Grocery Shopping Is Inefficient and That's Good

A plea to my friends who order groceries online to please slow down and think about the psychic consequences you're inflicting on yourself

There are some things that I am a Luddite about, maybe. Which is the original derogatory term for what dorks online now call “trad” or “Lindy”. I like books with pages, writing instead of typing, smashing stocking frames at the textile mill (no), drip coffee instead of a coffee maker. And I like the inefficiency of shopping for groceries.

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If you feel this essay is tone-deaf, because you think getting your groceries delivered is safer and you’d rather someone you don’t know took that risk for you, just imagine I’m writing this 3 months after herd immunity instead. People will still be trying to get their groceries delivered, I guarantee it.

GROCERY DELIVERY IS NOT SO GOOD, ACTUALLY

Today, while you count down the seconds until it’s casual and not weird to join your Zoom meeting, opportunities for having the world delivered to your doorstep have never been more abundant. Like all good people living in the dialectic aftermath of Rahm Emmanuel’s not-letting-a-good-crisis-go-to-waste-ism, we are dutifully closing brick-and-mortars unless they’re painted Whole Foods Green or Amazon Yellow or Walmart Blue. (This is not a political essay).

And so we are reading articles that say that “automating grocery delivery is the new future of grocery shopping”, asking us to celebrate this brilliant time-saving solution to the problem that has plagued us for years, ever since the first brain genius thought to slice and package bread and sell it at profit, this burden that has fallen on homemakers wandering through the aisles to hunt and gather for each item on a never-ending Sisyphean grocery list, etc etc. And we do celebrate. We know people whose calf muscles have withered to beef jerky because they haven’t left their homes in months because there will always be someone to deliver their groceries for them.

Rejoice! Seamlessly integrate your kitchen’s Alexa with a grocery list posted direct to your Amazon account, pull trigger, a worker free of union-shackles (employer-sponsored healthcare? how positively medieval) gathers up your consumables and would practically fill your fridge for you if there weren’t costly liabilities associated (there is of course a math calculation here: cost of a low-probability lawsuit for a worker breaking their neck tripping over someone’s dog versus potential gain from pantry-stocking fees; just kidding, the answer is you make them wear body cams). Doesn’t matter that someone got fired from their minimum-wage grocery store job and was then hired back to work at the same store at below-minimum-wage as a DoorDash contractor, because now you can eat two bags of plantain chips in one sitting without having to put on real pants. (This is not a political essay!!!)

I had a professor in 2018, apparently ahead of his time, who prided himself on his writing efficiency: he told the class that if you were still shopping for groceries yourself instead of having a service do it for you, you were wasting precious time you could be using to write (or commandeer your 100-person research group). He also told us that if you are feeling writer’s block that you should swim in your infinity pool like he does (he kept a waterproof laptop by his poolside to capture mid-stroke pangs of inspiration). Write, swim in your pool, write some more, get your groceries delivered. A fast track to tenure and international renown.

Yes, shopping for groceries is a non-trivial time investment, and it’s burdensome in the same way as the never-ending cycle of having to cook-eat-do-dishes every day for the rest of your life. By outsourcing the task, we get maybe three hours more each week, maximum, to focus on work and/or guilt ourselves for relaxing when we could be working instead. Please admit that expecting liberated time to be taken up as leisure in the 2020s is a hilarious concept. (Not a political essay).

NOT A POLITICAL ESSAY — THIS IS AN ESSAY CELEBRATING THE SENSES

Remember what it was like to smell and manhandle the produce, before The Thing? How about trying to pick up the smell of an under-ripe, half-plastic tomato, squeezing it and finding absolutely no give, and making a split-second decision to make a roasted pepper sauce for dinner instead, remember? I am walking by glistening rows of freshly-baked croissants, wrapped like babes in a nursery, and deciding to really go for it, to have one just for myself, a secret croissant, just for the trip home. I sweep crumbs off my coat at the doorstep like brushing off snow. Or maybe you peek inside someone else’s cart at the store, and immediately remember that you too are about to run out of milk — a useful decentralized form of memory for people like me who compose their grocery lists at the last minute in the parking lot, instead of at the altar light of the refrigerator.

These are phenomenological moments, fully immersive experiences, good vibes, registered and embedded qualia, barrages onto your sensory strata and so on. Deep human inefficiencies rich in timbre. I am in love with everything that happens when your fingertip tactile receptors fire as you white-knuckle the cart, how your tendon stretch organs notice the asymmetry of that one wheel, the top-down neural command adjusting to push the slightest bit harder on one side to compensate. And now we are suggesting that a streamlined online replacement to this symphony, for the sake of convenience, is a worthwhile trade. An affectless 2-dimensional screen that doesn’t even do flashing pop-ups or play music on its landing page anymore is so woefully under-equipped for this.

So I can imagine myself as a schemer trying to improve grocery delivery. Because that’s the natural aim, yes? To improve and improve upon a design until we are at asymptote with a streamlined God. Or maybe to convince more people that this is a service they need. And so if I’m a designer, and say I really want to impress Don Norman, I want to minimize the mental cost of interaction. I want to maximize sensible affordances. I can do this in several ways: I can make online grocery as similar as possible to in-person delivery, capturing all its idiosyncrasies and provide a high-fidelity simulation (simulacra? can someone who’s actually read Baudrillard tell me if this is the right word?) of the experience; or, I can create a compelling alternative that doesn’t try to mimic the store at all.

Consider modality-matching the feeling of a spontaneous magazine purchase at the check-out by providing the customer some magazine options, or even tailored options specifically targeted to a user profile based on what’s in the cart already. This doesn’t work. Studies on impulse buys (and personal experience, tell me I’m wrong) tell us that part of the reason these check-out purchases work is because you’re standing there, waiting for your turn in line, and you have no choice but to wait, and you don’t want to be sucked into your phone too deeply because what if the person in front of you in line gets done quicker than anticipated? These purchases work because you’re a captive audience, and not actively Ad-Blocking or Incognito Mode-ing. If you use a VPN to buy groceries online you are not the target audience of this essay.

I don’t even want to imagine the kind of work required to try to replicate the feeling of checking your egg carton to see if any are broken. In online world all eggs are perfect. All produce looks photogenic. What about deliberately picking a carton with broken eggs so someone else doesn’t accidentally buy it without looking or so it doesn’t get thrown out? Or deliberately picking the ugly apples because you’re making a pie and it doesn’t matter? Hamster-wheel altruism aside, how would it be possible to engineer the banal details and exponential possibilities of grocery shopping that flesh out your identity? You’d need the resources to make the biggest open-world game imaginable, just so you can try ringing up organic bananas as regular bananas. Just kidding, they’d never let you do that.

So instead of a direct replacement of the experience, which is maybe too ambitious from an embodied VR perspective anyhow, we can look to make our virtual marketplaces as pleasing and un-abrasive as possible, so that customers will be charmed by their convenience. Unfortunately, it will look horrible and soulless (see above). I wish there was a mainstream design ethos that kept us from falling down the smoothed-edge flat-cartoon-people-with-blue-skin funnel.

I’m not suggesting we invent better opportunities to sell me stuff. That’s not it, please. All I’m saying is that this 2D starched white, perfectly comfortable UI will never replace my animal frustration of wanting to run someone over with my shopping cart for blocking the entire aisle and taking too long picking out cream cheese, making me want to buy a consolation coffee to feel better. Clippy could have gotten close, though.

Let’s make the UI more annoying, practically harassing, and we’ll talk about customer targeting opportunities then. That’s what’s missing when we create fake grocery worlds: moody customers, nonsensical store layouts, and when the only box of a thing you really need is half-opened or beat-up and you make the decision to take it anyway. Inefficiency breeds human reactions. You are interacting with the object, not the representation of the object: your frustration is with the battered box on the shelf, with whoever battered it, not with the site for not letting you click “plus sign” because they ran out of your favorite pasta shape. That’s your lifeline to reality.

GROCERY SHOPPING ONLINE SHOULD REMAIN UNPLEASANT AND EVENTUALLY BE PHASED OUT

I do not want to live in a world where a 28 year old living in a co-working Silicon Valley pod dorm who subsists off Soylent and Huel convinces me that a smell-o-vision Alexa expansion package complete with tactile feedback, for you to smell and touch your tomatoes while you pick them out in a virtual market (as if you’re really there!), is a worthy consumer product goal. Absolutely not. You cannot engineer your way into new vestigial organs that only provide sensory information when you’re within Bluetooth tethering distance.

And I think that if you do shop for groceries online, it should be a pitiful, blunted, lackluster, uninspiring experience. That’s what you deserve. Maybe you just need a bag of rice and some dried lentils while you ferment on bed rest, and so screw going to the store and waiting in line and driving a cart with one and a half broken wheels with a pounding headache and sneezing on innocents — so that’s all you get. And we save the beauty of the tactile experience, frustration of waiting in line, endless circling around the parking lot, for those who relish human inefficiency where we can still get it.

So slow down! Where are you rushing off to?? Where could be more important than picking out what you’ll eat!! Stop and smell the carrots! Stumble home with a bouquet tucked under your arm! Spill the milk! Go back and buy more! Clean the onion skins out of your reusable tote! Stare at strangers!! Tell them you like their hat! Buy a chocolate bar at the check-out just because! And when you don’t have to wear a mask anymore, go ahead and steal a grape or two! Enjoy it!!

Yours, munching with smug superiority,

N