A few years have now passed since the first self-checkout gizmos (those little machines you hold in your hand and bleep at things before you put them in your trolley) made their appearance in my favourite supermarket. The same supermarket also offers online shopping, which we were once told would be the future of retail, the implication being that we had all better get used to it. The gizmos are no doubt cost effective for the retailer, because they make it possible for shops to hire fewer people to run their checkouts. But fewer people running checkouts means more people in my community without jobs.
Added to this, is the sense of panic and the feeling of exposure to looking stupid which these gizmos induce in some of us. The gizmo seems to be waiting in its neat little rack for the anxious customer to do all the wrong things with it and finally have to turn to another human being for assistance, all of which takes twice as long as it would have done had the person opted for queuing at the checkout in the first place.
For many people who live in the country, as well as many who live in cities, shops supply more than food and the basics of life. They underpin community. For some, such as the elderly, the housebound, or the lone parent, the visit to the local supermarket will be the only chance they have to speak to another adult, or even to another human being, all day.
The best shops have made it their business to be interested in the human beings who buy their products. The people who work there and who staff their checkouts get to know their customers. They are not just being friendly for the sake of appearances. The result is that the shops feel more like markets than supermarkets. This should be encouraged, not only for social reasons, but also for the environmental knock-on effect of shopping carefully in one place. For one thing, it is easier to hold one big shop to account for where and how it sources its goods than to visit several in the hope of doing the same, even if that saves money.
Similarly, if we grow our own veg (assuming that is possible) the environmental damage caused by frequent car journeys to the nearest supermarket is reduced proportionately. We do not need to visit a supermarket every time we run out of lettuce. You tend to get used to making do with whatever is to hand, so avoiding the kind of additional impulse buying which makes going into town for the sake of one lettuce worth the time and the trouble. In other words, the home grower doesn’t just save money on veg. She saves it on all the things she didn’t buy had she gone there for the lettuce. She also diminishes her carbon footprint.
To some extent, the same could be said to be true of online delivery services. You pick what you want from what’s on offer. But these services presumably come with their own problems, like how to return sub-standard food ordered online or that has been delivered to you by mistake. I have never shopped for food online, so am unfamiliar with such a process.
All of this is about getting the balance right between being human and being a consumer. Going to the shops is not just about shopping. It is, in a deeper sense, about communion. Shopping provides an opportunity to be together with other human beings, to hear their voices and know companionship, even if you don’t bump into someone you know personally, although in small towns like ours, you generally do. These chance meetings, along with a sense of being part of the wider community, reflect the hospitality of God. They also invite joy and gratitude in experiencing, be it ever so slightly, his invitation to us to enjoy the fruits of the earth and benefit from the kind of marketing which brings people together rather than turning them into atomised consumers.
Without gratitude we become increasingly isolated from one another and hence from the giver of all good things. Gratitude is the basis for all human happiness. It is given and received in all sorts of ways. In the context of shopping, most of us experience it in a shared word or two with another person about the most trivial things, or the tiny moments of ordinary courtesy that are known while standing in a queue, and which may lead to remarks about the weather and to whatever is currently of interest to any one community; bits of news, thoughts and concerns about others or about what is going on in the world. For many people, such moments only happen while queueing at the check out. A quick ‘thank you’ to the delivery person does not quite do it. Neither does the cost effective self-checkout gizmo, for all its promise of speed and efficiency.