Every Little Hinders

The enraged blister on my big toe is a clear warning that I included far too many spins on my right foot in my repertoire of dance moves on Saturday night. I aggravated the blister grievously by going to do the shopping yesterday afternoon in a large supermarket. Though I had a list that had been made out taking account of the general location of most of the goods I needed to buy, I spent about half my time, half an hour or so, limping back and forth in the search for miscellaneous goods that I couldn’t locate on my first sweep of the place.

As I hobbled the length of the shop to collect the final item on the list (a bag of light brown sugar: beside the cereals), it occurred to me that you could develop what get-rich-quick afficionados might call a ‘killer app’ that allowed you to navigate the supermarket, much as GPS allows you to navigate streets. You make out your list on the supermarket’s portal in advance, where your route around the supermarket is planned step by step, minimising the amount of time covered to-and-froing within and between aisles. Much of the basic information for these purposes is probably already there: the place where each and every product should be stocked is already contained in a database.

As one interlocutor noted, however, the idea runs counter to the raison d’etre of a supermarket: the whole point is to get consumers to traipse back and forth as much as possible so that they are tempted by as many goods as possible. If you know exactly what you want and where to find it, you’re far less likely to pick up things you didn’t know you wanted until you were confronted by it. I’d also guess that the disorientation induced by all the looking around you in search for what it is you think you’re looking for renders you more likely to pick up something, anything (not the Todd Rundgren album) as a means of alleviating said disorientation.

Inconveniences such as these don’t tend to get represented in terms of costs passed on to the consumer. But if you spend 3/4 an hour of your Sunday traipsing about the supermarket unnecessarily because you’ve got no easy way of collecting what you’re looking for, and the reason you’re doing so is because that’s how the supermarket intends it, then you’re engaging in physical activity -labour- so that the supermarket can maintain its profit margins. And you don’t get paid in exchange for your labour: on the contrary, you pay cash for performing it, quantified conservatively as the profit extracted by the supermarket from the purchase of the goods you wouldn’t have lifted otherwise.

So no killer app then, unless it’s for use by warehousing staff.

Of slight relation. I read my first Graham Greene book while at nursery school. It’s about a Little Horse Bus who gets put out of the market by a massive retail outlet. There is one bit in it that still resonates with me. The name of the massive retail outlet is ‘Hygenic Emporium’, which, as the narrator tells us, really means ‘clean shop’. That came to mind yesterday when, making my way briskly through the soap product aisle on the search of the washing powder, I clapped eyes on a Carex handwash. Its tagline was ‘Hygienically clean’. So I resolved to buy a Non-Tautological Non-Biological.


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June 2008
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