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“After Adam Smith, the price, stripped of all moral dimensions, is only the result of supply and demand”

Jean-Claude Daumas, professor emeritus at the University of Franche-Comté and honorary member of the University Institute of France, is the author of The Material Revolution. A history of consumption, France XIXe-XXIe century (Flammarion, 2018).

For a very long time, prices were negotiated. When does the concept of fixed price appear in commerce?

Fixed and displayed prices appear with novelty stores, boutiques that sell all kinds of fashion items (fabrics, gloves, lace, hats, etc.) and multiply during the first half of the 19th century.e century. It is the Petit Saint-Thomas, created in 1810 in Paris, at the corner of the Bac and University streets, by the Normand Simon Mannoury, who revolutionized the sales methods: free entry (the customer has no obligation to buy), fixed and displayed price (which eliminates haggling), cash payment, sales, promotions, catalogs. Department stores, including Au Bon Marché, founded by Aristide Boucicaut, who started his career at Petit Saint-Thomas, are using these methods on a larger scale, hence their impressive success: sales at Bon Marché go from 542,000 francs in 1852 to 72 million in 1877!

What role will prices play in the development of the consumer society?

The consumer society could only develop thanks to low prices. Appeared at the end of the 1920s, stores with single prices (Uniprix, Prisunic, Monoprix) advertised large surfaces. The formula is simple: location in the heart of cities, basic decor, standard items, no sellers and low prices. But it was after the war that mass selling at a bargain price became necessary. In 1951, Edouard Leclerc invented the first discount grocery store in Landernau (Finistère), where he sold everyday products with a reduced margin by purchasing directly from manufacturers. It was not until the supermarket (1959) and above all the hypermarket – Carrefour created the first in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois (Essonne) in 1963 – to bring together a large area, establishment on the outskirts, self-service and “low prices”. But unlike American discounters, who apply the principle “an island of losses in an ocean of profit”, French hypermarkets have developed around the idea of ​​low prices every day on all products. Promotions to boost sales will not appear until later.

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