Shelf Life 2

An anonymous supermarket employee offers a glimpse down the re-stocked aisles

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“Good  afternoon, this is a customer announcement. Could you please try not to kill each other? And us while you’re at it.”

But first, the good news: we’ve managed to fill a few shelves. More than a few in some cases.

When I wrote last week’s piece we seemed to be teetering on the verge of something catastrophic. Anxiety over coronavirus looked like it was mutating into a general social panic, and specifically one about food supplies. There’s a saying that any country is nine meals away from anarchy. Retail workers were getting a sneak preview of what that anarchy would actually look like.

A sense of structure has replaced a sense of chaos and people are responding to that

Fingers crossed, but that particular fever seems to have broken. The retail experience is in no way normal – more on that in a bit – but what seems to have happened is that rules have been set, whether at national level or down at the local superstore. It’s not that people like being told what to do or how to shop, but a sense of structure has replaced a sense of chaos and people are responding to that. A week ago, customers looked tense and worried. You folks still look a bit concerned, but also, as far as I can see, a bit relieved.

And we have the time and space to do our jobs. I’m here to tell you that while it will take a good while before stores are operating with shelves full to bursting that there was bread yesterday, there is bread today and there will be bread tomorrow. Bread and a whole lot of other stuff you might need. Basic food availability should not be amongst your many worries right now.

We’ve also got hand sanitiser on offer. Don’t all rush at once. No, seriously, don’t.

I would  put most of this down to the rules set in place by the supermarkets themselves. These are generally strict, but vary from place to place. Some of the smaller outlets seem to have a strict one-in-one-out policy. You can tell these places by the way in which an orderly queue staggers round the car park, each person in a specially demarcated safe zone, each stepping into the next zone as the person at the front is allowed in. The effect as a whole is of pawns in a massive game of car park chess.

Superstores like the one I work at have too many visitors to be able to do that comfortably. Instead we operate behind a screen of security guards – who seem to be people redeployed from event management companies, now that these no longer have any events to manage, except inasmuch as half-price hand sanitiser is an event. These folks help separate incoming and outgoing customers, sort incoming shoppers into queues and make sure no one goes into the store without gloves, a splash of hand sanitiser and a wiped down trolley.

You’ll see those lines stretched at regulation intervals all over the shop floor. Thing is, you’re supposed to stand behind them. This is especially true at the checkouts, where managers are detailed to police the queues and will make that point forcefully to people who insist on leaning over and breathing into the faces of colleagues on checkout. It’s a different picture in the rest of the store, where the staff just aren’t available and people tend to wander around picking things up and putting them down.

In normal times, we want you to do this. Supermarkets are set up so that you, the happy shopper will stroll around in a daze while we, the obliging retailer, try to tempt you to buy a little more than you originally intended. These days we want you to be disciplined, focused, alert to the danger to staff and fellow customers, to know exactly what you want to buy and keep your hands off everything else. We want you to be in and out of the store quickly and, if you’ve got any sense, that’s what you want too. But while in the store we want you to be patient and co-operative.

So how are you doing? It goes without saying that all our customers are wonderful human beings. But as a general philosophical observation, it’s also true that even idiots need to shop and that there are enough of them to go round. From what I can see, the wonderful human beings are getting the edge. When supermarkets adopted the new rules, it took a bit of assertive rule setting to get them to stick. Now, self-discipline and a kind of moral pressure seem to be operating, a collective effort to get through this without harming each other.

“There’s always one”, as they say, and quite often there’s more than one. But in general we’re doing OK. Let’s keep it up.

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