Monday, November 9, 2009

Save More! Be Happy!

My whole family went shopping together yesterday. This is not routine, but after devoting half of the weekend to pure enjoyment, we felt a certain amount of pressure to take care of the details of living. And, at the same time, looking down the barrel of another long work week, during which Nick leaves for work at 6am and gets back just before 8pm, we wanted to spend time together. This way, we could do it all at once.

I go to a giant grocery store. It's called the Super Stop & Shop, it's extremely conveniently located -- right next to the MBTA train station -- and as you make your way in the door, past the cart corral and around the corner to the produce section, you'll see a green and white sign that says, "Save More." If your life map is anything like mine, you'll take a closer look. And you'll see something like this.

(I didn't take this photo. Although I considered it, getting the kids to the grocery store just to take a picture is a little too crazy, even for me. I got the photo from this digital marketing blog.)

You can now scan your own groceries, as you go. By swiping your Stop & Shop card, you release a little hand scanner that looks to Milo (and maybe also to us grown ups) like a very, very good toy. You can bag your own groceries, as you go. You can watch your tally go up with each item you scan, and every once in a while, with a soft "ping," your hand-held scanner will inform you of special offers, just for you! Thirty cents off the frozen vegetables. Fifty cents off of a can of soup. (Do we need soup?)

We hadn't ever tried it until yesterday. I was fascinated -- whether by the concept or by the actual bright lights, I'm not sure -- and I stood motionless in front of the display long enough to attract my husband's attention. "Do you want to try it?"

"Yeah, I think I do." I probably wouldn't have done it by myself. It wasn't that long ago that I still took advantage of the bagging clerk's offer to help me to my car, when Stella was young enough to need always to be held and Milo was (and still is) young enough to try and get away from me in the parking lot. By myself, putting the right groceries in the cart and keeping them there is quite enough to accomplish, thank you. I'll let the professionals do the rest.

But as a family, we tried it. And it was nothing less than an adventure. Nick is all hands and never drops anything. He scanned this item while reaching for the other one, printed a label for the bananas using the designated customer-operated scale, all with a bag open, and don't forget the hot cocoa! Milo, not to be outdone, drove the little car cart while enthusiastically naming fruits and vegetables, and even little Stella gurgled loudly from her carrier, as if to get her own piece of all this action.

Nick was still in a good mood when we got in the car. He gave me a high five. "That was good, baby." I nodded. We are incredibly efficient. And I think I would have forgotten the mushroom soup no matter what. But I was also thoughtful. Is it really happening that people don't want customer service anymore? That we would rather do everything ourselves than have to make eye contact with the checker, to respond to the person behind us in line asking the names and ages of our babies, or -- worst of all -- have to wait even a few minutes for our turn to be served?

We wonder why we feel so deeply lonely.

And, of equal concern, is it really true that we want to be any more plugged in? That little hand scanner is interfacing with a record of every item we've ever bought at the Super Stop & Shop, on every occasion that we swiped our card in order to get our Valued Customer Rewards. I'm finding it hard to believe that Stop & Shop is offering us this feature out of a generous or altruistic impulse. It is a feature that is pretty clearly good for them: the repeating cost of baggers and checkers replaced with the one-time cost of technological infrastructure, and a vehicle for advertising that is disarmingly, alarmingly direct.

Nick recently noticed, with a grimace, that when we bought one bag of coffee they gave us a print coupon for two bags of coffee. And when we bought two bags of coffee they gave us a coupon for three. My friend Stop & Shop now knows, like the rest of my friends, just how much I love my warm caffeine. But if I were to suddenly want to give up my coffee habit? Something tells me my friend Stop & Shop wouldn't be as supportive as I might like. "Ping." Look how cheap it is. "Ping." Look, it's the brand I like. "Ping." I'll just get it this time...this one more time.

And this is the direction of progress. It isn't entirely the corporation creating the culture. And it isn't entirely the culture creating the corporation. But the narrative that emerges is one of mythological resonance, in which human contact gives way to conversation with our own robotic creations. We find ourselves trying to eliminate all the little weaknesses and annoyances that make us human, like the slow grocery store clerk, like that youngish checker who dropped my last Stop & Shop card into the narrow gap at the end of the conveyor belt. Wouldn't it be great if we just didn't have to deal with things like that?

It does sound restful. But as we acquire ingenious ways to make good on that age-old impulse, I'm feeling rather nostalgic for the practice of enduring other people's imperfections. If get home and drop the eggs that I just bought -- because, unlike my husband, I am klutzy -- I am less likely to say to myself, "I'm just like that grocery store checker." I'm less likely to say, "Oh yes, we all do things like that, because we're people and we're all deeply imperfect and some of us specialize in dropping things." Instead I feel alone in my non-digital-ness, which is to say, my humanness. I feel like an island of chaotic personhood in a world of uniformly friendly little "pings." Enter the perfectionism of modern life. Where on earth did I get the idea that I should be perfect? Well...everything else seems to be. What's wrong with me?

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