Thursday, April 07, 2005

Consumerism and the illusion of choice

In the dying days of the John Major government, he became increasingly desperate to come up with populist proposals to cement his 'man of the people' persona. One was the 'cones hotline', so that enraged drivers could phone from their cars (not that they could now) to enquire why a particular bit of motorway was coned off without any visible roadworks. Another was changing the rules on motorway services [for non-UK readers I should explain that these are complexes of petrol stations, restaurants and shops notorious for their high prices and low standards]. There used to be a regulation that meant that they could only occur every 20 miles [or so], because of the traffic hazard of cars leaving and joining. John Major, the people's champion, said "No", and freed the services so that the market would increase competition and improve standards, and he would be known as Saint John by generations of drivers yet unborn.

And so motorway services have indeed flourished, as companies rushed in to share in the monopolistic profits, and built new sites. Unfortunately (and this couldn't possibly have been foreseen), these companies have been bought up into large cartels, so that although there are many more sites, your choice is between two sites owned by the same company, delivering the same standard of service.

This isn't a unique instance, of course. There was a real buzz about the first Starbucks to open. We all trooped along to find out what real coffee tasted like, and to explore the exotically-named variations; and we didn't mind queuing to get our personally-crafted beverage of choice. But once someone had noticed that it was possible to extort large sums of money for poorly-paid staff to churn out the stuff, the next stage was inevitable. The high street is now lined with Coffee this and Cafe that and Kofi the other. And they all serve very hot, very large, very sweet, very strong coffee that you only want 1/3 of, that costs three times a normal drink. Cheers!

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