Since spring, I've been back and forth between my home of the last few years, northern Florida, and my home as a kid, northern Virginia. After a few more years in the South than I'd initially planned to stay, I finally started working on returning north to the comforting cold, falling leaves, and, well, seasons.
There's much to say about what I'm leaving behind (or not) in Florida, but today I'm thinking about the Publix grocery store I shopped at for basically my entire time there.
Publix has a certain fame in Jacksonville, where I lived, and no doubt elsewhere. For one, it was common to get a “Pub sub” — a sandwich with ingredients straight from the store — instead of the standard Subway or Firehouse sandwich. Before a weekend of camping or floating down the river, in one stop you could pick up your beer and a few pre-made sandwiches. It was not only convenient, but very delicious.
But most of all, the shopping experience was always pleasant there. There were two Publixes (Publices?) near me, about equidistant from my house. I always went to the larger one just down the 6-lane road from me — the road that heads away from the quaint old houses I lived among toward suburban hell, the next town over. Many times after work, the beautiful, vast meadow of asphalt in front of this Publix would fill with parked cars or idling cars waiting to park themselves in that perfect front-row spot. But once I was inside, it was a joy to shop there.
Besides the nice selection of food and good-mannered shoppers, there was a standard group of cashiers and baggers at that store that were usually happy to strike up a small conversation. We never really learned each other's names, but we recognized each other's faces.
Even when I was having a bad day and really just wanted to get my groceries and be alone, someone might comment about the dog treats or weird seaweed snacks I was buying. Funny enough, this tiny little comment from a real-live person, right there in front of me, would yank me out of my head for just long enough to leave me feeling a little less crappy. I might smile, laugh, or reply politely, which would magically lift my mood ever so slightly, no matter how low it'd sunk.
It seems kind of funny to find significance in such a small bit of social interaction. But it's significant these days because it's all getting more scarce. And last night I just realized this when I went to my local grocery store.
Publix has apparently made its way up into Virginia, but unfortunately not to this DC suburb where I'm living. Here I have two local choices: Giant and Harris Teeter. Giant is closest, but has really gone down hill over the years, so I go to Harris Teeter — the closest approximation of a Publix, if there was one.
I went there for just a few things last night, and as I got to the front, I saw they only had one regular checkout lane open. One customer was checking out, and two were waiting in front of me. I looked to my right — six self-checkout lanes were open. I waited a while for the human checkout. Everyone in line looked at each other, especially since Teeter doesn't really have space to queue up, leaving everyone to stand out in shopper traffic. After growing a bit frustrated, I finally went to the self-checkout line and bitterly tapped on the touchscreen, scanned my groceries, and packed everything into a single plastic bag.
As the checkout robot shouted instructions at me, abruptly quieting herself when I tapped the screen before she could finish a sentence, I thought about the absurdity of it all. For one thing, I was now doing a job someone used to get paid for — and they aren't even paying me! (The injustice!) Besides that, I was wholly unqualified for the job — my single bag clanked with unprotected glass bottles and stretched with overflowing food packages. There was a chance something not make it out to the car in one piece.
These thoughts would normally amuse me — I amuse myself often — but it mostly just left me feeling worse than when I'd first walked in. I didn't get to mutter a word to another living being — besides myself, as I cursed the slow, dumb touchscreen I had to interact with. I didn't get to look into another person's eyes, besides the silent orbs of another customer quietly accepting her fate in this dystopic new world. I mean, a zombie apocalypse could've just wiped out everyone in the neighborhood and I would've had the same exact shopping experience, completely devoid of life.
So this morning when I needed to go back to the store, I thought about mixing it up — maybe I'd go to Giant, instead. But wait, they have only two working cashiers and 10 self-checkout lanes, too. I'm truly no longer a customer — I'm now a worker, a cashier, a bag boy, an Instacart-er and Uber Food driver for myself. Society says I'm on my own and it's entirely up to me to help myself, because there's no one around to scan a frickin' banana for me anymore.
Standard economics doesn't consider this sort of romanticism I'm afflicted by. After all, these businesses are increasing their operating margins by reducing personnel costs, even as they invest in automated infrastructure for the future. But how fucking boring is that? Why would I, a paying customer, want to patronize a store that offers a crappy, lifeless shopping experience at the cost of a smile and pointless bit of small talk?
There's an easy business lesson here: recognize the immense, untold value in keeping your humanity. Just because you can automate something doesn't mean you should. No, I won't be thankful for the time savings from your self-checkout lane. No, I'm not responding to the seventh email in your automated marketing campaign. No, your chatbot will not “engage” me. None of these things endear me to your freakin' brand. They scream what you won't say: We don't really care about you, dear customer! Buy something then gtfo so we can sell to the next one please, kthxbyeee!
Here's an idea: let's use technology to augment our humanity, rather than replace it. If you're a business — grocer or not — don't be like Harris Teeter or Giant. Be like Publix.