even today, adding additional constraints such as time pressure.
Conclusion or why efficiency and convenience are not blessings
As many women continue balancing their working and family lives, striving to manage and have time for everything, they significantly dominate the purchasing space. They earn, grocery shop, run household errands, or hire a nanny or a maid. Still taking greater charge of the family’s well-being, women shopping patterns remain similar to the ones half a century ago, with only efficiency and convenience being added to the equation as the time today has to be managed wiser. Online grocery shopping, and the proximity of the supermarket, all support the busy schedule of modern women. However, such trends seem rather depressing than uplifting. Without disregarding the achievements of feminist movements, it occurs to me that in the majority, the fight for equal rights did bring the rights to women, making them equal to men, but made these rights somewhat “additional” to whatever females were already supposed to be doing at home. Women took on additional tasks without negotiating the baseline. They silently agreed not to “jeopardize” their family for their career and fulfilling the need of “esteem.”
Hence, I see efficiency and convenience as forced solutions to “The Efficient Housewife Discourse” (Koch, 2012) due to the ubiquitous lack of spare time and not as a modern blessing. Only if women renegotiate the base will they be able to take advantage of efficiency and convenience. One might even foresee changes in the driving factors of food shopping and the overall consumption dynamics shifting the line of consumer purchasing dominance, given that such negotiations rise and become widespread. At the same time, I remain committed to the idea of personal choice that gives freedom to each woman to decide and navigate her power balance, whether within the traditional or “Lean In” approach.
Food shopping patterns are only one of the very many other aspects that are affected and guided by cultural and social structures. Feminism, be it neoconservative or neoliberal, or another stream (more on this in “Neofeminism” by Aya Gruber (2013), takes charge of advocating for the “right” approach. Still, in any of these circumstances, women should not feel forced to succumb to the status quo of the new living standards driven by forced efficiency and convenience.
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Blaylock, James, Smallwood, David. “Intrahousehold Time Allocation: The Case of Grocery Shopping,” The Journal of Consumer Affairs 21, no. 2,1987: 183–201
Davis, Krystle. “20 Facts And Figures To Know When Marketing To Women,” Forbes, May 13, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescontentmarketing/2019/05/13/20-facts-and-figures-to-know-when-marketing-to-women/
Dhuria, Preeti, Lawrence, Wendy, Crozier, Sarah, Cooper, Cyrus, Baird, Janis, Vogel, Christina. “Women’s Perceptions of Factors Influencing Their Food Shopping Choices and How Supermarkets Can Support Them to Make Healthier Choices.” BMC Public Health 21 (1). 2021: 1070–1070. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11112-0.
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