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The ethno-graphy of prices: On the fingers of the invisible hand (1922-1947)

Journal article
Authors Franck Cochoy
Johan Hagberg
Hans Kjellberg
Published in Organization
Volume 26
Issue 4
Pages 492-516
ISSN 1350-5084
Publication year 2019
Published at Centre for Retailing
Department of Business Administration, Marketing Group
Pages 492-516
Language en
Keywords Digitalization, grocery stores, indexicality, invisible hand, markets, price display, prices, writing
Subject categories Business Administration


This article is part of a project examining the long-term process of price display digitalization, ranging from manually written prices to contemporary electronic shelf labels. Based on the etymology of the term ‘digital’ (from digitus, finger or toe), we intend to show that the display of prices in retail settings surprisingly rests on a long-term digitalization process that started in the early 20th century. The study is based on a systematic reading of the trade magazine The Progressive Grocer during its first decades (1922-1947). This magazine assisted independent American grocers in their move from counter-service to self-service, and in facing the challenges of new competitors like chain stores and supermarkets. In this process, the disclosure of prices and their proper writing—their ethno-graphy—was central. We focus on a crucial and transitional period: the move from coded to open prices. This period entailed a double development of price ‘fingerization’ (using the fingers to write the prices) and price ‘de-fingerization’ (getting rid of handwriting thanks to novel price tag and printing devices). Ethnographying these mundane evolutions illuminates the role of the fingers of the invisible hand that animates the market, so to say.

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