Walking through Toronto’s Union Station a couple of weeks ago, it was hard to not notice the floor-to-ceiling advertisements plastered on windows and walls for Loblaws’ ‘Click & Collect’ grocery service. With promises to save time and deliver only the freshest products straight to your door, the PC Express app presents a tempting substitute for the traditional brick-and-mortar grocery shopping experience.
Two days later, I receive a flyer in the mail from Metro with the same guarantee. The company’s online store allows you to “save time without sacrificing freshness or quality.” And with Walmart’s entry into the business of what’s in our refrigerators, it seems like the era of online grocery shopping is upon us.
But at what cost to society?
Grocery stores have been around for more than 100 years, with the first self-service grocery store opening in Tennessee in 1916. Since then — whether or not they’ve been aware of it — these establishments have served as “shared spaces”: areas in our communities where people simply are together in the same place, at the same time.
Such spaces — think libraries, churches, swimming pools and barbershops — pave the way for serendipitous encounters with familiar faces, whether they be neighbours, friends, or the cashier that never fails to be at the till when you show up on Tuesday evening for your weekly haul.
These interactions may not be planned, and they may not be overly long or meaningful — but that’s exactly what makes them so special. Bumping into and having face-to-face conversations with people in spaces beyond our workplaces and homes have the powerful ability to shape a sense of belonging in and connection with the communities we work, play and live within.
This is thanks to “social infrastructure”, defined by sociologist Eric Klinenberg as “the physical spaces that allow bonds to develop” among friends and neighbours. Such infrastructure might not have the highly-visible, practical benefits of what might come to mind when you think of infrastructure — sewage systems or power lines, for example — but its value in shaping cooperative, safe and connected societies can’t be understated. This rings true in both the rural areas (where grocery stores are “economic drivers, community builders and meeting places”) and urban areas of a country like Canada, where people of diverse backgrounds weave together to shape the social fabric of the nation.
This is perhaps most evident in grocery stores’ relatively recent expansion of product offerings to include international goods that reflect the cultural makeup of the communities in which they’re sold. A casual stroll through the aisles can not only open up one’s palate to new worlds of culinary possibilities, but develop an appreciation for the traditions and creations of those who might not look like us, but enjoy eating just like us.
This sense of wonder and curiosity can fizzle out in the click-and-collect approach to grocery shopping. The experience of purchasing, making and eating food extends far beyond what our tastebuds experience — a sensory experience, grocery shopping can be just as much about the smell, sight, sound and touch of what’s on the shelves. This fades away in the face of quickly scrolling and tapping through our regular grocery list.
Of course, e-commerce is nothing new. According to the US Department of Commerce, there were 18.5 million Canadian online shoppers in 2017 — a figure that’s projected to rise by 5.21 million by 2021. But the implications of grocery stores launching online markets are a little different, given the products they offer to Canadians.
Despite being a marketplace brightly lit with cold, fluorescent fixtures, grocery stores act as a facilitator of social ties founded upon one of our species’ few universal languages: food. Its power in bringing people together, celebrating life’s greatest achievements and even transforming regions of conflict has been recognized and used by human beings for thousands of years.
Grocery stores might not have quite the same level of impact. But whether it’s asking a stranger about a type of cheese in their shopping cart that you’ve been eyeing, or chatting with an employee about a product sample, small interactions with our broader communities can have a powerful effect on our level of comfort, safety and happiness.
I don’t mean to suggest that a click-and-collect approach to filling up your pantry is just “good” or “bad.” There’s no doubt that being able to order groceries and have them delivered to your door is a lifeline for parts of our population — those with disabilities, the elderly, and the sick, to name a few. And having groceries delivered to you can mean more time to spend with friends and family
But it’s worth considering if this need to skip the trip to the grocery store — borne, for some of us, out of an increasingly busy lifestyle — is a Band-Aid solution to a deeper issue in our society. If we as human beings don’t have time to buy (let alone grow or make) our own food — that magical medium not just for nutrition, but for conversation — what does that say about what we value?
It’s a topic worth snacking with a friend over.
Thanks so much for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts on this growing trend or how shared spaces have played a role in your life. If you like what you read, feel free to check out my other posts and follow me.