Sunday, July 13, 2008

Masterpiece 4--The Supermarket

One morning recently a water main in Montgomery County broke and we were all told that for three days we were to boil our tap water before drinking it. Word got to me about 9:30 in the morning.

Along about noon I decided to run up to the Safeway on the corner to buy a case or two of bottled water. The thought of boiling water for two days just didn't sit well. Just as I was climbing into the truck it hit me that I must be dreaming: there won't be a drop of water left. Everyone in the neighborhood has beaten me to it, the shelves will be bare.

Much to my surprise, I was way off. At the head of every aisle and in the free space in the meat and produce sections stood pallet upon pallet of bottled water, much of it even on sale. No price gouging there. Seemed like there were even a couple extra checkout registers open to handle the rush of soccer moms and seniors who were similarly disinclined to boil for three days. Safeway recognized and responded to the market demand in a matter of hours--in a matter of minutes, really.

The American supermarket is itself a masterpiece.

This is not my original idea. A George Mason University econ professor in the summer of '83 must be given the credit. Tho I can't remember his name, I will never forget his eloquent soliloquy on the American supermarket.

Stop for a second the next time you're at Safeway or Giant, for that matter, Walmart, Staples or Lowe's--they're the same thing. Appreciate the abundance around you--the complex economic system necessary to bring it all together. Fresh produce, meat, and dairy. Frozen dinners, ice cream, orange juice, and pizza. Canned goods, cake mixes, pasta, potato chips and sodas of every variety. Accross the river in Virginia you can even buy wine and beer.

Today's supermarket offers a much more international fare than its ancestor just a generation ago--roses from Ecuador, salmon from Chile, strawberries from Mexico, apples from New Zealand, shrimp from Costa Rica. Asparagus year round.

And it's not just the food. Think of the packaging--the boxes for cereal, the bags for chicken nuggets, the cans for everything from beans to blueberry pie filling. You have bug spray, matches, medicine, make-up, magazines. Every soap and detergent you can imagine, every paper product you'd ever need for your Sunday picnic. Diapers for the baby, Depends for the mother-in-law.

Somehow it all comes together in this one magical place. From around the country, from around the world. Seven days a week, the shelves always full.

How lucky we are.

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