A hundred years ago, the way we shopped for groceries looked very similar to the way we order online today. Of course the Internet didn’t exist a century ago, but the shopping model that we are reverting back to is in fact very retro. Since the coronavirus broke, this trend has skyrocketed with online food purchases increasing nearly 500% during the quarantine for one conventional North American grocery chain. Today, we “hand over” our digital shopping lists, compiled with all our items at checkout. In 1920, unless your family was wealthy aristocracy who could afford to outsource the task, most of our grandparents pushed their shopping lists across the counter for the clerk to gather. This model of ordering groceries to be picked up or delivered was common until September 16, 1916 when the very first self-service Piggly Wiggly with aisles for customers to browse through opened in Memphis, Tennessee. The 1918 flu pandemic followed just two years later. It is a timeline that eerily echoes our own recent history, a century later in 2017, when American grocers were pushed to ramp up their e-commerce strategies and innovate to compete with Amazon and Instacart’s massive marketshares.¹ Two years after reverting back to full-service, we too are coincidently plagued by a pandemic.
The Red Cross reported that many people died not from symptoms of the 1918 flu, but from starvation when people grew too afraid to deliver food and grocery stores closed.
The changes in 1916 effectively outsourced to customers the labor of shopkeepers.
Before self-service, staff picked out each item from shelves behind the counter, much like Amazon’s warehouse employees or Instacart’s gig economy workers. In the novel self-service supermarket, the customer roamed the aisles, picking out ingredients to make at home. Harkened by siren brands with their bright colors and overwhelmed by the variety of choice fatigue when perusing twenty different kinds of flour, brands now marketed directly to consumers with labels vying for ideal shelf placement in the store.
Scrolling through an endless list of carrots, I realize how much I miss grocery shopping #irl. Organic carrots, baby carrots, rainbow carrots, bulk juicing carrots. My headache grows each time I click the next button on my browser, uncertain of what brand I used to buy at the store. Is there really a difference between these three different types of organic carrots, I wonder. After seven weeks of quarantine, I miss any excuse to leave the house at all. The COVID-19 pandemic reminds me of all of the things I took for granted only a few months ago when I shopped for our last dinner party. Remind me, how many decades ago was New Year’s Eve again?
Picking out my own limes is the thing I miss most. Waxy orbs gently radiating the faint scent of a place with sunshine even in the most austere linoleum-fluorescent supermarket. Not the bumpy reptilian fruit that I bruise my hands against, like squeezing water from a citrus stone since I switched to ordering all groceries online. My civic duty to flatten the curve. I miss these small tactile joys. To compensate for dry limes and effectively improve the odds of a good margarita later today when I “go home” from work by changing from my daytime pajamas into my designated nighttime set of pajamas, I click the arrow on the quantity button, requesting twice as many. How many juiceless limes is enough? Six? Twelve? Twenty? I reduce the number back down again, not wanting to look too insane to Charlie, the tall clerk at the local grocery store who usually fills the online orders.
With the advent of self-checkout, corporations have even gone so far as to outsource the labor costs of a cashier, conscripting customers to manage their own transactions at the register. Even security duties have been assigned to us in some stores, doubly saving corporations on payroll in addition to the money that we pay them at self-checkout. Some people love self-checkout. Personally, I’m waiting for the day when Whole Foods rolls out a new product where you get to butcher your own meat or bake your own cake in the store for $40.
Epidemiologists and other experts encourage us to use the “full-service” option, ordering online instead of risking exposure to the coronavirus. This is to help us social distance and “flatten the curve” of our current outbreak. Although just as in the 1918 pandemic, this is a privilege of the wealthier classes because many online ordering systems cannot or will not process food stamps for the remote transaction method. In some cases this is due to state regulations which adversely affect our most vulnerable, impoverished neighbors. This reality is reflected again in a morbid detail relic of 1918 when the Red Cross reported that many people died not from symptoms of the disease, but from starvation when people grew too afraid to deliver food and grocery stores closed.²
I review the pixelated vegetables in my “shopping cart” and try not to think about the perfect asparagus I got this time last year from my favorite vendor at Pike Place Market, located just a few crowded steps and within smelling distance of where they throw the fish. Perfect asparagus is elusively available once a year before the prehistoric grass turns into a fibrous bamboo-esque stick that feels more like gnawing on a tree branch than a spring vegetable to serve with dinner. Perhaps because it has such a short growing season and we all settle to take what we can get, I believe that good asparagus is severely underrated. Owned by a family whose grandmother sings to herself while counting oranges, she offers free kale to passersby until her granddaughter notices and ushers her back inside. I wonder too if the Hmong family who sells flowers at the market is doing well. Are they safely quarantined at home? Last spring the entire family fussed over assembling an opulent peony bouquet for my now-husband when he told them that he was going to propose to me at the library after work that afternoon. I miss farmers markets. I miss overhearing the hot gossip of store employees. I dream about picking out a chocolate bar and touching my face thoughtfully. Deciding on a whim to indulge in a different chocolate, I put it back on the shelf.
Clicking the cart icon in the upper righthand corner to checkout, I think about what I will wear on my one excursion out of the house this week during quarantine. I wonder what I would have worn, had I been alive during the 1918 pandemic. I click the final button on the transaction and pull my knees up to my chest, waiting for the confirmation code. More than anything in this moment, I just feel grateful to be living through a pandemic after the invention of the Internet, yoga pants, and hoodies.
1. Karg, Taylor. “With the Dush of a button: Consumable eCommerce gaining traction.” Beverage Industry, vol. 109, no. 12, Dec. 2018, p. 30+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.spl.org/apps/doc/A568154866/AONE?u=spl_main&sid=AONE&xid=4e2e8fa3. Accessed 8 Apr. 2020.
2. Barry, John M. “Pandemics: avoiding the mistakes of 1918: as bodies piled up, the United States’ response to the ‘Spanish flu’ was to tell the public that there was no cause for alarm. The authority figures who glossed over the truth lost their credibility.” Nature, vol. 459, no. 7245, 2009, p. 324+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.spl.org/apps/doc/A201086333/AONE?u=spl_main&sid=AONE&xid=474149a2. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.