31 May 2009

We couldn't keep it on the shelves

So there's this weird phenomenon that my wife and I have experienced on more than one occasion here, and that has also been reported to us by other puzzled ex-pats, and it has to do with the policy that merchants follow when deciding what to stock on their shelves. See, we always thought that it was sort of Econ 101 that if you had a popular item, you'd be inclined to continue to stock it as your customers would continue to buy it, and even having it would be useful as it would bring people into the shop where they'd be likely to buy more things. So popular items are ones that you'd continue to order from the supplier, at least in our small way of thinking.

But here, I have the feeling that having to refill the empty shelf space frequently is viewed as a bit more trouble than a merchant had bargained for. So much so that more than once we've seen stores simply stop carrying things that they sell out of rapidly. Lisa has even asked the management at Waitrose whether they were going to start carrying a lovely little garlic pizza that usually flew out of the door. The exasperated manager said no, noting that "they just couldn't keep it on the shelves!" Apparently having full-looking shelves is the point of retail for at least some segment of that industry here.

Isn't this in violation of some sort of fundamental axiom of economic theory? Lisa remembers that you're supposed to strive to have enough units on hand such that you're unable to sell the very last one. Shouldn't that mean these guys should be buying more?

I'd have written this off as an isolated event if it hadn't happened more than once, and to other people that we know as well. I'm not willing to claim that it's pervasive, mostly because I can't believe the general mindset is to minimize trouble rather than maximize business, but it doesn't exactly seem unusual either. Get 'em while they're hot, indeed.


  1. England isn't a fully developed service economy, that's what I read in the WSJ & that's why we get annoyed at poor levels of service.

  2. Well, I can certainly believe that, but somehow it seems like taking actions to turn business away doesn't quite fit that. There's another force at work here; maybe it's a more relaxed attitude toward life as compared to Americans. Maybe we're always trying to max everything out, while here is just isn't as important. If that's the case, I wonder what the impact is on basic economic theory.

  3. Oh, Tom, isn't it well established that most europeans prefer a decent quality of life to making as much money as possible? In most parts of the world, a restaurant will turn people away and close the doors for the day when enough $ has been made to live on comfortably. In the US, a restaurant will stay open as long as it can to make as much money as possible, regardless of impact on quality of life.

    Isn't it odd that basic economic theory is based on such subjective and unexamined values? And touted as "science" (the dismal one, albeit)?

    I do like to give you a hard time, don't I? Love the blog. xoA

  4. While I imagine it's true for smaller businesses, we're not talking about the corner grocer here-- this is one of the major supermarket chains in the UK. While I can believe on a local level the people who run the store may still have that small-store attitude, I'm less inclined to believe that at corporate they'd be OK with employees not putting out the extra work to restock the shelves in order to make their lives easier.

  5. And thanks for the kind words, btw.

  6. That pizza was a favourite in our house too, so much that I asked their Head Office where it had gone. Apparently there was an issue with the supplier so they replaced the range. The closest thing now is the vegetable antipasti pizza.

    Peter Bond (transplanted for 30 years!)


  7. Ah ha! My faith in economics is somewhat restored (at least in this case), and my wife's University of Chicago background satisfied. I still have my suspicions, but now I'm more willing to consider the existence of other mitigating factors.

    I was a nice pizza though, wasn't it?

  8. Yes it was a good pizza and sadly that substitute they suggested doesn't come close.