Looking Out For Each Other

Roundup
tags: Communism, labor, Eastern Europe, retail, consumer culture, post-soviet history, postcommunist

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.

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. 

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 Konsum were 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. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History