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How Much Choice For Consumers?

March 2023
2min read

When Marshall Field intervened in an argument between his clerk and a customer to admonish, “Give the lady what she wants,” he inaugurated the motto for his department store and enunciated the attitude of all the great family-owned department stores of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But this simple and satisfactory relationship between buyer and seller no longer exists in the post-World War II era of corporate and conglomerate ownership. I wrote “A Sad Heart at the Department Store” ( The American Scholar , Spring 1985) to explore the changes brought about by the new economic arrangements.

But Peter Baida, blinded by an invincible faith that the free market of the nineteenth century exists unchanged to the present day, based “A Happy Heart at Bloomingdale’s” (December 1986) on my article without ever touching on its principal point. Keeping largely to the first section, which dealt with the fascinating social history of the department store, he makes my essay appear to be a bit of nostalgia, while himself asserting the mythology that consumer choice shapes the economy.

My stated concern was that, while still using language which pretends that customer needs and preferences determine business practice, corporate and conglomerate managers in the last two and a half decades have turned their attention inward, to their own organizations and systems. The intricacies of our tax laws and the financing of corporate and conglomerate structures largely through the securities market rather than bank loans have created a new world of money making in which manipulation of stocks and tax write-offs are of greater importance to profit making than the production and sale of merchandise. In this system individually successful enterprises may be shut down because tax benefits for the closing are, in the short run, greater than the percentage of profit. These are the issues, completely ignored by Mr. Baida, that I attempted to analyze in my article.

Where he touches on two subsidiary points of mine, Mr. Baida’s incomprehension is complete. What does it matter, he asks, if the support for worthy community enterprises by department stores is now tax deductible, whereas in the past it was taken out of profits and based on genuine involvement in the life of the community. That the taxpayers at large are thus forced to assume a significant share of the burden for contributions chosen by and credited to large corporations is apparently too intricate a concept for the happy-hearted Mr. Baida.

Similarly uncomprehending of my analysis of the changing relationship between buyer and seller is Baida’s assertion that I condone shoplifting as a response to an “essential repudiation by the store of its responsibility to its customers.” I was appalled at such a distortion. I did not condone shoplifting; I interpreted the vast increase in this crime since 1960 as in part an indirect response to aspects of current retail practice as, for example, the dumping of large quantities of mass-produced junk on the selling floor—endlessly replaceable items hard to take seriously as valuable merchandise, particularly when year-round sales and the prevalence of discount stores and off-price outlets make a mockery of fixed prices. With the paucity of salesclerks and the mountains of carelessly displayed merchandise, theft is made effortless, if not invited, in a society that bases identity on the products one uses.

To an awe-inspiring degree, Mr. Baida’s assertion that “the preferences of more than two hundred million consumers decide what goods and services will be available, and at what price” ignores the economic history of this century.

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