Amazon Go Is Hacking Away at the "Poetics" of Supermarkets

Photo: Amazon Go promotional

Grocery shopping is one of the earliest forms of schooling that we experience.

My mom would disappear for hours on a Sunday, usually in the afternoon, and then she’d storm through the door after sundown carrying a load of bags under each arm. She grocery shopped on Sundays. It was during what little time she wasn’t at work and I know she always felt that it was her personal relaxation time. My mom was an expert maker of lists, but she usually left a little wiggle room in the budget for things at the grocery store that just caught her attention on the spot. Roaming the aisles is why shopping took so long, despite the constant referencing of the list. My mom spent many years as a chef and hanging out with her in our home kitchen was certainly one of the most influential threads of my young life.

As a tiny kid, my job was to help unpack the grocery bags when mom came home and if I knew the proper place of something in the pantry, I could take the new purchase and put it in its proper place. Eventually, I passed enough knowledge tests to upgrade to fridge duty. Simultaneously, I was studying to come along on the ride for the big Sunday grocery run. I learned when to sit quietly in the cart and when to work on my negotiation skills. Then I got to walk alongside the cart and graduated to pushing it as soon as I could see over the top of it. Eventually, I could be sent on small missions for two cans of chicken broth or a six-pack of mac ’n’ cheese. Years later, she taught me how to pick out vegetables and rifle through sale bins at the meat department.

She was no great adherent to recipes, though we did have several fat cookbooks. My mom would glance at the instructions and then do it her own way, a counterbalance to her professional life making massive pans of standardized tiramisu. This slightly slower, more louche approach to cooking is what created space for improvisation at the supermarket. Sure, the list said we were having potroast on Tuesday. But who knows whether it’d have sweet potatoes or yellow potatoes until we got down into the produce aisles to see what’s what. When my mom first began showing she trusted me to make these momentous decisions without her standing by, she simultaneously began teaching me how to do things in the kitchen rather than just using me as a prep cook.

I think most people have strong sense-memories tied to the kitchens of their youth, but we ought to think through those memories root and branch for how they educated us, because I suspect many people will recognize that going grocery shopping is one of the earliest forms of schooling we experience. My mom would always thank the baggers, but she would especially compliment those who had what she considered to be expert bagging skills. Learning how to stack cereal boxes and protect the eggs ultimately led me to be a fierce competitor at Tetris. Learning the pros and cons of brand names versus generic items made me an astute observer of human nature. It was at the grocery store that I first encountered a developmentally disabled person and it was in a grocery store that I first heard '80s new wave music.

In 1958, Gaston Bachelard wrote an excellent book, The Poetics of Space. He argued that the human mind processes architecture as a lived experience. If we engage buildings as emotional phenomena -- and of course we do -- then the makers of supermarkets should design their stores with due consideration to this form of spatial awareness. Granted, a supermarket can be full of some truly lovely efficiencies of time; the way the roll of plastic bags is hanging right there by the veggies, the rise of self-check-out, the breadth and depth of aisles, the cart return in the parking lot, and so on.

But why would you go to the grocery store at all, if time management is of greater importance? These days I mosey around the store, just like my mom taught me. This sometimes annoys people who quickly swing around my loitering, their express basket in one hand and flailing cellphone in the other. I actually get about 80 percent of my grocery needs delivered directly to my door these days. It’s so efficient. I put stuff in an online cart, pay up, then somebody else faces any hassle and hustle while I sit around reading another book. Between personal shoppers and local farmer’s market co-ops, do we ever really need to enter a supermarket again? Yes, we do -- for the 20 percent of our groceries that spark joy and take root as a form of pathos.

Please don't ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.

Thank you.

That’s why I’m skeptical about Amazon’s Go idea. The store with no lines and no checkout has one location, launched in Seattle, of course, so let’s not kid ourselves by talking about food deserts or white technology privilege or anything too hypocritical. Parents of Seattle, I ask you: why would you deprive your kids of the chance to grow up waiting patiently in line and interacting with other humans, just like you did? Yes, they can pick up these skills elsewhere. But don’t you kind of love the grocery store?

This is the brick and mortar argument for any and every industry, isn’t it? Don’t let Amazon deprive your neighborhood of an independent book store and record store, except the argument doesn’t quite work in reverse. Amazon’s Go actually respects the utility of brick and mortar stores because of the challenge of refrigeration in the delivery business, and then also because big data no doubt shows that supermarkets can maximize spontaneous consumption in a way online shopping doesn’t. So Amazon is willing to keep most of its business in digital space while dipping this toe of Go into actual physical space, except it neglects half the joys of experiencing that space.

By eliminating the need to interact with other people at the store and by removing any barriers to exiting quickly, Amazon is hacking away at the poetics of supermarkets. When I was in seventh grade, I got to go on the turkey run. My mom had agreed to host our giant family Thanksgiving that year, and her time would be so consumed with cooking everything that she even prevailed upon my father to spring for a cleaning lady to come and keep my mom from double duty. We needed two carts, and we left extra early to beat the rush and get the best bird they had. Despite our preparations, the store was swarmed by a rush of other families who were also trying to beat the rush.

My mom was a model of graciousness and patience that day, as we waiting in line at the checkout for a thousand hours while an old woman in front of us counted out her pennies to the tune of over 300 (or so it seemed). That day, I learned to put all the cold items in one corner of the cart with the frozen items on top of anything that won’t get smushed, to keep everything the right temperature. When we finally got our turn at the register, the cashier rolled her eyes at the back of the exiting snail, then winked and smiled at me. She had purple eye shadow and her name tag said Carlotta on it. I don’t know why I remember that. It was a good moment.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.