Perspectives Daily

Looking Out for Each Other

How Shoppers and Employees Navigate the Aisles Differently

Leah Valtin-Erwin | Sep 2, 2020

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a two-part column.

In March, just before the nationwide lockdowns began, my partner and I stopped by the supermarket for root vegetables and other foods that would store well in the cool, dark corner at the back of our pantry. That was the last time we went shopping before it became commonplace to don masks, maintain social distancing, and forego reusable shopping bags. Today, the in-store shopping experience feels radically altered.

In COVID-era grocery stores, workers must enforce new safety protocols and respond to fearful or defiant customers, risking their lives to ensure people can restock their pantries.

In COVID-era grocery stores, workers must enforce new safety protocols and respond to fearful or defiant customers, risking their lives to ensure people can restock their pantries. Dan Keck

Many of us experience crisis first through changes in our daily routines. Moments of crisis therefore constitute productive sites of comparison for better understanding the dynamics of the everyday. In the historical scholarship on everyday life, the experience of consumers has garnered significant attention. Historians have focused less on service employees in spaces of consumption, including grocery workers, despite abundant work on other categories of laborer. Yet service workers occupy an essential role in the realm of the everyday and, in moments of crisis, they are expected to manage changing expectations and experiences on behalf of consumers. In COVID-era grocery stores, while shoppers are told to avoid other patrons and maintain their distance, workers must continue to approach shoppers to enforce new safety protocols and respond to fearful or defiant customers, risking their lives to ensure people can restock their pantries.

COVID-19, however, is just the most recent crisis to throw the grocery store employee onto the frontlines of rapid and disorienting change. After the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, grocery clerks also worked to serve a public in turmoil as the command economies of the Eastern Bloc were transformed. With support from the West, eastern European leaders set about privatizing formerly state-owned retail institutions, liberalizing economic controls, and entering the global market, amounting to what many historians have described as a revolution in buying and selling goods with profound implications for everyday life. 

COVID-19 is just the most recent crisis to throw the grocery store employee onto the frontlines of rapid and disorienting change.

This process was particularly dramatic in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Close proximity to the West encouraged an unparalleled rate of economic change; West German companies had only to cross the increasingly porous border to invest in East German retail and other sectors, while East Germans’ ability to easily travel westward heightened demand for Western goods. Grocery stores emerged as one of the first prisms through which East Germans perceived the scale of change, presenting new challenges for those employed in such spaces. Grocery workers were thus among those at the forefront of the crisis of the everyday in the disintegrating Eastern Bloc in the 1990s.

As East German shops made room for Western goods in the months after the Berlin Wall fell, workers were excluded from decision-making circles and yet expected to assist customers in navigating new changes. Many shops of the worker-operated cooperative Konsumwere incorporated into West German supermarket chains, dramatically altering management structures and the power afforded to the workers. This period also marked a shift from the communist-era rhetoric, which championed industrial workers, to an era of individualistic entrepreneurship. Many outlets of the state-run trading organization Handelsorganisation were transferred to former employees, who found themselves tasked with running a profitable enterprise in a rapidly changing economic environment while their employees struggled under inexperienced management. 

The new goods on store shelves were largely unfamiliar to East German employees and priced considerably higher than their domestic counterparts. Despite promises of newfound abundance, meanwhile, consumers regularly found that promised goods were unavailable. They demanded information: When would Nivea brand lotion be available? Why were oranges and bananas, foremost symbols of Western material abundance, out of stock? Did everything need to be wrapped in so much plastic? Consumers heard “the same answer a hundred times in the shops ... ‘I don’t know how to proceed, just ask the boss.’ The sales assistants stand in front of the empty shelves and shrug their shoulders,” Die Tageszeitung observed in July 1990. Managers pressured employees to adapt quickly and reminded them that the stakes surrounding customer satisfaction were high, given the country’s proximity to West Germany and its well-oiled retail industry. 

Grocery stores emerged as one of the first prisms through which East Germans perceived the scale of change.

Since the early 1980s, researchers studying organizational behavior have offered insight into the “emotional labor” of managing a customer’s feelings to create a particular atmosphere of service in retail environments, especially in those catering to a more affluent customer base. This dimension of food retail work changed after the end of communism as well, as Western norms were introduced to the existing culture of retail service. As Western retailers began to dominate the retail landscape in the new federal states of reunified Germany, the eastern German workforce was re-trained according to Western customer service norms prioritizing customer satisfaction, a model that, like self-service supermarkets, originates in the early 20th-century United States and western Europe. 

This was true across retail sectors in the former Eastern Bloc, and perhaps more dramatic in places with even fewer developed links to the West than the GDR. A 1993 study of a McDonald’s in Moscow, for example, observed how staff were trained “to conform to Western norms of good service ... includ[ing] smiling at customers,” which evidently offended patrons who interpreted the smiling as mocking. In western Europe, the social norms ingrained in models pioneered in the US had decades to be integrated and adapted to local particularities, but the sudden collapse of communism and rapid transition to capitalism forced the post-communist region to implement unfamiliar models much more quickly. 

Crisis illuminates the basic nature of our society’s most familiar institutions and casts light onto our expectations of workers in those spaces. The day after the Berlin Wall fell, people left home not to cast ballots or arrange travel to new destinations, but to visit the store for that evening’s meal. As coronavirus spread, we went not to our governmental representatives to demand answers or reassurance, nor to the hospitals for tests and treatment, nor even to the unemployment office, though we would eventually do all of these things. In those first days of uncertainty and seemingly constant change, we relied on those who stock and sell groceries to keep us safe and fed. 


Leah Valtin-Erwin is a PhD candidate in eastern European history at Indiana University Bloomington. She holds a bachelor’s degree in east and central European studies from Hampshire College and a master’s degree in Russian, Eurasian, and east European studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her dissertation explores the transition from state-run food shops during communism to western European–owned supermarkets after 1989 in Bucharest, Warsaw, and East Berlin. She is interested in the impact of change on everyday life in urban spaces, both historically and in the present.


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