Flipping down the aisle

Roads have long been the familiar arena for manifestations of pyschotic behaviour. But Mike Evamy recently discovered another social battleground – the supermarket – where as a shopper, you are liable to come a cropper. And he sees design as largely to bl

Road rage has been a fashionable topic in recent weeks. But all this attention on cars has diverted us from a similar social affliction. Like road rage, it is a condition that can seize apparently rational people, and lead to acts of violence. I have felt it and smelt it, and I call it supermarket rage.

One Saturday afternoon, I was in Safeway. I had some milk, a bottle of Beaujolais and a ten-bag pack of Monster Munch in my basket. As I approached the Express Checkout, an overweight man with a beard and two catering size tins of pears was standing about six feet away from the back of the queue, looking around. Not sure if he was in the queue, I asked him. “What the **** do you think I’m standing here for?” was his reply, in which I sensed a slight touch of hostility. I had been contemptibly polite, obviously, and wondered whether I should say something to patch things up.

I took my place behind this lovely man, and we shuffled up. I could feel the temperature rising. He put his tins in a bag, and as he returned to the cashier’s side to pay, he gave me an old-fashioned, Nat Lofthouse-style shoulder barge. “What’s your problem?” I enquired as he walked off. He turned, walked back over and, with a blow from his right fist, gave me a dead arm. “No problem, mate. I’ll see you outside.” Off he went. A hundred mouths gaped open in amazement.

I was in no state for combat. It is 17 years since my last fight, and my fear of hospitalisation by two huge tins of tinned fruit outweighs my lust for blood these days. Pear man obviously hadn’t picked this up. Maybe he had seen me removing my glasses. By the time I got outside, he’d disappeared.

I’ve since suggested Safeway change Express Checkout to Express Yourself Checkout. Maybe a Basket Case Checkout would work. I’ve had time to wonder what had triggered this incendiary outburst. Maybe he was upset because Millwall had lost. Or his wife was making the largest pear tart in the world and had forgotten to buy the pears. Whatever, being in a supermarket had apparently tipped him over the edge.

Supermarkets are, without a doubt, tinder boxes for aggression. Think of all the terribly conceived features of modern supermarkets and the opportunities for conflict. Confrontations in queues are just the start of it. Consider the medieval devices on trolleys that refuse to give you back your 1. Then there are the bastard wire baskets that haven’t changed since Attila the Hun and destroy all clothing they come into contact with, womens’ tights being a hot favourite. And don’t forget the satanic bag dispensers for fruit and veg, followed by the fight over the last pineapple or bag of King Edwards. And, in case customers aren’t wound up enough, the retailers seem to enjoy moving merchandise around just for the fun of it.

Safeway is now trialling an on-trolley laser gun that allows customers to scan barcodes themselves and pay at an unmanned till. Great. The only problem is the random checks they’ll be carrying out to deter shoplifters from bypassing the payment stage. So leaving the supermarket could soon feel like going through customs.

Supermarkets spend millions on design and this is the result. Tim Greenhalgh of Fitch, at work on a secret supermarket project, homes in on what he calls “trolley rage” – the fanatical, ultra-competitive state that some shoppers get into. As with road rage, it is partly down to friction caused by the broad social mix found in supermarkets, but other factors are emerging. “Increasingly an issue,” says Greenhalgh, “is the clash between rapid and browsing customers.” There is more choice of food and more browsable non-food products in supermarkets now. Books are a newsworthy example, but in Sainsbury’s Savacentres you can buy a 400 mini CD system. “So browsers leave their trolleys in the way. That breaks the automaton mode of the people who just want to get their basics, who get angry and shove the browsers in the back,” Greenhalgh explains. Aisles act as bottlenecks. He suggests wider, better signposted aisles and the equivalent of escape roads – quiet corners – to break the oppressive monotony which would make customers feel more like customers and less like the kind of commodity they are picking up off the shelves.

Support these ideas. Or you may soon see shoppers with baseball bats in their baskets.

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