“No Travel” Tales #7: The Supermarket

It seems that I’m not alone in finding supermarkets a thrilling substitution for cancelled séjours abroad. Along with an ever-growing bank of dinner photos, my WhatsApp chats are filled with accounts of recent excursions to the shops – discussions cover the atmosphere (a toss-up between calm and frantic), bargain purchases and the rarity of chatting to complete strangers. Now that the days of panic-buying and keeping an eye on the goods in your trolley have gone, these trips resemble first-time visits to supermarkets abroad since we’re now captivated by products that we once deemed familiar. 

While uniforms are now extinct thanks to working from home, we make an exception for the food run. Trackies and mismatched socks can stay, but sanitised accessories replace jewels and preppy headbands. Some people cover stress-bitten nails with medical-like blue gloves which gape at the wrists – a shoplifting hazard – while others don face masks to shield themselves from both germs and greed, stopping them from nibbling the end of a baguette before reaching the checkout. 

Roped-off queues recall fading memories of waiting in line at walk-in only Soho hotspots. While you’ll now be making your own small plates, it’s not too dissimilar from the expensive deconstructed dishes featured on some of their menus. Visitors largely adhere to the queuing format, though some crowd around the warden-watched exit – groupies eager to spot stars at the stage door. Pigeons join too, hoping for an early-bird queue jump. 

The simple one-way system seems to throw some people despite markers on the floor clearly showing the sense of direction. There’ll always be those that depend on “motherlode” and “kaching” shortcuts, ignoring the arrows and returning to the fridge section to get the dip they so desperately need for the rosemary crackers in Aisle 5. A shopping list is thus invaluable, reminding you not to miss items as you snake your way around the store. Since there’s no back-and-forth business, it’s “game over” if you forget something. To “play again”, return to the start – at least there’s no time limit.

Trolley-cleaning stations and vats of hand sanitiser are now a normality, and a bonus feature for those sneakily looking to fill up their (ironically) travel-sized versions. Some supermarkets have taken a page from the aesthetics of art galleries, displaying “NO TOUCHING” signs, imploring us to resist laying our hands on products we don’t intend to purchase – that’s it for the avocado test then.

Likewise, touchscreen checkouts have lost their appeal, usurped by contactless technologies which have upped their limit to £45. Thankfully they’ve maintained that magical tapping sensation, allowing us to be blissfully unaware of the money withdrawn from our accounts. Meanwhile, single-use plastic has lost its taboo, with disposable bags prioritised to prevent infection, while reusable coffee cups have been stripped of their moral superiority. 

If in-store shopping doesn’t suit you, Click & Collect is a handy alternative – a drive-thru experience free of the smell of oily fries seeping into car upholstery. The drawback being there are fewer opportunities to converse with shelf-stockers or cashiers protected behind plastic screens. The partition doesn’t stifle banter with staff, who are more than happy to chat or, in my case, ID you should you look under 25. There’s no place for hostile hangry behaviour here, come full-bellied and ready to spread joy, not germs.

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