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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Chicken, the Egg, and the Retail Dilemma

Not only is it old news, but it's practically ancient history by now that several retailers began their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving evening.  I responded by ignoring the Thanksgiving Day sales with as much enthusiasm as I ignore the Black Friday sales.  Having been forced to participate in a run on Cabbage Patch Kids at Toys R Us with my mother when I was about eight years old, I have a pretty negative reaction to the mob mentality that comes with the cattle-call pursuit of STUFF that is the backbone of doorbuster sales.  Even though the Cabbage Patch Kid was for me, I knew back then that it just wasn't worth it.  Sure, I was glad I got Francis Xavier (who later had a bow tied in his hair and was re-Christened Crystal Something-Or-Other).  But if I'd known that I'd have to stand in line with a couple hundred adults and a (very) few children, then go stampeding with them to the very back of the store, and then witness grown-ups ripping dolls out of each others hands and pushing each other down, I think I would have chosen to do without Francis Xavier/Crystal Something-Or-Other.

Of course, after months of pre-election coverage and weeks of election post mortem, the talk shows on NPR that narrate my errands during the week were trying to fill the election vacuum with discussions about the new trend in Black Friday sales: starting them on Thursday, regardless of the fact that it's still Thanksgiving.  And what struck me was the claim the retailers kept repeating over and over again: We're only trying to give the customers what they want.  If they want to shop on Thanksgiving, then we want to provide them with that opportunity.

With a few notable exceptions, nobody wants to shop on Thanksgiving.  What people do want, what many people need in this crappy economy, are the deals.  And if retailers are only offering the good deals on Thanksgiving, then people are going to shop on Thanksgiving.  Of course, if the retailers wait until their normal week-day opening time on Friday morning to offer the great deals, the customers would happily do their shopping at that time.  But the retailers don't want to wait until 9 or 10 AM Friday morning, because they mistakenly believe that being open an additional 12 hours will beat out their competitors and improve their bottom line. 

Why do I say they 'mistakenly' believe this?  First because people will go for the deals, regardless of when the stores offer them.  Second, because people only have a certain amount of money to spend and shopping to do, and forcing them to get it done earlier means they won't do it later.  The New York Times recently reported that even though sales on Thanksgiving Day were up from last year (most likely because many stores were open more hours on Thursday compared to last year), Black Friday sales were down from 2011.  Overall sales of the weekend (if you can really call the five-day period beginning with Thanksgiving and ending with Cyber Monday a weekend) were up a bit from last year, but the evidence suggests that would have happened anyway.

But the retailers will only look at the improved sales from Thanksgiving, and convince themselves that if people were lining up at the doors at 8 PM, then that means they really want to be shopping at 4 PM, and that's an extra four hours of sales, which means an extra four hours to earn a profit (not that that's why they're doing it--they only want to give the customers what they want, after all).  And since there's zero chance of the economy improving significantly in the next twelve months and plenty of data suggesting it's going to get worse, the shoppers with dutifully show up for the great deals whenever they're offered.  And that will improve next Thanksgiving's sales, which will tell the retailers that the customers really want the stores to open at noon, and, well, you see where this is going.

In the meantime, Black Friday sales and early and mid-December sales will decrease, keeping the overall holiday shopping frenzy reasonably stable, with the modest increases or decreases (based on overall economic health) being spread thinner and thinner over the ever-expanding 'Holiday Season,' further diluting the meaning of the season and reinforcing the idea that our primary purpose in life is to be consumers, not citizens with a heritage to celebrate, a religion to observe, or families to enjoy.

Retailers and shoppers, supply and demand, chickens and their eggs.  Which came first?  In this case, for as long as the retailers have the most sought-after prize (good deals on stuff people want), the retailers make the rules.  Only when we stop behaving according to the retailers' assumption that we're nothing more than consumers can we begin asserting ourselves as people.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What Are We Eating?

I wanted to make a simple supper for my family last night.  Soup and bread.  No problem, right?

Well, a normal person would go out and buy a can of Pillsbury Flaky Biscuits and a few cans of Campbell's Chunky New England Clam Chowder, and have supper ready in about 30 minutes.

But as I'm sure you've figured out by now, I'm not normal.

I measured the correct amounts of milk, honey, eggs, butter, flour, salt, and yeast into my bread machine, waited nearly two hours for those ingredients to be kneaded and allowed to rise, then shaped the dough by hand into pinwheel rolls.  Next I brushed melted butter on the rolls, then left them to rise again for another 45 minutes.  After that I was finally able to put them in the oven to bake for about 30 minutes.

I also chopped two cups of onions, peeled and diced six small potatoes, cooked and diced four ounces of bacon, then put all that together with milk, heavy cream, and, of course clams (canned, not fresh--I do have my limits after all!).  Between preparation and cooking, the chowder took about three hours.

Why did I do all that?

I'm not a contender for Mother-of-the-Year.  I'm not a masochist.  I'm not looking for bragging rights.  (OK, maybe a little on the bragging rights.)

I did it because of partially hydrogenated soybean oil, xanthan gum, TBHQ, monosodium glutamate (MSG), modified food starch, flavoring, sodium phosphate, and succinic acid.  These are the things my family avoided ingesting because I didn't go with the 30-minute supper.

Some of these are simple chemical processes that have been proven (or at least are widely believed) to be completely benign to humans.  However some of them aren't.

We've all heard the warnings about avoiding trans fats, which means avoiding partially hydrogenated oils.  Consumption of trans fats can increase the risk of coronary heart disease.  Furthermore, the process of hydrogenation typically involves the use of an alkene, and the simplest and most commonly used alkene is ethylene.  Ethylene is listed with the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as a class 3 carcinogen.  Granted, a class 3 carcinogen has a relatively low risk of actually causing cancer, as it's defined as being "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans."  Compare that to classes 1 and 2, which are "definitely" and "probably" carcinogenic, respectively.  However "not classifiable" is a lot different from "probably not," which is class 4.  With as much as we still don't know about cancer, I'd prefer not to take my chances.

TBHQ, or tert-Butylhydroquinone, is also used as a corrosion inhibitor in biodeisel.  In addition to being a food additive, it's added to varnishes, lacquers, resins, and oil field additives as well.  Now that's multitasking!

Modified food starch is a process that's used to thicken foods and make wallpaper adhesive.  Sure, I can see how that could be useful.

What can I say about the ingredient 'flavoring?'  What exactly is that, anyway?

And finally, sodium phosphate, great as a food additive, cleaning agent, stain remover, and degreaser.  Yummy!

Maybe you believe that God designed humanity to live in harmony with his creation, providing all that we need for sustenance in the produce and animal life of the earth.  Or maybe you believe that we are the products of billions of years of evolution.  Either way, the fact remains that the human body was not designed to require the services of a trained chemist in order to meet our nutritional needs.

Yes, it took more work to make the rolls and chowder from scratch.  But I also doubled the recipe for the chowder, and we froze the remainder, so my next simple soup and bread supper will be a lot simpler.  And the rolls?  The ones I made last night are my husband's favorite, and I wanted to make up for having him do the single parent thing all weekend while I was away at a retreat, so I decided it was worth the extra effort.  But I also have a recipe for cornbread, which takes about 35 minutes (preparation and cooking) that he also likes.  Less beloved by my husband but adored by my kids are my baking powder biscuits, which take about 45 minutes total.  Both are more work than the Pillsbury bread-in-a-can, but, unlike what Pillsbury has to offer, in neither case do I need to Google any of the ingredients to find out what they are.

I realize they're called 'convenience' foods for a reason, but it's important to ask the question, is it worth it?  Ever since Americans began eating more convenient, prepackaged, highly processed foods, we've become significantly unhealthier as a population.  The exact reasons and relationships elude us, but the correlation stands.  There are several other things I would have liked to have accomplished yesterday afternoon, but weighed against the health and wellbeing of myself and my family, none of them were important enough for me to turn my family into a chemistry experiment.

Life is messy, it's complicated, and it's full of tough choices.  One of my choices is to try to keep my food as uncomplicated as possible.