Wednesday, February 17, 2010

If the New FTC Disclosure Rules Applied to Supermarkets

Imagine if the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules about disclosure were extended to supermarkets.

I’m not saying that’s likely. The FTC rules specifically target bloggers and blog commenters. The FTC doesn’t see supermarkets as the threat to civil order that bloggers apparently are.

Still, imagine what we would see if supermarkets had to live up to the same disclosure rules about marketing. Imagine seeing shelf tags on almost every supermarket shelf with a big dollar sign on them to say, “This product placement was paid for by the manufacturer.”

The public would finally find out why supermarkets are so large. Many people would be shocked to learn how much of the shelf space in a supermarket is paid for.

For the first time, it would be easy to see why the cereal and soft drink aisles are bigger than the produce section. It’s not about how much the store can sell, but about how much the big food factories will pay to put their boxes in front of people’s faces. The more the factories are willing to pay, the longer the aisles have to be.

If you really know your way around your local supermarket, take a stopwatch along next time, and find out how much time you take just walking from one product to another.

Imagine that your time is worth $1 a minute. That’s a reasonable estimate because if you have the pattern-matching skills to easily find your way around a modern American supermarket, it’s a likely guess that you have the capacity to do the kind of work that pays $1 a minute. Based on that estimate of $1 per minute, do you end up spending more money on your grocery-shopping trip, or more time?

The comparison comes out closer than most people would expect. Supermarkets might save you money — or at least they want you to think so — but they waste your time.

Supermarkets are set up to get shoppers to pay attention to products — not to let shoppers get their purchases quickly and efficiently. Supermarkets have to do what they can to force you to walk past the shelf space that’s been paid for. That’s how they pay the rent.

Now, imagine if they had to disclose all that.