I have a love/hate relationship with grocery shopping.
No, wait. That's not quite right.
I like groceries fine. Give me a pint of milk, cherry tomatoes, or butternut squash any day of the week. What gets my shopping bags (reusable and biodegradable of course) in a twist are grocery stores. I don't like them. I don't like the people in them. Either my fellow shoppers or the store's employees. In my perfect world, I would have my own personal grocery store. It would open when I arrived. It would close when I left. Everything would be stocked. There would be a friendly-eyed but silent robot who would scan my items, ask for coupons, and politely flash a "Would you like me to bag your items?" sign across its forehead. I would consider the relative ease of packing my own grocery bags and decide on a whim whether I needed grocery assistance for the day. I would then leave. Walk across the street. And unpack my items in my kitchen, my indisputably favorite part of grocery shopping. Which nullifies any argument against my fantasy involving "Wouldn't you just want an automatically re-stocking fridge/cupboard/pantry/etc.?"
Because that's the other part of my grocery store irony.
I like putting my groceries away. It's like a mini-Christmas. Because I will have already forgotten about half of the items that I purchased not 20 minutes ago. "I bought bread?!" I will chortle in delight, tearing myself a piece from the crusty end, relishing the just-baked freshness of the experience. In 2-3 hours it will become plain old bread, good enough for a sandwich or two. But now, right now, it has the mystical quality of retaining store freshness, as if it just emerged from the oven.
I live in an area where my local grocery store is not next door but a 15 minute walk away. 15 minutes seems perfectly reasonable a distance to walk for groceries initially. I thought this when I moved into my apartment. I thought this when I made my first foray to the store, reusable bags excitedly in hand. I did not think this on my way home from said foray. With one bag in each hand, plus my purse cum grocery overflow device slung over my shoulder, I did not think that 15 minutes was an acceptable distance to walk to feed oneself. The butternut squash investment now seemed foolhardy, it weighed heavily in my right hand along with a pint of milk, and 4 apples. Most people consider weight an issue when food has already been eaten. I hadn't even made it 20 feet from the store and it was the only thought in my head. "Next time, I'm buying rice crackers and powdered eggs." It wasn't a question of diet. It was a question of upper body strength.
This was only the latest revelation in a series of encounters that suggested that my shopping experiences in my newly adopted home town would not prove pleasant nor relaxing. Fresh off the airplane, I had decided to use my jetlag to its only advantage: consciousness at abysmally early hours. Which is how I found myself walking to Tesco at 7:20am.
The employees were just unlocking the front doors at the "24 hour" Metro store as I arrived. I will admit, I felt a small glimmer of smug glee as I walked in, a new kind of smugness, usually only associated with naturally early risers and "morning people". The kind who would make the sort of comment when you stumbled into the kitchen bleary-eyed and hair askew searching for coffee at 9am like "What, you're only getting up now?"
I reveled in my one-time sharing of this sunrise superiority. I was getting a headstart on the day. I was getting things done. I was being productive. And it wasn't even 8am yet.
My feelings of euphoria were not to last. As I searched the store for the things on my meager hastily-scribbled shopping list, confusion and irritation set in.
"How can they not have cherries?"
"How can they have 15 kinds of cheddar and not feta?"
And so on.
It wasn't a simple question of lack of produce, although this certainly factored in. Entire shelves would sit distressingly empty. Other items, like canned tuna, seemed to have inexplicably fallen victim to a sudden burst in popularity.
But in the wonderland that was Tesco, you couldn't even reassure yourself that the store was simply out of the product you wanted. In a cruel and unending game of what I can only assume was called "Tease the Customer", store employees would randomly switch around the contents of the store. The bread aisle would be switched with oils and dressings. Half of the juice section would be relabeled as spices and herbs. The people who worked in the fruit and vegetable section seemed to enjoy this game the most. Apples and tomatoes were constantly trading places. Bananas seemed eternally relegated to the spinach section. And mushrooms were nomadic, travelling the aisles perpetually, never in the same place twice. This particular morning I found them neatly tucked behind an inconveniently placed pillar. The rather undignified squeeze that it would have taken to access them was compounded by the fact that the crates of fresh produce that were being unloaded as I shopped were placed directly in front of and around this singular pillar. In previous experiences, I would have given up my dream of mushroom cuisine then and there, favoring dignity over desire. But Tesco had rubbed my passive consumer nature down to the nub. I couldn't let the mushrooms go. I was in their store to buy their mushrooms. Crates, a pillar, and inexplicably difficult to access store shelves were not going to deter me. I was going to get those mushrooms.
And I did. Facing the silent stare of the employees as they unloaded the peaches, I held my basket over my head and squeezed behind the crates, inching over the pillar. My mini consumer rebellion could have been better timed. I had saved this expedition, dreading it, for the end. Which meant my shopping basket weighed about the same as a well-fed newborn. Holding said newborn over one's head while one searched for the "best" mushroom selection behind a pillar and fruit crates was not a situation that would end well. Unable to actually see the mushrooms as I was wedged in facing away from the shelves, I grasped blindly at the cartons of the funghi. As if my position could get any more ungainly, my muscles in my right arm started to complain about the newborn, still held aloft. I could feel my face get that glorious glow of exertion and imminent perspiration. This would not stand. I would be victorious in this grocery battle of the wills. I grabbed whatever packaged carton of mushrooms I could lay my hands on and shimmied out of position behind the cement column, never disrupting a single peach. I placed the mushrooms in my piled high basket and patted myself mentally on the back.
"Me: 1, Tesco: 0"
But the largest hurdle remained. When I had walked in, I had casually noticed that none of the check-out tills were manned, none of the friendly little green "I'm open!" lights had been lit. Surely this was just due to the early hours and recent opening of the store. I had given them an ample 20 minutes of my shopping time to get themselves sorted and open one up. Optimism was in vain. I approached the fleet of check-out counters and still all were distressingly vacant. I looked off into the distance, toward the front of the store and saw my worst shopping nightmare.
The electronic self check-out counter.
Now, I'm all for technological advances when it comes to most things shopping-related. I was all in for the electronic card reader, the magic "sign the box" computer screen for credit card purchases, all those little things that were designed to make the whole experience go faster and smoother.
This seemed to be the opposite intention of whoever came up with the automated check-out counter Tesco featured.
Even though I had mastered similar devices back home, when I was the one encouraging my mother to try the new technology, I was sure these devices were developed to frustrate me and perhaps only me. My roommate loved the devices, claiming it saved her time. I seemed to be the only one the machines hated. No, not hated. Loathed.
But today, this was the only option I had.
With more than mild trepidation, I put my basked on the right of the screen and swipe screen. The screen welcomed me with bright and colorful font and when I pushed "start" a loud (very loud) female voice told me to scan my first item, a can of olives. So I did. Then, as instructed (again in a very loud voice), I placed the olives to the left of the screen, on a lowered shelf that was deemed the "bagging area". Now, following Tesco's environmentally-friendly advice, I had brought my own bags. I pulled out one of these and placed it in the bagging area, intent on what I thought was a reasonable action, i.e. "bagging" my recently purchased olives.
"UNKNOWN ITEM IN BAGGING AREA" the loud female voice proclaimed.
Oh no. It had started.
I removed my bag from the shelf and put the olives gingerly back on the swiping area. The anonymous female voice was pacified somewhat but not entirely pleased. She told me once again that I could (or rather should) bag my olives. Now. Right now. Confused and disoriented, I put my olives onto the bagging shelf, sans bag. Now I was allowed to continue. "I'll deal with the bagging when I'm done" I thought to myself. So I continued scanning and "shelfing" my items, trying to avoid any more outbursts from the electronic dominatrix.
But then, the vegetables.
Codeless, I couldn't scan them. What now? I paused for a moment, bag of carrots in hand. Just as I saw the "Scan for codeless items" button, the computer lady screamed out "PLEASE WAIT FOR ASSISTANCE!"
This was what I wanted the least. I didn't need someone to come and tell me how incompetent I was with technology. Their precious Tesco technology. Please God no. Speedily I put the carrots down, back in my basket, touching the screen viciously, hoping the computer would forget my transgression and let me continue in peace. But it was too late.
"Is there a problem here?" A Tesco employee had wandered over and was now looking over my shoulder at the screen.
"Uh no, no problem. I think I was just taking a bit too long and the system freaked out."
The employee's gaze settled on my carrots, waiting innocently in the basket.
"You have to enter those manually into the system, you know."
She plucked the carrots from my basket, whipped out an employee card and swiped it through the computer's reader. She entered a flurry of numbers into a screen that came up and my carrots were scanned in a matter of seconds.
She went to place them in the bagging area and saw my growing stack of groceries none of them "bagged". Her gaze lowered to my abandoned reusable bags on the floor next to me.
"If you want to use your own bags, you have to tell us before you check out. Otherwise the system won't accept them."
I murmured apologies and put on my best "I'm trying, but I'm clearly a little slow" face. I was seething inside. My internal monologue was having the following one-sided conversation:
"If you have time to stand here and watch me use the automated system, couldn't you also be opening a check-out counter?"
"Do you have to make that electronic female voice so loud?"
"Why can't you just leave me in peace and let me have this awful moment of failure with a technology developed by your horrible store?"
But I didn't say any of it. I didn't have the energy to engage in consumer politics with grocery store employees. This was the only store around. If I pissed these people off, I would never hear the end of it. And grocery shopping would go from bad to worse.
She wandered away, hopefully satisfied in her customer-remanding. I set off again to the task at hand. Without incident, I scanned and "shelved" the majority of the rest of my items. Sensing I was almost done and almost free, my mood lightened.
And then darkened.
The shelf to my left was a lesson in grocery insanity. The area meant for bagging had not held my non-bagged items well and I had resorted to stacking things on top of each other. Since the system was based on weight, I had to keep all of the items on the tiny bagging shelf. Without the assistance of a bag, the jenga-like tower of my groceries had now grown precariously high. And I imagined what I then knew what was most likely going to be an inevitable resolution. I would precariously place the last item on the stack and they would all come crashing down, throwing the weight-sensitive system into conniptions and I would be stuck with the humiliating double-feature of scrambling for my groceries all over the floor and listening to the awful woman scream through the computer speakers about yet another "bagging error".
And that's when the helpful employee again spoke over my shoulder.
"You know, you're really not supposed to have this many items in the self check-out space."
She let that pearl of wisdom sink in, obviously not aware that my eyes had turned a glowing red.
If I had been annoyed before, I was homicidal now.
But again, I said nothing. Silence was the only device the shrinking part of my rational brain could employ to keep me from bubbling over, erupting into a sea of insults and potential physical violence.
Some small part of her brain must have told her that this was the time to back off, that this particular customer did not need any more helpful hints from the employees of your friendly neighborhood Tesco. Just let the customer pay, deal with her groceries, and leave. This will be best for everyone.
To her own salvation, she did casually back off, sidling over to the official "watchpost" of the automatic check-out section. I saw only then that it was less than 4 feet from where I stood. And that I was the only one in the section. It dawned on me that I was this woman's only job until I left the store. And I needed to leave. Quickly.
She reached the safety of her chair, now protected by the wooden stand in front of her.
I had not yet returned to my grocery experience, taking the whole situation in, and waiting until the red in my eyes had subsided just enough for me to summon the focus it would take to buy my groceries and leave the store.
And then: one final gem, called out from behind her wooden sanctuary.
"You know, you can put your items in the bags now. The system has cleared the weight so it won't mind if you take them off the bagging area."
This was completely illogical. Why would it not care now when it had clearly cared not 5 minutes before? But it was the only thing left to do. And somehow, the complete absurdity of her last bit of advice took the edge off. It wasn't only my incompetence that was making this experience hellish, the system was obviously designed to provoke such situations. Taking this woman's advice now seemed the only way to get out of there without a) spilling my grocery jenga or b) summoning another warning from the electronic lady of hell.
I couldn't help but mutter as I bagged my groceries as quickly as possible, scanning the last few items in as expertly as I could manage, now aware that my audience of one was watching my every move. At last, my basket was empty, my reusable bags full and now all that remained was to pay. Reaching for my wallet, I remembered that I had a 2.50 coupon, still redeemable. At this point I should have taken the easiest route: forget the coupon and the necessary computer interaction it would require, pay with a credit card, take my receipt, and flee.
But something in me, as with the mushrooms, piped up. "No." It said. "You have a coupon. It will save you money. Use the coupon." And so, I fearfully pressed the selection on the payment screen that said "Discounts/Coupons".
"Scan the coupon" the electronic voice piped, somehow a bit softer and friendlier this time.
"Coupon accepted. Deposit the coupon in the slot." Again, the kinder, gentler computer voice seemed to have forgotten our earlier disagreements.
I looked over to the payment section, with slots demarcated for cash, cheques, and the card reader for credit cards. After a second and a half of searching, my fear began to rise once again in my stomach. But lo! There it was, off to the far left, at the edge of the entire machine, a slot marked "Coupons". I shoved the coupon in, probably too forcefully, but by this point, I was past caring about the delicacies of modern technology.
Almost in disbelief, I paid the remaining amount with my card, grabbed my receipt with something akin to maniacal glee and began to trundle off with my grocery bags in hand. I only then noticed that a girl had begun her check out experience of joy at the machine next to me. Buying only a carton of milk and (interestingly) a box of mushrooms, she too was finding herself in unfamiliar technological waters. She too had a coupon, and was trying desperately to shove it in the coupon box as the electronic lady began to pipe up that she hadn't scanned it yet. Incorrect procedure.
She sighed the sigh of the downtrodden and beleagured just as I passed.
I couldn't help myself.
"Almost makes the whole thing pointless, doesn't it?" I chirped, almost too cheerily.
And left the store, just as the sun was rising.
"What, you're only getting up now?" I thought.