Thursday, 4 December 2009:
“There’s a culture of trust,” my sister described it. Indeed, many features of the American retail scene would not be possible without it. Having checked out seven large stores, each the size of Suntec Carrefour or IMM Giant in Singapore, the most striking feature is how open the layouts are. In Singapore, when a checkout lane is not in use, it is barricaded. Not in Austin. They are left open, but nobody walks through them with unpaid merchandise.
There are even self-checkout stations. You scan your purchases yourself, bag them and pay with a credit card. There’s nobody watching you, but people don’t try to get away with unscanned merchandise.
Newspapers are left unattended on shelves. No one collects them by the baleloads for reselling.
At Whole Foods, a store specialising in organic produce, a section of the space is devoted to salad bars, pasta bars and other fresh ready-to-eat foods. Recycled paper containers are at hand. One sees others helping themselves to food either to take away or for immediate consumption. Indeed, the food looked appetising. Yet, it was not obvious where one should pay. Did we have to pay before helping ourselves, if so where, or should we help ourselves first and pay later? If the latter, what about those who are already eating?
My brother-in-law and I were baffled. We couldn’t figure the system out. We finally decided that instead of risking a huge faux-pas by helping ourselves, we’d eat somewhere else. (In other words, too much trustiness, too much open-plan layout may not make business sense)
At Lowe’s, an enormous seller of DIY, construction and gardening materials, a huge array of potted plants is left unsupervised in a section of the car park. The honour system is practised. You pick the plant you want and take it to the cashier station inside the shed to pay.
Their physical size allows the stores to stock an enormous variety of produce and merchandise. Where New York’s downtown retail scene is one of many specialised shops, each with unparalleled depth of merchandise, here in Austin, the hypermarkets have both depth and breadth. Not only do they sell anything from knock-down furniture to winter jackets to food, they do so with incredible variety in most categories.
How many varieties of bananas (a tropical fruit) will you find in tropical Singapore? Typically, one. At Whole Foods, there were eight different varieties of them, each properly labelled. Dishwashing detergent? Perhaps 20 different brands on offer. Organic milk? Maybe 30. Asian curry mixes? At least 40 different varieties. Pasta sauces? Over 100.
In one of the stores, there was a mix-and-match nuts section where you scoop out your own nuts and weigh them yourself (unsupervised, of course). By my estimation, there were some 50 – 60 different nuts, roasted or flavoured in countless ways. And don’t start me on the range of coffees.
The wines section in both Whole Foods and Central Market each had something like 1,000 different labels, occupying an area that could be an entire supermarket itself.
But most curious of all was the corner in the Walmart store that sold bullets. “They used to sell guns,” said my brother-in-law, “but for some reason, have discontinued doing so.”
The seven stores I have visited (so far) are just a few of the numerous hypermarkets in this city of just 800,000 people. I can’t figure out how the economics work. At 6 p.m. which I suppose must be peak hour on a weekday, Whole Foods and Central Market were nowhere as busy as Singapore’s hyerpmarkets. With this kind of traffic, how do the Austin stores support the cost of carrying so much stock?
Staff are also a million times more polite. Shelf stackers greet customers when they go past them (Who’s ever heard of that in courtesy-campaign Singapore?). Cashiers make a little small talk with each customer – they can afford to when the line is just one or two persons.
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Although spread over an area roughly as large as Singapore, Austin’s population is one-sixth of Singapore’s 5 million. The result is a city of low buildings (except for a few office towers downtown), stand-alone homes and thick ropes of highways. I cannot imagine how anyone can live here without a car.
This creates two problems: Firstly, it amplifies the disadvantage of lower-income people; secondly, it makes for a huge carbon footprint.
Sure, cars are nowhere as expensive as in Singapore. Gasoline is currently about US$2.50 a gallon (3.8 litres), or about S$0.92 per litre, half the price as prevailing in Singapore. Still, it’s not cheap if you’re a student or don’t earn very much. There are buses, but low ridership means infrequent and sparse routing for buses. Can one really depend on them to get about? But if you can’t afford a car, what do you do? How do you get to work?
The layout of the city is also extremely unfriendly to pedestrians. There is rarely any shelter from sun or rain, and outside of downtown, shops are separated by expansive parking lots. In summer, when temperatures reach to between 35 – 40 degrees for weeks on end, it must be like an inferno. (Today, it’s the opposite. At three degrees, with a biting wind, it was a frigid walk from one building to another or to the car.)
Then there’s the environmental cost. Between the acres of asphalt absorbing solar radiation and the huge number of cars in use, Austin may be among the chief contributors to global warming on a per capita basis.