Puzzling Through Some Current Retail Trends

There's something I need to get off my chest right away. Somehow I haven't gotten excited about the prospect of buying wine in a supermarket to the degree that, as a right-thinking urban progressive, I've come to understand I should.

For a few decades now, ever since I was about 17, I've been buying wine and liquor in wine-and-liquor stores. I don't have a problem with it. Maybe I should find that more troublesome than I do. And I admit it might be more convenient, and that there have been times, at 1 a.m., after all the liquor stores have closed, when I have regretted the lack of an option of going out for another bottle of something. The regret of not having bought another bottle of wine at 1 a.m. does not last long. It rarely arises with me the next morning.

I've been told that our blue laws just don't look good. They may strike visitors as backward, that we to have to go to a different place to buy wine.

But here's the funny thing—the trend for other commodities has gone in the opposite direction. I thought we were learning to downsize and thoughtfully separate our shopping experience. Buy local produce from the local produce shops. Buy beer from the beer store. Buy seafood at the seafood store. Buy tahini and olives from the Middle Eastern-foods market. Buy tea and spices from the Asian market. Now we can even buy mushrooms from the mushroom shop. In my youth, there was no such thing as a mushroom shop, or a seafood store; you bought everything at Kroger.

However, the modern way, seemingly, is to specialize. I'm not always a sucker for trends, but I've been enjoying this one. I never enjoyed grocery shopping, and in my own family always balked at that chore, until I started experiencing it as a seven-stop adventure. Given that interesting trend, is it really progress to be able to buy Shiraz at Kroger? Could it be that we were already trendy in that regard?

And there's the shop-local ethic. Liquor stores tend to be locally owned. Supermarkets tend to be big corporate chains based out of state; some have unsettling associations with foreign governments. Changing the law would favor them over the local guys.

Tennessee's liquor laws may seem hokey or outmoded, but in that regard we seem pre-trendified. And maybe our allegedly outmoded liquor laws are a modest firewall against the big-box model of our retail society.

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Another retail issue has me wondering about my own political point of view. Maybe shoppers used to be more subtle in their use of food stamps. Maybe thanks to the use of EBT cards, with their conspicuous keypads, I've been noticing it much more than I used to.

Twenty percent of Tennesseans—one of five residents of this defiantly conservative state—depend on public funding for their food. That's one of the highest rates in the nation.

At the convenience store I patronize, there's often someone in front of me using an EBT card—the food-stamp debit card. And every single time I've seen an EBT card used in the last year or two, the holder is using their food-stamp credit to buy something besides what most of us think of as actual food. Sugary snacks, salty snacks, Coca-Colas, expensive "energy drinks." What do you say when you see a guy buy a $3 can of something called Monster and pay for it with food stamps?

As it turns out, that's all legal. All these years, I didn't know food stamps were valid for junk food--even boutique junk food. Look at the Tennessee food stamps website, and you see a happy 40-ish couple looking over some fresh tomatoes at a farmer's market, presumably shopping with food stamps. No compassionate citizen would see anything wrong with that.

I'm sure many use food stamps for the purpose for which they're provided. But the other day at the convenience store I was behind a young man who bought $20 worth of beer, and a liter of Coke. He paid for the beer in cash, and the liter of Coke with food stamps. Everybody knows you can't buy beer with food stamps. But why can you buy Coke? The beer's probably more nutritious.

In fact, I just looked it up. Beer is literally more nutritious than Coke. But this guy, who could afford to buy a party's worth of beer, with cash, was getting me to buy his Coke.

Diverting my tax dollars to help the unfortunate get needed vitamins and protein to thrive is easy to justify. I've known lots of people who are poor through no fault of their own and need help. I've been alarmingly close to it myself. But I have to say, seeing people buy the sort of crap our doctors tell us to avoid, and using taxpayer money to do it—well, it just seems stupid.

Public nutritionists have long been trying to get poor people to eat right and wondering why they don't. Obesity is a problem of poverty, a problem that's expensive to taxpayers in terms of medical care. Government tries to curb that by handing out photocopies of food pyramids in schools. And we wonder why education doesn't work. One reason is that every single day, our government pays parents to buy their children more junk. Which is the stronger message?

Our more effective policies encourage the poor to buy crap that makes them sick. We subsidize our poor to eat crap.

Tennessee has one of the nation's highest rates of food-stamp usage, and one of the nation's highest rates for obesity. Maybe that's coincidence. Whether it is or not, we're paying people to consume stuff that's bad for them, and we pay for it twice: once with the EBT, and once at the ER.

Does that make me a heartless right-winger? Or a nanny-state liberal? I don't know and I don't care much, but it seems to me it would be good to just quit it.