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Not a comment on my psyche - or at least, not a conscious one

"Why oh why oh why," I hear you cry, "must all the articles on this site be about supermarkets?". That is a very good question. What on earth is it about the supermarket experience that I feel so compelled to write about? Well, I suppose part of it can be expressed by Mr Neil Hannon's rather exquisite lyric:

All human life is here,
from the feeble old dear,
to the screaming child.

The supermarket both influences life and reflects it. As such, I think that some of my fascination comes from watching our species develop - often in a way which scares me. If you think about it, the supermarket has replaced a number of our basic functions as human beings. No longer do we need to forage or hunt for food to feed ourselves. The supermarket replaces the need to prepare food (or at least it can if you're lazy). The seasons of the year have lost their meaning, thanks to imported or preserved goods. The social aspect of barter and exchange, which you might have found in a busy market 100 years ago, have been replaced by a sanitised (in some cases) version at the bizarrely named "checkout".

So, when you're at the checkout and you hear the beep, think of how the one-time essence of humanity is slipping through your fingers. Though, having said that, it doesn't have to be a bad thing that we're progressing to a state where most people would have no idea how to make most of the things they rely on to survive. Society evolves and there's nothing that anyone can do to stop it.

However, there is something that I recommend doing, both as an experiment and a game - so you can now enjoy how petty we have become. My little test involves nothing more than:

My theory is that people are fiercely territorial about the conveyor belt at the supermarket. There's no good reason for this - the goods on the conveyor belt are the property of the shop until you hand over the cash, long after they have left the conveyor. In addition, nobody is really likely to take your vegetables from your part of the conveyor belt to their own, nor are they likely to allow you to pay for all of their shopping and then try to collect it from you later. So, with no rational motivation for it, people are funny about the supermarket conveyor, insist on using the dividers to mark their territory and can easily be wound up, for pleasure and for the good of science.

Here is all you need to do to play the game:

  1. Place your goods on the conveyor before the divider comes down
  2. Place the items as close as you can to those of the person in front - leave a divider's width only
  3. Do not place a divider after your items unless specifically asked to do so

It's as simple as that. This little tactic will, surprisingly, run the risk of making you feel edgy when you first try it, but bear with it; as I've already explained, you have nothing to fear. What you will then notice is the absurd way your fellow shoppers react to this. I will tell a couple of tales of the results of this game in the moment. However, one thing to think about is whether we can make the game any more intense - please send suggestions to the mail address below. A few ideas are:

Some recent experiences then...


I had placed my items close to, but not touching, the goods of the person in front. She was buying a dress and some vegetables, which she had not bagged - I wouldn't eat an aubergine which had been dragged along a dirty conveyor belt... but I digress. As soon as a divider became available, the lady in front placed it between our items, and then proceeded to compact her area on the conveyor so that its boundary moved further away from my items. Inwardly amused at this, I played my second card and left the divider which next became available.

The next shopper came to the conveyor with about 3 feet of empty belt to work with. However, she would only put two items - at the very far end of the belt - until she, sheepishly asked me to pass her the divider. Once she had the divider, she positioned it further away from my items than was necessary and then proceeded to move her items forward to meet it. It was like she felt that she was trespassing on the belt until the divider came down.

Marks and Spencer

The lady behind me had a single sandwich. She would not put this on the conveyor belt without a divider there, and walked along holding it - despite the 2 foot empty belt which had developed. The couple behind her put their basket on the belt, but kept its contents inside. I watched their reactions. The moment I put a divider on the belt, the old lady played her card (er... sandwich). The moment she put a divider down, they started unloading.

What do we learn?

We learn that it is fun to tease people about the supermarket checkout. We also learn that "Aubergine" is an unknown word to Microsoft FrontPage and that the lady at Asda was, therefore, buying an Aborigine.

In summary, when you're at the checkout and you hear the beep, think of how much more fun it will be to play your fellow patrons at the divider game!

13 May 2002
Ashley Frieze