Relaxing after packing her bag to go and look for flats near her university before enrolling in September, Susan was scrolling through her social media feed when she saw an advert for a new cake shop. It was called the Democracy Cake shop and the advertising pitch was that you could choose whatever kind of cake you want, any kind at all.
Seeing as Susan liked cake (after all, who doesn’t) she clicked the link and took a look at the selection on the website. She discovered a wide variety of cakes, some that she liked and some that she didn’t like but some looked simply delicious and with such a broad selection she decided that it would be worth a trip into the new pop-up shop in town which was only open tomorrow.
Susan walked into the shop unit hosting the pop-up bright and early the next day, hoping to see dozens of shelves covered in every conceivable kind of cake and a throng of keen customers eager to get their hands on some tasty confections. Instead, she found that the shop was simply an empty room with a till next to a small table that was covered with a blanket and there was nobody else there aside from the teller.
A bit confused, Susan walked up to the till and asked the bored-looking teller if this is indeed the Democracy Cake shop? The teller replied that it certainly is and could he ask her name and address? Susan answered, assuming this was a marketing thing and maybe there might be some free cake or competitions to enter. The teller looked at a list and nodded, then asked Susan if she would like to select her cake.
This was the bit Susan had been looking forward to, having seen a few cakes online that she figured she would make a last minute choice between on the day.
The teller removed the blanket from the table to uncover a selection of five cakes, which immediately struck Susan as strange given the broad selection she’d been led to expect but as a well-mannered British girl who’d been taught not to complain, she leant in closer to inspect the cakes on display.
Starting from the left, the first cake seemed promising with a filling that looked both tasty and nutritious but it seemed a little crumbly and had a marzipan covering that Susan didn’t like. The second cake is one that’s popular locally and Susan had liked in the past, but it is a bit intense and this particular one seemed to have some pieces of fruit lodged in it. The third cake is another that she used to like but had started to find a bit bland and noticed that it takes on the flavour of whatever it’s close to. The second last cake is of a kind that Susan was allergic to and it might kill her if she ate enough of it. The final cake looks like it was baked by a child and seemed to have insects crawling out of it. Ew.
The sumptuous chocolate cake she’d especially wanted to try was not amongst the selection.
Disappointed, Susan asked the teller why the selection in the shop isn’t as good as the one advertised online and the teller sighs and asks if this is her first time selecting a cake?
Susan said that it was. “Ah” the teller replies and then goes on to explain that many of the varieties publicised online are from small artisan bakers who can’t afford the cover charge to be sold in the shop, some cakes are only available in certain areas and some potential suppliers are put off by some of the other restrictions.
“Other restrictions?” Susan asked, somewhat dumbfounded that the arena of confectionary retail could be so complex.
The teller replied. “Well, first of all, whichever cake you select will be noted and at the end of the day, you will get a bite of the cake that was most popular from customers in this shop today. That means that if your cake isn’t popular, it’s not worth paying the cover charge.”
Susan thought that this didn’t seem fair, that you should have such a poor selection and then not even really get to choose your cake. As a consumer used to the idea of choice, she was a bit taken aback by this and asked, “is there a larger or better selection in another shop?”
The teller smiled brightly and replied that there is a slightly different selection in every store with some stores having dozens of cakes on offer, but their expression became more serious as they added that only your local shop can sell you cake, in order to keep things fair, you understand?
Susan didn’t think that sounded fair, but the teller was still talking. They advised that the result from every shop in the country would be added up and whichever cake has been chosen in the most shops (which was not necessarily the most popular cake) becomes the only cake available for the next five years, or at least until there is another sale.
Dumbfounded by this, Susan muttered something about false advertising and consumer choice and turned to leave the shop.
“Wait” called the teller. “I feel I need to remind you that if you do not select a cake, then the result of everyone else’s selections will still stand and you’ll still need to eat one of the winning brand of cake every day until the next sale. So you should really make a choice.”
Susan was horrified at this and asked if it was legal to force people to eat cake, especially cake that they hadn’t asked for? The teller sighed as if speaking to a child and somewhat patronisingly assured her it was clearly stated in the terms and conditions.
Scarcely able to believe what was going on, Susan returned to the table and looked again at the cakes on offer. She was about to select one when the teller sighed again.
“I don’t mean to tell you your business, miss.” he said, slightly smugly “but I’d advise against selecting that one. You see, it’s not very popular in this area, partly because their bakery doesn’t have a big advertising budget and so if you pick that one, your selection isn’t likely to win in this shop and your choice will not affect which cake you actually get to eat, today or for the next few years.”
Frustrated, Susan asked which cakes are actually likely to win, so she could choose better. The teller almost gleefully explained that while this cake and that cake are the most likely winners in this shop, partly because this cake is popular amongst old people who always remember to come and choose their cake, while that cake is very much a local taste which isn’t even available in many other places.
Continuing, the teller advises that across the whole country this cake and the other cake are most popular, so if you prefer eating the other cake to this cake then you’d be best advised to select that cake in this shop.
“Do you understand?” the teller asked with a self-satisfied smile.
“Um, yes, I do.” said Susan, not really wanting to give him more of a chance to hold forth.
The teller steps beamed broadly and said with apparent sincerity. “Isn’t it wonderful to live with such freedom of choice?”
Frustrated and disgusted, Susan nodded defensively and made her choice. The teller noted it down and thanked her for her patronage.
Susan left the shop not yet knowing which cake she’ll have to eat but already with a bitter taste in her mouth.