Thursday, November 26, 2020

Consumers live dream in aisles of grocery stores

I have something to confess. Now, I’m not one to wax neurotic about myself. Frankly, I have largely given up on trying to understand the inner workings of my own psyche. I will say from the start that this column is not about me. It’s about the society we live in and what it does to people. With that disclaimer behind us, here it goes.

I go to the grocery store to feel loved.

I know. It sounds sick, but please let me explain. I first became aware of this habit in the last couple of months. I used to only go to the grocery store every two weeks or so, usually with a mental list of specific things I needed to buy. Lately, though, I’ve found myself stopping in at the Shop-Rite Super Food Market more frequently and with fuzzier reasons - just to pick up a pack of cigarettes, or to get some milk and toothpaste. Even this habit is changing.

Now, I tend to go with no particular purpose. While walking there with my friends, I tell them, “I’ll know what I need to buy when I see it.” So, I go there just to wander. For me, it truly is a wonderful place. I go up and down the aisles just wallowing in sensory bliss. There’s flattering lighting and brightly colored packaging, the sounds of clattering shopping-cart wheels and soft music. There’s the exotic smell of the fresh produce and the delicious free-sample cheese cubes. I’ve grown to enjoy the feel of the smooth cardboard, plastic packaging and that icy chill from walking down the frozen food aisle. And the best part of this weird little indoor carnival is that it’s all there for me, the shopper. The happy cartoon characters on the cereal boxes and the bold and effective lettering on the laundry detergent are there reaching out to me, communicating the message that if I simply put them in my cart, I will lead a happier, better life. The promise is unconditional and unpretentious. All they ask me to do is to consume.

Typically, I walk out of the grocery store having bought at least something. Sometimes it’s a package of licorice, sometimes orange pop, sometimes a little packet of Pokémon stickers for a friend. More often than not, I walk out of there with a box or two of those little white cancer treats to which I’ve lately become so addicted. But sometimes, I don’t buy anything at all. Just looking at things, having so many options, and being able to touch a colorful bag in the snack food aisle and say to myself “corn chips” is comforting to me.

I know I’m not alone in this. A friend of mine has been known to walk into a supermarket, grab a shopping cart, and go up and down the aisles selecting all sorts of random groceries. Without enough money to actually pay for it, she leaves her half-full cart in a desolate corner by the bottle machines, walking out of the store without buying a single item. I usually don’t carry things to this extreme, but I can understand why she does it. It’s the notion of power, excitement and choice produced from shopping that drives her. All of this culminates in a distant promise of future happiness and consumer satisfaction. The promise alone is enough to please her, without her having to go to the trouble of realizing it by going through the checkout line.

By now, friendly newspaper reader, you are probably confused. “What’s your point?” you ask. “Why are you not talking about something important? Like the election scandal or gun control?” The answer is that I think this particular pathology of mine, this unconscious feeling of being appreciated and loved that I derive from the supermarket, is indicative of something importantly wrong with our society. I get the feeling I’m not alone. If you don’t believe me, take some time to visit a shopping mall. People are always there. They spend hours going to different stores, trying on different clothes, flipping through the CD racks, looking at watches. They are perpetually on the road to betterment, seeking out all the newest and coolest things to own. They are spurred on by the idea of an improved self - the hope of becoming someone who has more fashionable clothing, nicer toys and a happier life. The supermarket operates on the same kind of promise. The only difference is that there, the music isn’t as loud or as hip.

The problem, however, arises from the fact that consumption quickly has become the central defining process of people’s lives in our society. It is what everyone works for. Look back on your life. What has been the driving force behind everything you have done? You received good grades in high school so that you could get into a good college so that you could get a nice job and hopefully, someday, be able to have nice things. You will work long weeks and tiresome hours, all to help you get the money you need to buy the things you want. You have seen, on average, 3,500 advertising messages a day, all designed to stimulate desire. You have been raised to be a good consumer.

This is perhaps why the grocery store and the mall are such holy places in our society. They are the temples where the actualization and fulfillment of our consumerist desires take place. If you buy a six-pack of Coca-Cola, you probably on some subliminal level think back to the commercial with all the young cool people dancing around a bonfire in the woods, enjoying themselves immensely and drinking Coke. To some small extent, you are hoping to capture a piece of that pleasure. You are, however, buying into a lie thought up by marketing executives in a boardroom at The Coca-Cola Co. Has a can of soda ever actually delivered on such an extravagant promise?

My point, I suppose, is that we are all victims of this culture of desire. We are so unwittingly driven to consume that even the mere idea of consumption has the aura of something sacred, even though the happiness it promises may just be a big lie. This is why the grocery store is a happy place.

Unfortunately, I can’t propose any real solution. This is our society and how it operates. My only hope is that, by reading this article, you may be driven to question your motives. Meanwhile, look for me in the canned foods aisle, drooling over the labels.

Drew Roach, a State News undergraduate columnist, can be reached at roachand@msu.edu.

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