Points North: The Real Trade Wars…

Points North

By James Fife

There's been a lot of talk recently about tariffs and unfair trade relations, much of it not making a whole lot of sense. But I'm not talking here about the big picture sort of commercial affairs, which I and most folks have nothing to do with. I'm concerned with the real trade wars going on all the time that all of us engage in. I mean the frustrating struggle and travail that is everyday shopping. And the travail only gets bigger when it involves shifting gears from one national style of shopping to another.

I have to admit that Marilyn and I have very different shopping personalities. Marilyn is the proverbial Happy Warrior when it comes to retail warfare. She will willingly, mind you, dive into the vortex of battle. Even if it's just to return an item, which boggles my mind in its audacity: braving the maelstrom first to buy something, and then again to bring it back. I am just the opposite: I usually avoid having to step across the threshold of any store like its only offerings were chocolate-dipped botulism drops. It takes a pressing need to secure some item, a very strong interest in the type of goods, or so much time to kill that the choice is between window shopping and lapsing into a coma, before I willingly enter a shop.

The only sort of store I go to on a regular basis is a grocery store. But that falls pretty much under the first category of exceptions. So, I have had the opportunity and empirical basis to make a comparison at least between supermarkets in Home North versus Home South. I'm not from Texas, so I don't have a penchant to always say everything's bigger back where I come from, but it is generally true that supermarkets in Canada are smaller than their U.S. counterparts, as far as I have experienced. That doesn't mean that there aren't individual cases where the Canadian version greatly overshadows the typical American store in size; I'm speaking about general trends. Just to take James Bay as an example, the Thrifty Foods at Five Corners strikes me as cramped and small compared to an average U.S. supermarket and Red Barn is deliberately compact, I suspect as a matter of chic. So, almost immediately on entering, I get a sense of difference.

It is confusing enough when you go into a supermarket run by a chain different from the one you are used to, but the problem is much magnified when you switch countries as well. I have always imagined the arrangement of goods in a supermarket as being a sort of grand psychological experiment in human cognition, a massive display of a covert concept of categorization. Where do you go to find things? Some are obvious: you can find vegetables and fruits pretty quickly and frozen food sections are obvious giveaways. But other things are trickier. Where will the bakery items be located? Is the deli section closer to the meats, or the dairy section? And why is the soup section over near the snacks? Sometimes nuts are in the snacks, but then sometimes over in the area of other baking items like sugar and flour. And when you get to wildcards like tin foil or mouthwash, then it's anyone's guess.

The problem seems even starker when I go into a supermarket up North. I not only have to contend with a different store's cognitive pattern, but I suspect too that the chosen arrangement must reflect some aspect of Canadian national psychology about what items logically belong together. I feel my American intuition about what will be close to what fails me every time I step inside the Thrifty. I'm in the deli area and I figure that other meats must be right around the corner. Or that the dairy items will be right up the road. Or foolishly assume that the cheese aisle will be somewhere in the vicinity of the yoghurt. Silly me. It will take many more trips to Canadian grocery stores than I care to make before I begin to sort out what hidden patterns of the Canadian mind are manifested in the crop circles of Sav-On Foods.

But these are just the whinings of an amateur in the shopping game. For some high-powered observations, I had to turn to a real professional like Marilyn. Now, she and I are very different shopping personalities. North or South, grocery stores are her least favourite form of shopping. Still, she did notice a significant difference in supermarkets that escaped my untrained eyes. Stores in the U.S. seem to put more marketing manipulation into their arrangement, like putting what they think are ‘key ingredients’ outside the normal aisles and move them up front in the store. They hope to snag a sale through some subliminal sense that the items there strike the shopper as a ‘needed’ item that wasn’t on the list. Whether due to lack of space or less deviousness, Marilyn hasn’t seen the same degree of that in Canada.

More to her liking is wandering the many apparel outlets in Victoria, both those with brand new items and those with quirky consignment fare. There is, in fact, a plethora of fascinating, unique stores, says Marilyn—especially unique (non-chain) shoe stores, like She She Shoes or Heart and Sole. The downtown area overflows with special finds like them, she says, but also a good selection of chain-store offerings.

Chains tend to have similar goods, North or South. Marilyn said she has noticed one significant, but subtle, difference. She often feels Down South that, when wandering about a Big Box store, she is being watched or even followed. African Americans frequently find they are subject to greater scrutiny from store personnel, suggesting a heightened suspicion or sometimes communicating a message that they don’t belong. It’s a commonplace occurrence. But Marilyn reports she has never felt that extra scrutiny in any Canadian store, that ever-present hovering in the background. Sometimes just the opposite. She says about her visits to the Bay, for instance, that the absence of hovering is so pervasive, she’s wondered at times if anyone even works there. Looking at things from the positive, she likes that she doesn’t feel like she is in a fishbowl the whole time in the store. On the other hand, it has the downside: she can’t find a salesperson when needed.

Like so much of our transition between South and North, then, it can be a mixed bag of good and less good. But it is always a fascinating mixture of different and familiar that makes it continue to be a journey of discovery.

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