Friday, August 24, 2007

Vons: Just Bitchin

I went to the supermarket with my daughter who, in spite of the fact that the fridge and cupboards were stocked to overflowing insisted that there was "no food in the house." Ok, I'll take a break from the paper I'm writing and do some more shopping. Being in a bad mood however, I was outraged by my shopping experience.

Our down-market branch of Vons is decent. Others maintain a source of hand-wipes outside so that we can disinfect the handles of shopping carts before using them. This is sickening and I can't imagine why supermarkets do it. What is in their heads? What is in shoppers' heads if this is what they want? We spend our lives opening and closing doors that other people have, god forbid, touched, using public pens and pencils, grasping public handrails--people aren't poison. What on earth can be in people's heads to make them finicky about holding onto the handles of shopping carts that haven't been disinfected?

Once in the store we're confronted by air conditioning cranked down to 55 degrees. Why do they do that? My son speculates that it gives shoppers the idea that the fruit is fresh. Why on earth? Isn't there some more efficient system for keeping fruit fresh--keeping it behind plastic strips or in refrigerators? Why does the store spend this money, use this energy, to keep the place uncomfortably cold for customers? I don't mind the cold, but the waste infuriates me.

Poking around in the dairy counter, an employee asks me helpfully whether I'm finding everything ok. I am. Please ask if you need anything, he continues. Fine, I say, to get him off my back. This is a supermarket. There are signs up. I can find what I want and if I can't I'll ask. Why do these people pester me? I like my privacy in public and do not want any interaction. Why do they do this? I just want to get my stuff and get out--I don't want these people hassling me.

At the check-out, unless I'm pro-active and quick off the mark, the bagger will double-bag everything and pack no more than 2 or 3 items in each double-bag. This drives me up the wall! I say, "Pack it tight, and don't double-bag." This usually involves a fairly lengthy negotiation, and baggers look at me like I'm some kind of a nut. I usually have to explain: "Please don't double-bag and stuff as much as you can into each bag." Even then then don't take me seriously. They pack 4 items instead of 3 into each bag and then ask whether I'd like help to my car. What kind of help are they thinking of and why on earth would I want it? The stuff is in a shopping cart that I wheel out; I dump it in my trunk. What on earth can they do for me? If I were too old or feeble to wheel out the cart and dump the stuff in my trunk I'd be too feeble to get to the supermarket in the first place. What are they playing at?

I asked a friend about this over lunch yesterday. He claimed that people like this treatment because it "makes them feel rich and pampered." Can this possibly be true? This is Vons, Chula Vista--this is grocery shopping not some weird luxury spa but part of the business of life we have to deal with. My aim is to get through with the cheapest possible stuff, in the least possible time, without a hassle. I seriously doubt that people want this treatment--it smacks of an a priori program contrived in corporate HQ. In any case, if they have to interact, why don't they make stuffing single-bags tight the default and then ask shoppers if they'd like double-bags or like their stuff packed light?

Why do they do this--adding that little extra bit of hassle and misery to my day and doing their part to degrade the environment? I did my little bit this time, bought organic eggs which guaranteed that the chickens were "free-roaming" rather than merely "cage-free" for three times the price. I couldn't care less about what I eat but I care about chickens. I'm not a saint of ecology and don't aspire to being one. I'm not going to buy burlap sacks to pack my groceries because my priories are convenience and economy. But I do not see why supermarkets have to engage in all these wasteful practices that don't make shopping faster, more efficient or cheaper and just impose unnecessary interaction and hassles on shoppers.


Ophelia said...

You and me both. I hate that intrusive 'are you finding everything?' thing - they actually interrupt you as you're in the very act of finding what you're looking for to make you pay attention to them instead - they yank you out of your train of thought and make you talk to them. It's maddening. I'm always muttering 'leave me alone' 'don't say anything' 'get away from me' 'don't start' to myself in Safeway. And that ridiculous 'do you want help out with that' thing - only yesterday I walked out behind a trim young woman heading for her car with a valet from the store carrying a light bag in one hand and a sixpack in the other - why on earth doesn't she just carry it herself, I wondered. I hadn't thought of the rich and pampered notion. How repulsive. Especially since she no doubt went straight to the gym to pump some iron.

H. E. said...

Funny about the rich-and-pampered business--that, and a lot of other Yuppie traits are what we would have regarded as at least mildly shameful years ago. Being rich and pampered was a sign of weakness--being Clara, the rich invalid, rather than Heidi, the poor country girl. Taking an interest in one's health was for old ladies--another sign of weakness--and the preoccupation with germs, disinfection and sanitation was more weakness and silly fussiness.

Somehow what I at least would think of as signs of being old, feeble and cowardly have been transmogrified into status symbols. And the list goes on: lots of people I know pride themselves on being "sensitive," psychologically fragile and victimized; they virtually boast about how scared they are of crime in the streets, how careful they are, and how over-protective of their children--driving them to school in "safe" SUVs and filling their time with adult-controlled organized activities so that they won't endanger themselves playing in empty lots, bike-riding in the streets, climbing fences, getting skinned knees or doing any of the "dangerous" the stuff I did as a kid.

This is chicken-shit nation. And the irony of it is that at the same time we profess rugged individualism, promote cowboy adventures in Iraq and elsewhere, and are obsessed with guns and guts. Or maybe now that I think of it it's precisely not ironic: we're such lousy yellow cowards that we demand gratuitously tough policies to protect us--more prisons, harsher sentences, more military to fight terrorism, etc.--and vote for bogus cowboys.

Ophelia said...

Interesting. I love that earlier post on the aesthetic of toughness.

I think the pride in feebleness stuff is a regression rather than (or as well as) a transmogrification - regression back to when it was a matter of pride to Let the Servants Do That; to when a lady didn't soil her hands or go out of the house except in full makeup and high heels.

It's somehow related to this business of making the 'master' bath the biggest and most lavish room in the house - some twisted half-asleep idea of Luxe.

Enrique said...

A very interesting posting from an anthropological point of view. In Belgium, where I live but I'm not from, supermarket chains are charging something like 5 cents of euro (about 7 cents of dollar)per plastic bag, in order to encourage people to use reusable bags. In most shops in this country, shop assistants usually ask you in advance if you need a bag for your products.
As far as I see, people are quite satisfied with this cutdown on one-off bags.
In my country of origin, Spain, bags are still free but you're usually looked askance, both by employees and fellow customers, if you take too many.

Jim L said...

From asking some check-out people (baggers and cashiers), apparently the two items per double bag is a response to customers who cry bloody murder when the bags are too heavy or liable to squish something (at least in that customer's eyes). From the holy terror that I saw in their faces when describing these people, I can see the rationale of adopting a policy of two items per bag for every customer. The little peevish commentary from us rational people is very preferable to the temper tantrums of the irrational when you are just trying to get through the day...

My favorite example of the rich and pampered yet still "tough": CEOs who do "wild" things like race motorcycles, skydive, and other hair-raising stunts. I want to tell them - "Hey, you wanna live dangerously? How about working for minimum wage with no health insurance, taking the bus to work and living paycheck to paycheck? That's life on the edge, buddy, no golden parachute for these folks"

H. E. said...

True. They're appealing to consumer tastes--and achieving greatest appeal for the greatest number. It's a demand for what we think of as "good service."

But why do we want this? I'm modifying, or at least adding to my original hypothesis. I have the sense that some Americans in particular see consumption, even down to the business of buying groceries, as an accomplishment. We pride ourselves on being discriminating, demanding and selective, recognizing "value"--and getting "good service." Maybe it's a surrogate for what's conventionally be understood as "good taste" which used to be a marker of social status. "I can't tell the difference between Mozart and Montevanni, but I know a good tomato when I see one."

Or maybe it's the next elitist move--since conventional good taste has become so obvious that anyone can do it--like the Yuppie's Progress from wine snobbery to beer snobbery and thence to food snobbery. "I simply must have the freshest organically-grown vegetables, uncontaminated by pesticides, and good service--not like white trash who shop at Walmart and eat unhealthy food that makes them fat. Ugh."

My late father-in-law, who I take after, used to have fun going into posh shops and asking for "something cheap."

Ophelia said...

Oh, very much so, the consumption as accomplishment thing. I know people like that. 'Purchasing' (never buying) the right wine, the right shoes, the right fish, the right sweater, the right countertops, the right car, the right tchotchke for the right coffee table - it's all, all an accomplishment; it's scholarship, it's art, it's 'creativity,' it's 'taste,' it's an arduous demanding distinguished labor.

I knew the view bathrooms were relevant. It's only consumer-scholars who want to have a view from the bathtub. Any peasant can want a view from the living room or the bedroom; to want one from the bathroom is really distinguished.

H. E. said...

There's a history to this in the US at least as I learnt from team-teaching with a colleague in econ. Unlike Europe, which was flattened after WWII, the US had lots of productive capacity that it needed to convert to peacetime production. And that meant (1) getting women out of the labor force to make room for returning GIs and (2) creating demand for consumer products by valorizing consumption and setting women up as a class of professional consumers. If you look at the graphs for labor force participation for highly educated women in most places you see fairly smooth gradual increase; in the US you see a precipitous drop after WWII and, soon afterwards, a birthrate comparable to Third World figures.

This may interest you even more, Ophelia--something I've inferred looking at these graphs. Women's labor force participation goes inversely to religious participation. So while Old Europe slid smoothly to secularization, in the US there was a bubble in the religious market during the 1950s and in the late 1960s, as middle class women started re-entering the labor force, we started seeing a market correction.

Getting real, the truth is that picking the right wine, countertops and views from the bathtub just isn't that hard to do--if you read the right magazines and have the money. It's no harder than naively consuming the short list of High Art, well within the capacities of the average parvenu and a lot easier than meeting the traditional requirements for "accomplished" women: reading French, playing the piano, etc.