The modern supermarket
Gone are the days of the ‘old fashioned’ business, as it used to be called, when customers expected, and usually got personal service and polite individual attention. Shopkeepers, familiar from childhood would know exactly what individual requirements were. The butcher, providing the exact amount and cut of meat would ask questions in a leisurely way about families and health. The personal touch was the key word of such shops and so many of which, for better or for worse, have now been replaced by the supermarket which is an innovation from the United States.
Supermarkets are to be found in any large city in the world “The Cold Storage Stores”, “Jasons Supermarkets” and “Parksons Stores” in the Far East or ‘Fine Fare’ are examples of them; and whereas it was ‘the personal touch’ of older times, it is now an impersonal, quick, efficient shopping concept in the world of the supermarkets. Tinned goods of every description are stacked in perpendicular pyramids even in danger of toppling to the ground. Vegetables are pre-washed, prepacked or frozen. Meat is sealed in packets. Biscuits come in cellophane wrappers, not in the old-fashioned square tins anymore. Toiletries, wines, fish, cleaning materials all can be bought in one store. everything is priced, eighty cents, two dollars or whatever it is with an ink pricing stamp. At the entrance, and there are usually several of them, for supermarkets are by their nature large stores, are piles of wire baskets for purchases, some to be carried and some trolleys to be wheeled. In some supermarkets, there are even trollies to hold the baby ! So, elbowing this way and that, the thronging customers push and hurry through the columns of shelves taking this article and rejecting that. Huge signs seems to hang everywhere: Meat and a large red arrow, Frozen Food this way, Cosmetics First Floor: all are there for the buying.
‘Self-service’ is the rule in the supermarket and so ‘counter service’ has gone. Occasionally, assistants can be seen in colored OVERALLS CHECKING, STAMPING OR REPLACING PURCHASED GOODS. The latest ‘gimmick’ now is for assistants to wear their name printed on their overall. This is an attempt to recapture something of the personal touch and to make the thousands of anonymous customers feel at home. Only occasionally are these assistants asked a question. ‘Where are the cheese ?’ or ‘Have you any shark’s fin soup ?’ The world of the supermarket is so efficiently planned and cut and dried that there is no need for questions.
At the exits, organized and many, there are enormous cash registers with electric computers to calculate the bills. again, the personal touch is eliminated for there is no chance of human error here. Like lightning, the quick fingers of the cashiers snatch goods from baskets and venomously rap out the prices on the keys of the machine or they may be even de-coding the items. Jus occasionally a fleeting smile of recognition and no more. With equal rapidity, the machine, fed with deft figures, disgorges a long strip of paper : Each item may be individually named, besides the blue or black machine-stamped figures with the total at the bottom. And so out, leaving behind the wire basket and clutching their own from the racks provided, the customers rush away, anonymous ciphers in a busy bustling lonely world.
Although busy supermarkets have killed all individuality, they have of course got something to offer to the public. Speed is one of the bi advantages. Nothing need be fetched from back stores because all is on display to be taken. Prices are marked and so there is no need to ask. The shopper is independent and need not be hindered by slow assistants or inefficient service. The adding machines are so much quicker than the human brain and cannot be faulted in mental arithmetic.
Prices are cheaper too. Goods sold on so large a scale clearly yield a much greater profit than a small stock could ever produce. Some benefits of this finally reaches the customer. Fifty to eighty cents less for each article can make an appreciable difference to the final bill.
Cheap, efficient, quick, almost clinically streamlined service. What matters if the personal touch has gone ? Will the shopkeepers care for the particular rice or fish that Mrs. Wong has always had ? What matters if all is stereotyped, impersonal and unvarying and above all quick ? Such qualities are an intrinsic part of our modern life and whatever has been trampled underfoot by their arrival, they have come to stay.