"In the face of commodity, we've replaced all of the nuance of goods with marketing."
The Fingers interview with Benjamin Lorr on 'The Secret Life of Groceries,' the fearsome power of commodity, and more
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In the national imagination, we drink our beer from brewery taprooms, our wine at classy restaurants, and our spirits at bars with well-worn stools or clubs with crushed-velvet banquettes. And sometimes, of course, we do drink in those places, known collectively to the industry as “on-premise” sellers. But when it comes to selling booze at volume in America, off-premise retailers have been the dominant source of our national inebriation for a long time—and chief among them, the wide-aisled, anodyne, and unremarkable supermarket
It’s a trend that the coronavirus pandemic has very much amplified. “Grocers have gotten a pleasant buzz from beverage alcohol sales over the last few years, and the pandemic has only kept growth pouring into the category,” reported Catherine Douglas Moran for Grocery Dive, a trade publication. This is putting it mildly. If supermarkets were catching a pleasant buzz off booze sales before, the pandemic turned them full-blown, pants-pissing drunkards.
Writing in November 2020, Moran broke down the year-to-date numbers (emphasis mine):
Year-to-date alcohol sales are up $4 billion (21%) in the grocery channel, compared to nearly $8 billion (17%) across all channels, according to IRI data. This has increased the grocery channel’s share of U.S. alcohol sales 1.3 points to 43.8% — the highest market share in five years.
Run that back: about 44% of all booze sold in this country is sold in a grocery store. And in some states, grocery stores can’t even sell alcohol! Grocery (in the business, it’s just “grocery,” no “stores”) is the most important “channel” for beer, wine, and spirits producers trying to reach thirsty American customers, bar none. (Premise pun!)
Grocery’s dominance over this country’s alcohol sales has thousands of little implications, and one extremely large one. Stated plainly: grocery decides what, how, and how much most Americans drink. Ever wonder why craft breweries and specialty bottle shops will sell you four-packs of 16oz cans and beautiful glass-bottled bombers, but you don’t see much of that sort of thing at your local big-box supermarket?
Easy: grocery doesn’t fuck with that shit. That sort of product is a hassle to ship, stock, and sell. It’s unique, one-off, special; grocery is built around sameness, availability, commodity. The higher margins aren’t worth the higher costs of integrating them into the system. As far as the American supermarket is concerned, goods that don’t conform to their standards—of sourcing, volume, container quality, whatever—are products non grata.
This applies to alcohol, but also to everything. And while I’m only able to speak very broadly about this, I know someone who can speak very, very specifically about it: Benjamin Lorr, author of The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket.
Lorr, an independent, Brooklyn-based journalist, spent five years researching and reporting the book, which hit shelves on Labor Day 2020. If you think a book about the inner workings of the American supermarket system could never be interesting enough to sustain ~300 pages of narrative storytelling… well, I thought the same thing, but we’re both wrong, because Secret Life is gripping, hilarious, bleak, and astoundingly readable. Your humble Fingers editor devoured in less than a week over the December holidays (Thanks Friend of Fingers Hanna R. for the recommendation!) I urge you to run—don’t walk!—to The Fingers Reading Room to buy your own copy so that you can do the same.
Don’t believe me? Well, first of all, what the hell?! I’m hurt. Second of all: Fingers recently interviewed Lorr about Secret Life, examining everything from his reporting process, to his moral assessment of the commodity system, to the Trader Joe’s founder’s industry-revolutionizing, wine-fueled revelations about non-continuous grocery, and much more. Because I was, am, and shall forever remain on my bullshit, I made sure to ask the author about hard seltzer, too. Read on, reader…
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Meet Benjamin Lorr, author of The Secret Life of Groceries
Dave Infante, Fingers: Thanks for getting on the phone with me Benjamin. So let’s start with the big question: when did you first realize that you were going to dedicate five years of your life to researching a book about groceries?
I've always been fascinated with grocery stores in a weird, personal way, although I’ve now discovered, in doing talks for the book, that there are a lot of other [grocery] nerds out there. When on vacation, I'd want to like stroll down the aisles of the grocery store, see what a Kenyan grocery store looks like, see what a Parisian grocery store looks like. It's always been a place that I thought echoed with an energy that is in one sense really soothing and relaxing, and then [also] strangely powerful. These are options that the greatest kings and pharaohs and emperors didn't have at their fingertips, yet it's all there for us.
So, that's like the big picture, but very concretely, the day I knew I was gonna write this book, I was working on my last book, Hell-Bent. It was about the Bikram yoga community and it kind of explores this narcissistic guru, this pre-Trump figure. It's written in a very immersive style. I was doing gobs of yoga, to kind of get close to this guru and to understand the yoga scene, so I went to one of his teacher trainings. We were stuck doing yoga for nine weeks in San Diego. Two classes a day. We were all in a hotel complex the whole time, and they’d take people from the hotel to to grocery stores to buy food, so we’re in this like, carpool [system] and we’ve been stuck in the hotel all day and then they just unleashed us on a Trader Joe's.
To watch these yogis, it was just like watching people with maniacal glee. Grown adults channeling the amusement park. I had heard of Trader Joe's, but I had just had not seen that level of excitement about anything. And there was this light bulb that went off in my brain, [a corollary between] the yoga world where I was kind of studying this like obsessive relationship with this guru, and I was like ‘yeah that’s happened to food in my lifetime.’ The grocery store has gone from something that was pretty utilitarian to a place where it was really people saw it as an identity structure and saw it as a way of expressing themselves. So I wanted to figure out what Trader Joe's was doing to create that [connection], and also what was it saying about this kind of larger shift in food culture.
As people, intuitively, we don't like homogenization; it's missing something.
In the opening of Secret Life, you describe how a chicken passes through a tunnel [at the slaughterhouse] and goes from animal into this sort of liminal state of commodity and then only becomes food when someone buys it at the grocery store. The examines at length how the grocery system is built on these commodification processes, but you never really make a moral judgement on that. Can the commodity system be assigned a goodness or badness?
I think the question around commodity is actually at the heart of the entire book. I don't go out and state my views on it, but it’s the central tension of the book. The grocery store is like a miracle in that it offers us these low prices, abundance [and] convenience. There was nothing like this in the human project before [the modern grocery model.] Commodity systems, the simplification of things in service of trade to make goods interchangeable and [allow them to be] lumped together, is absolutely one of the [factors] that made this possible. The blessings of uniformity lead to purchasing at scale, stability through advanced buying, industrial engineering, and comfort of consistency as a consumer. Those are all great, but at the same time it's absolutely in tension with the forces of creativity, ingenuity, individuality, and nuance. And of course, commodity structures—when you're sourcing for such a large volume—become obfuscatory, and they prevent visibility. That allows bad actors to come in.
You draw that out in a bunch of storylines in the book, but the biggest one is the shrimp coming from the Southeast Asian Pacific shrimp farms, right?
Yeah, yeah, I mean, it's really tricky to talk about [whether commodity] is good or bad. I don't want to be like avoiding the question, but—
No, that was a loaded question, it’s fair to avoid it.
In the face of commodity, we’ve replaced all of the nuance of goods with marketing. There's this [negative] reaction to homogenization. As people, intuitively, we don't like that; [we sense that] it's missing something. But there is ersatz way of replacing that, which is like, “Okay, we're just gonna let marketers go to town, and create brands that are unique, nuanced, individuated,” but there isn’t a depth to that. It's a marketing creation, not an actual connection to the source. And often those goods are very much commodity goods. There isn't really anything unique about them. There is some sense that [customers] are having their cake and eating it too.
At one point in the book you talked about like the mindset of these poor bastards who actually do the buying at supermarkets, who are expected to do the impossible: to offer fully individuated products at commodity prices. I got the sense that everyone involved in this system on both sides of the supply and demand line are almost baffled by why they're doing these things but have to do them anyway.
You're definitely pushed into positions that are impossible. But I don't want to downplay the nefarious part, the darkness, that happens in the commodity goods system. Goods become essentially interchangeable. That allows sourcing to happen without actual connection to the humans who are sourcing or providing it. That's absolutely one of the most damning forces [against commodity.]
It's the reason why chocolate is as fucked as it is, and chocolate is so fucked. It’s the reason that shrimp so fucked… the volume of demand that we want, and the fact that we can create anonymity in the supply chain by sourcing from all sorts of people, agglomerating [the raw material], lumping it together, and then poof out the other side, is this new product, this commodity, that doesn't have a connection to these to the individuals that are [producing] it. Or if it does, it has a fuzzy connection that is mediated by marketers. A huge number of problems in globally sourced commodity come from that very moment. The more you can get away from that, the better off we are. The problem is, there aren't easy ways of getting away from that that maintain a lot of the other virtues of global sourcing [i.e., low cost, high availability.]
Even people who know the sectors inside and out can be duped by marketing-only commodity versions of “wholesome” goods. So we have no chance.
When you say that customers’ relationship to the products they buy is “mediated” by marketing, I want to pull that thread a little bit to make sure I understand. Does that mediation resolve the tension between customer-product-producer, or is it kind of just, like, kicking the can down the road?
I guess for some people, I think for some people it does! For some people, I think it completely resolves attention: they are very happy with the goods that they have on an individual level. But on a [societal] level, I think it is kicking the can down the road, You’re not getting any of the benefits that a local 1-on-1 relationship [with a food producer] would at least supposedly offer, like increased trust, knowing where your goods are coming from, ensuring that good people are getting the money and using that money for good things, and therefore probably paying their employees well, and treating their land right.
All these virtues that you imagine might come from a system that doesn't have so much in that anonymity built in, and abstraction built in (which I’m using as synonyms for commodity), those problems don't go away with this marketing trend. In fact they're just continued—
The individual employee is now seen as one of the least-efficient processes in supply chain that has been optimized for efficiency.
Potentially even exacerbated, if there’s more demand for products at commodity prices that seem to offer those virtues, right?
Exactly! Exactly. And it's so sophisticated now. I talked to a buyer for Whole Foods for the book who is not in the book because they were off-record. This was a professional. They had worked as a procurer, knew the sector in and out, and they would talk about new venture-funded groups that would create websites that would make them look very indistinguishable from small purveyors. And they [told me] that even they would be tricked by these was just talking about how she was tricked by these frequently, and it would take a series of coincidences [to identify them as fabrications.]
Even the people who are on the inside, who know the sectors inside and out, can be duped by the marketing-only versions of like a local or more small-scale, quote-unquote wholesome good. So that means those of us [customers] in supermarkets, we have no chance.
That’s sort of terrifying.
Is it terrifying? Yeah, I guess it is terrifying, if our goal as consumers is to be informed, or empowered. One of the big take-homes I have from the book is: that model doesn't stretch. Eric Schlosser ends Fast Food Nation, and he's like “Have it your way,” channeling the Burger King slogan. Consumers vote with your dollars, we're going to to change the system every time we buy something. And it's like… yeah, I don’t know about that.
It’s a nice idea.
Yeah, it is. But I don’t know to what extent, considering the confusion of marketing and the different channels of supply, whether that’s a reasonable idea.
Your reporting showed how truckers who transport groceries in the commodity system are effectively commodified themselves. They're basically indentured servants to the trucking companies, in many instances. It struck me as an example of how this commodity engine might actually be spreading itself as a social contagion; if anything is commodity, everything must be commodity. Was that something that you encountered consistently in your reporting?
I think that's the story of the book. In trucking, it has gone further because truck drivers are “out of sight, out of mind.” I have no doubt that that is the future of warehouse employees who are also “out of sight, out of mind,” though I didn't do research in that area and can’t say for certain. But that's precisely how things are trending: the individual employee is now seen as one of the least-efficient processes in a chain that has been optimized for efficiency, over and over and over in every single way.
Then have this sloppy, relatively shaggy thing: people. They don't necessarily come exactly on time, and need advance notice for things like childcare, and the system reacts by [trying to] streamline them more and more. We see that most clearly in trucking with the consequences of deregulation, but also with retail employees on the floor and just-in-time scheduling, and behind-the-scene workers elsewhere.
[For example, in the shrimp industry] in Thailand, labor is always seen as the cost that can be cut. To play the commodity game for shrimp, there are so many fixed costs just to gain entry. You have to have the right type of shrimp, and you have to use the right type of feed, and you have to use the right type of refrigeration and types of antibiotics… those are all fixed costs, just to gain entry. The one place where you have flexibility is labor. So the more you can turn the employee into a fixed cost, [a unit] that is interchangeable, the easier your life gets. That’s all well and good until you remember that these are actually people, and by doing that you're causing real despair, indignity…
One of the biggest revelations Joe Coulombe of Trader Joe’s had was that there's no such thing as “wine.” There are only “wines,” plural.
You’ve effectively entered the misery business at that point.
Did you see any counterpoints to this system in your reporting? Like, are there real, promising, realistic alternatives to the commodity system?
To a limited extent, yeah. That’s certainly what Joe [Coulombe] was trying to do when he founded Trader Joe's. That was set up in opposition to a lot of the factors that we're kind of calling “commodity” in this conversation. I am very sympathetic to him in the book because of that. He's a very smart guy because he saw that one: [selling non-commodity, non-uniform, specialty groceries] was possible; and two: there was a market for it, and that people would be craving it.
At that time, I don’t think most [grocery companies] saw either of those things. They thought [customers] were actually craving the homogenized [version of products.] I think that that like Trader Joe's, in conception with a non-continuous good, with the idea of marketing to specific demographics, and the idea of adding real consumer value to products… when you combine those three things, you start to find ways out of the commodity structure. There are countless examples of individuals within the system, who are bucking these trends at personal cost, or they’ve carved out a niche for themselves, that kind of can survive by not playing the commodity game.
[For example] there are good fleet operators in trucking. They exist, like they're not all extinct. But they seem to have niches that they've kind of carved out in this greater world, whether that's through steady contracts with one [category] that allows them to survive. But… yeah, sorry, I don’t have a laundry list of “good” [counterpoints to the commodity system.]
Nor should you be expected to, in my opinion. On the topic of Trader Joe’s: wine was a big a-ha moment that Coulombe had when he was sharpening his thesis about discontinuity as as sort of a competitive advantage in grocery. Why was wine was such a perfect crucible for him through which to understand discontinuity?
I think it really was a crucible for Joe. What's interesting—and again, this goes to like the acuity of his brain and his unique skillset—is that he was not a wine person.
You reported in the book that he didn’t drink any wine until he was 37!
Right. He got into this business opportunity. He originally got into it for complicated series of reasons. In California there are fair-trade laws for alcohol, which basically prevent grocers from competing on alcohol on price. So [Coulombe] was like, “OK, I gotta compete by going wide and offering the biggest selection in town, and then people will come to Trader Joe's, and they'll associate me with having the biggest selection. That will that will anchor [Trader Joe’s] in their minds.” That works, and in the process, his wine business kind of booms, and he realizes he needs to learn the details of wine, to get ahead further.
So this total outsider to wine throws himself into it. He traveled to the vineyards all over Europe. At one point he's uncorking like 60 corks a week in his backyard. Just popping bottles, tasting, spitting, getting a physical depth of knowledge. And he's studying the wine legalese, the fair trade laws. And he discovers several notable loopholes.
But the two biggest things he comes away with is that one: there's no such thing as “wine,” there are only “wines” plural. I think this was a quote from him. Meaning: wine is sold by vintage, it's not even sold by estate, necessarily. Because of the complexity there, you really trust the retailer to point you in the right direction. You don't rely on past experiences as much and you don't rely on large brands. It just doesn't work that way, there are too many too many factors and too many ways that value gets overlooked.
He realized that that was equally true of food products, but they weren't being marketed yet. Like, canned tuna: there's really no such thing as that. There are all these different species of tuna that get lumped together and popped into cans. Since the 1950s and 1960s when he was doing this, there have been some steps forward on that. But in many ways it still remains that way. For most food [categories] we don't see it in individual variation. We don’t think of Folgers coffee as occupying the same breadth that wine grapes occupy. Different terroir, different regions… all of [those characteristics] can be either lumped together into an abstracted [commodity] product, or be separated out into something that has differentiation, and therefore, positive [attributes] that you can market it with.
Hard seltzer is continuous, mass-produced, commodity product. But in from a consumer standpoint, it feels so different, so new.
I’m curious: beer doesn’t really come up much in Secret Life, even though supermarkets are a very big channel—the biggest channel, actually—for selling beer in this country. Was beer something you looked into and decided it was too much of a deviation for the book? In other words, why didn’t you examine beer in the book?
I'm curious why you think beer is so different than wine. I mean it’s obviously different [as a beverage], but in terms of the marketing and consumption aspects of beer… I mean, how much of [those differences with wine] is just old class stigmas that cling to the product.
Let me pitch you on what I'm getting at here. “There is no ‘wine,’ there are only ‘wines,’” I understand that, intellectually. Beer in this country may have started that way, but as Joe was having his wine revelation in the ‘50s and ‘60s, beer in this country was very homogenized. It was all regionally dominant adjunct lagers. You could drink Budweiser, or Miller, or Stroh’s, or Coors, or whatever, and they were gonna taste pretty similar. So it was a knock-down, drag-out marketing and margins war, similar to some of the other food categories you cover in the book. Whoever can scale, whoever can execute on continuity of product and then market the hell out of it, to try to get into as many hands as possible, is going to win.
So [beer companies] created differentiation that has nothing to do with the product, but had to do with the consumers’ image—
So like, a Budweiser man versus a Miller man, [those two] are probably different in the eyes of those marketers, even though the actual product is not.
Of course and we're talking about millions upon millions of dollars in focus grouping and market research to identify, amplify, and exploit those differences with marketing. The liquid inside is not even secondary, or even tertiary. But for the last 15 years, craft beer had been making a convincing run as an anti-commodity product. It was explicitly local, marketed by the people who are making it, you couldn’t get every brand everywhere… et cetera. For a time, it looked like it had the escape velocity to to break away from the gravity of commodity. More recently, I would say over the course of past two three years, gravity has taken back over, and craft beer has been rocketing back towards Earth. Back towards commodity, which is where drinkers’ tastes are turning, anyway, with the rise of hard seltzer, for example. Wine has not fallen into the “continuity trap,” so to speak, that I see beer falling back into. Certainly there are supermarket wine brands doing that, like 19 Crimes or Dark Horse or whatever. They exist, but they're not nearly as—
They don’t occupy the same mindspace, right? I do wonder how much both of these trends are kind of converging. I don’t have the numbers so I’d just be talking out of my ass, but my hunch is that like wine occupies a mental space because of its class associations, its history—which is intertwined with those class associations—that allows people to think about it that way. But I wonder what actual sales figures for wine are like, and whether they're kind of more similar to the beer.
It’s interesting that you bring up hard seltzer, because that, of course, is a continuous product, a mass-produced product. But in from a consumer standpoint, it feels so different. It’s like a new niche was created, in a way that feels very small and different. It’s something new.
But doesn’t that make hard seltzer sort of the ultimate grocery?
Absolutely! [Laughs] Absolutely. But on the beer vs. wine question, why I didn’t talk about beer more in the book—simply space. Personally, I drink more beer than I drink wine. I'm not a full-blown craft beer consumer, but I guess if I was to write the book purely based on my personal interest, it would have featured quite a bit of beer.