Shelf Life 4

An anonymous supermarket employee asks how long the Keeping Calm can Carry On

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Some accounts I’ve read of the Second World War and the Blitz make the experience sound like life in a holiday camp, only with bombs. Keep Calm and Carry On. Britain Can Take It. Whistle While You Work. That kind of thing.

“Where aisles intersect everyone freezes at the prospect of crossing paths with someone else.”

More realistic histories of the time say it was much harder than that. Mostly, people did Keep Calm, though that didn’t mean they were liking what they had to endure. They Carried On because there wasn’t much choice. The posters should have read: Keep Calm, Carry On, Clench Your Teeth, Do What You Have To Do, And Maybe Sometime You’ll Live To Get Out Of The Other End Of This Thing.

Maybe that was too long to fit.

My working life over the last few weeks tells me that this view seems far more likely to be true.

People watching is a kind of occupational hazard of working in mass market retail. In fact, it’s something you’re encouraged to do, both to help customers find what they’re looking for and let potential shoplifters know that you’re on to them (if you’ve ever been asked “can I help you?” three times in five minutes while in store, well, that’s why). So noticing becomes a way of life.

Normally the thing you notice is that people are, well, just people. A trip to the supermarket is a kind of mood-neutral thing, just something you have to do. Hardly a day out at Alton Towers, but better than unblocking the toilet. Nice people are nice, less nice people are not so nice, policemen who come in at night buy a lot of triple decker sandwiches. What you get overall is a strong sense of the ambient public mood.

The mood right now isn’t good. This isn’t the kind of acute mood swing that we saw in the panic buying a few weeks back. That wasn’t so much about the virus itself, but a sudden acute fear that the stores were about to run out of food and other necessaries. It was fear of empty shelves that emptied the shelves.

The supermarkets have broken that particular vicious circle. Now the issue is the fact that our customers are scared of each other. And why wouldn’t they be, when we are making a huge effort to keep them apart?

When stores adopted social distancing measures, the initial problem was getting people to keep their distance. Now there’s a problem getting the car park queues to move forward at all because people seem reluctant to move into space occupied a few seconds ago by someone who might…well, you know.

It’s the same story inside. The retail one way system our store has installed is designed to keep a regular flow of people moving at a safe distance from each other. But where aisles intersect, sometimes everyone just freezes at the prospect of crossing paths with someone else. And that’s the way they stay until some brave soul finds a way to edge out of the picture and untangle the knot.

To adapt the famous slogan, customers are Carrying On, but finding it increasingly hard to Keep Calm. At busy times the anxiety levels are off the scale. Customers move around as though they are being stalked by something large and dangerous. Facial expressions vary from mild stress to genuine distress.

All this has become particularly marked since the daily official death count began to hover around four figures. This, of course, is the reason why we all need to keep on doing what we are – mainly – doing. Hopefully, we’re just in the process of adapting. But I’m not completely sure that we are capable of doing what we need to do for as long as we need to do it.

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