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Usave the Future

by Brandon Edmonds / Illustration by Sasan / 11.04.2013

You love Woolworths because Woolworths is almost as narcissistic as you are. You are made for each other. As the excellent blog, The Last Psychiatrist, puts it, “Narcissism is about the need to self-identify and to broadcast that identity to others.” Woolworths’ “Good Business Journey” is all about convincing you, a person with marketable skills, disposable income and a job, that you can see yourself reflected in the corporate image of a publically-traded multinational “lifestyle” company worth billions, and that selling stuff and buying stuff, provided it’s the right stuff, “will make the world a better place for future generations”.

Ethical retail and consumption for a better world is the Woolworths Good Business Journey. This is the ‘brand identity’ the company broadcasts to others, making a better world while ensuring a better you, and a better bottom line for Woolworths, but that’s okay because, as a recent supplement, “What a Day the Difference Makes”, sent to card-holders, purrs: “Your support means the world to us”. Ah ha. So the world the Good Business Journey is making better is, in fact, besides real-world positives like solvent local suppliers and store-reduced carbon footprints, the world you and Woolworths intimately co-create in your head. A narcissistic never-never land world whose population you expect to applaud your good taste and humane values for shopping there when the only world the Head of marketing at Woolworths really cares about is the one where they get paid handsomely to turn something as soulless and debased as shopping into “support” for a principle (a better world) they stay up nights perfecting for you.

Better-ness is the conveniently nebulous all-inclusive feel-good motivator behind ‘the difference’ Woolworths claims for itself; as in making a difference to your quality of life and the environment, respecting sustainable fishing, policing additives and agricultural practices, patronising worthy home-grown artisanal suppliers, scrupulously employing black people, and so on. It is not a benign coincidence that “a better world” is not very different to “a better life for all” which anchors the self-identity of the ANC. For any company to be as successful on the scale of Woolworths in this country, in this economy, it better be operating on the idealising plane of concepts befogging the ruling party, flying high in clouds of official legitimating propaganda, broadcasting an identity compliantly in tune with the national imperative of a better life for all. The Good Business Journey is about playing nice with the State whose policies are very much responsible for both the miserable reality facing struggling South Africans and the staggering profits of major corporations. Last year the Deputy finance minister gave a friendly, informative speech to the Woolworths board. Such are the rewards of complicity.

There is no real difference between Woolworths and other retail behemoths when it comes to compliance with the ruling national ideology of better-ness (uplifting communities, providing jobs, being inclusive), they all paint themselves as inherently positive features of South African everyday life, when the reality is price-fixing collusion and wallet-emptying despair at the till. Seeming transformational is essential to the retail business here and now given the “risks to non-compliance”, as an annual shareholder report of a major retail chain put it, “range from fines and compensation claims to criminal prosecution, labour unrest, operational delays and reputational damage”.

mind map

Woolworths simply knows best how to communicate to the educated and well-off, it knows that “the difference” between high prices and low prices is really an irrational adspend mix of perception and quality, the perception of quality. No other retail entity in this country regularly affirms (and flatters) the self-identity of the rich and the middle class as consistently (and flagrantly) as Woolworths. The carefully, expensively curated image of the company is a siren song luring the bourgeoisie, who are more than willing to pay a premium to see themselves in its narrative; and what the sirens sing is the Velvet Underground’s classic “I’ll be Your Mirror”, reflect what you are, on a beguiling loop.

Stepping out of this hall of mirrors is simple. The truth of retail in this country, the mass reality of consumption, is Shoprite’s Usave, reaching out to “the many marginalised markets under-served by formal retailing”. Usave constitutes most of the 66.5% of the nation that visits Shoprite stores. This is where the poor shops. It is far greener than Woolworths will ever be because “the Usave retail model minimises operational costs by cutting back on promotional material”.

So there is no brand image to buy into and a minimal amount of planet-befouling packaging to throw away. The difference? Everything is 10% cheaper at Usave whose slogan has the spare functional clarity of a Bauhaus building: “When we save, Usave.” Now try wrapping your aspirations around that.

* Illustration © Sasan.

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