I recently read an article in the anthology Food Nations by Tracey Deutsch entitled “Untangling Alliances: Social Tensions surrounding Independent Grocery Stores and the Rise of Mass Retailing.” In it, Deutsch makes the argument that chain stores supplanting and taking over small, family owned groceries had as much to do with the tension-fraught relationships between those small grocers and their customers as the lower prices the chain stores were able to offer.
To summarize, here’s how grocery shopping at one of these small grocers usually worked: These stores operated on a “service model” where some items would be displayed, but you would talk to a clerk to get what you wanted. You told him (and it was always a him) what you (and you were more often than not a woman) wanted to buy, and he would go into the back and retrieve some for you. No prices were displayed, instead when he brought out the products, you would examine the quality and haggle over a price. This would be repeated for every item you wanted to buy. Virtually all of your grocery shopping would be done at the same grocer or at a neighborhood butcher for meat. This model made for exhausting shopping trips, as it forced you to argue over every small item you wanted to buy–whether that produce was really the best quality the grocer had, whether the prices were fair, what brand of product you should be purchasing, etc., but that’s only the beginning. Since all of your grocery shopping is done at the same place and goes through a personal action with the same person (or a limited group of people), that person learns a lot about your private life, whether you want him to or not. He knows what you’re feeding your family every night, he knows what you’re feeding the in-laws when they come over, and he knows what you’re taking to the church potluck. On top of these personal tensions, you have larger societal tensions based around gender and ethnicity adding weight to these interactions. In a large multi-ethnic city like Chicago, you would be under considerable pressure from your ethnic community to keep your money within the community, while being under pressure from society to keep the cost of living down by paying the lowest price possible, while dealing with the condescension and frustration of the grocer for being a “difficult” customer. In this environment, it should be no surprise that chain stores, which empowered customers to make their own decisions about what product to buy, removed haggling, removed personal interactions, and weren’t picky about what ethnicities they hired were embraced with relief by shoppers, to the point where the small grocers either had to band together and adopt the chain store model (as occurred with IGA) or die out.
So what does this have to do with Recettear? Well, the item shop you run illustrates these concepts pretty well. Your business partner, Tear, starts out by advising you to haggle over every product to get the highest sale price possible. Following this advice is how most people lose their first playthrough of the game, because it’s almost impossible to make enough money to pay off your debt this way. While you might get a better percentage on individual sales, it will take longer for customers to start making special orders or selling items to you, and they won’t bring as much money to your store to spend. In order to build up your shopkeeper level and get your customers to increase their shopping budgets, you have to avoid haggling with them by making them an offer they won’t feel the need to haggle over. In essence, you have to minimize or avoid the sort of tensions that Deutsch discusses in order to be a successful shopkeeper. In fact, once you’ve established yourself and have a loyal customer base, often the best way to make money is to put out some vending machines stocked with products and set prices, putting you in the chain store model of allowing your customers to pick their own goods, pay, and depart with a minimum of fuss or personal interaction. Recettear thus models why small scale grocers had to adopt the chain store model or go out of business.