In the 1990s, the bloat really kicked in across America. Cheap Chinese labor dropped the cost of everyday items, Leftist fast money policy made it easy to earn lots of money while simultaneously degrading the value of that money, and the new peace let us go nuts with being useless because the long stressful years of conflict were finally over.
Keep in mind that we never really knew peace since the start of the first world war. Even when we were not fighting wars, unresolved issues and constant world conflicts brought flare-ups frequently. After the second world war, we launched immediately into a Cold War which threatened us with nuclear annihilation on a constant basis.
When that burden lifted, we became a navel-gazing society more concerned with drawing social attention than being effective. This dovetailed with the internet age in which the number of likes, clicks, upvotes, and views dwarfed anything else in importance, even actual working business models.
That created a culture of cuteness, or being harmless and amusing so that people would like you even though your product or service was mediocre. The dot-coms pioneered this, telling us about their free cafeterias, green programs, social responsibility, and other things that make voters sigh contentedly. The whole culture seemed to follow.
Cuteness manifested in the soyboy smile, the self-deprecating humor of Bill Clinton and his chocolate clone Barack Obama, the pop ironism of indie rock, and the endless sharing of personal stories by people in the media. It transformed CEOs into buddies, parents into best friends, and made everyone egodramatic.
Businesses rose on the strength of their cuteness. People did not want an effective shopping experience, common wisdom ran; they wanted a unique and evocative one. Who would go to a stodgy old 1950s-style store when you could go somewhere where everyone had an unusual name, was overly friendly, and the store had its own “culture”?
That came crashing down when Whole Foods lost to 1950s style store Kroger because people got tired of paying extra for lower-performing cuteness:
Whole Foods is losing millions of customers to what was once an unthinkable threat: Kroger.
…Kroger’s sales of organic and natural food totalled $16 billion in the past year, compared to $15.8 billion at Whole Foods, according to Barclays.
…Whole Foods’ same-store sales fell 2.4% in 2016. That metric is expected to fall another 2.5% this year. Meanwhile, Kroger’s same-store sales grew 1% in 2016.
If you wonder why Jeff Bezos now owns Whole Foods, you can see why: the Whole Foods business model failed as soon as a significant competitor came along, and as it turns out, people are unwilling to go to Whole Foods if their Kroger store offers similar products.
For those who have never been to either, the contrast between Kroger and Whole Foods can be dramatic. Kroger has linoleum floors, signs in a functionalist font, neat rows of products from big American brands, and employees wearing uniforms and looking professional. Whole Foods has quirky handwritten signs, polished concrete floors, employees who look like nu-metal musicians, and lots of small brands of a New Age, holistic, organic, hippie, etc. vibe.
For years, Whole Foods was satirized as “Whole Paycheck” because of its high prices, but if you avoided the convenience foods, it was not always a bad deal. Most of its clientele however bought frozen meals, packaged snacks, and pre-prepared foods, spending twice what they would at Wal-mart or Kroger for similar items.
As it turns out, however, being cute and relying on people who are similarly caught up in a cuteness bubble does not lead to growth because functional people simply cut out the stop at Whole Foods and go to Kroger’s where they can buy everything they need. They also get better service because the employees are less egodramatic.
Whole Foods is famous for having high wages for its employees, but products frequently missing or mis-filed on the shelves, and the difficulty of finding help or even a wandering employee on the floor. Quirkiness and cuteness took precedence over utility. Like Barack Obama, Whole Foods was too heavily invested in the appearance of being good and caring for the little people to make a functional organization.
When Amazon took the helm, it began improving on the “cuteness” with the type of standard business process that made Kroger effective, and the result is whining from the coddled cuteness which does not yet realize that it is an artifact of a time gone by:
The order-to-shelf system is a strict set of procedures for employees to follow that uses scorecards to prescribe specific ways to store, display, purchase items on store shelves and in stock rooms.
“The OTS system really aligns with Amazon’s core practices. It’s to make everyone interchangeable,” said a Whole Foods employee in the New England area involved in labor organizing. “They want us to become robots. That’s where they are going, they want to set it up so they don’t have to pay someone $15 an hour who knows all about the food, they can pay someone $10 an hour to do these small tasks and timed duties.”
…A Whole Foods employee in Southern California said the culture at Whole Foods had changed as upper management has focused on maximizing profit and homogenizing stores. “Local and speciality products have been cut and replaced with more conventional mainstream ones, and regional marketing and sign making has been removed,” they said. “We are losing the shopper and team members who helped make us who we were.”
In other words, they are going to run it like Kroger because the Kroger model won and the Whole Foods “cultivated quirks” model died. Not to say that the Kroger model is the end-all be-all, because like most business processes it is blocky and imprecise, but the artificial cultivation of image, altruism, and false localism seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
The same is happening across the West. In the 1990s, we figured that we had won, so we could just keep doing what we were doing and we would rule the world. We brought in immigration, Chinese control of our government, and businesses based in public appearance and not actual results like the dot-com idiots.
We thought that we could just sell ourselves on the basis of our wealth and power alone, and not have to do anything to keep those afloat. At the same time, the problems initiated in 1968 came to the fore, with our ethnic diversity destroying what we thought of as “white culture” and racial diversity shattering any sense of unity among “Americans,” whatever those are.
As a result, we fell into a culture of salesmanship and pacifism based in being interesting, different, unique, unusual, and ironic. This cuteness culture is slowly dying, and not just in our grocery stores, as the voters and businesses punish those who were its advocates and replace them with more 1950s-style function as you see in Kroger.