What Happened to In Person Interaction?

place social connection Apr 26, 2023

Grocery shopping can be a miserable and depressing experience these days.

Recently, I shopped at a Whole Foods store in Austin, the birthplace of the company in 1980. I managed to park my car in an underground garage, walk up the stairs, collect my groceries, pay through the automated check-out system, get my parking ticket validated and exit the parking garage all without having to interact with a single person. Amazon, the parent company of Whole Foods, is going a step further with their Amazon Go convenience stores which are cashierless (i.e., not staffed by a person) with customers able to purchase products without being checked out by a cashier or using a self-checkout station.

Whole Foods is not alone in this effort to “reinvent” the shopping experience. Even more recently, I shopped at a large Kroger store in Cincinnati, the location of the company’s headquarters. Shopping on a Thursday night, there were ten check-out stations open. The catch was that none were manned by a person, despite some employees mulling around. Several of the automated check-out stations featured conveyer belts. What was once designed for a small number of purchases can now accommodate a full grocery cart of stuff. One has the *opportunity* to scan and place all items on the conveyer belt. Once all items are processed and paid for, one gets the "delight" to walk to the end of the station and bag the items. The process is not only depressing and lonely, but it also takes longer as you are responsible for doing it all.

Get ready to handle your grocery shopping experience solo - no matter how much you buy (Source: Kroeger)


Efficiency vs. In Person Interaction

Abetted by the desire for higher profit margins and difficulty hiring and retaining employees, companies of all types are exploring ways to reinvent their business and customer workflows to be more efficient. If successful, the companies are rewarded with greater worker productivity and higher profits. Shareholders like these outcomes.

The challenge is that shareholders are not the only stakeholders in our community. People who shop are stakeholders, too. And grocery stores can serve as third places where people can gather and interact contributing to the overall health of the community (social scientists call this “social capital”). Ironically, Whole Foods’ flagship store in Austin was designed for human interaction with a coffee shop, bar and ample places for eating meals with others.

Opportunities for in person interaction elevate our sense of belonging. Interacting with strangers or acquaintances – referred to as “weak ties” according to social scientists – can increase one’s happiness.

Recognizing the downside of automated checkouts, a Dutch grocer has introduced a "chat checkout" (Source: Jumbo)


Some Countries are Pushing Back

Concerned about the negative social impact of efficiency, some countries are encouraging efforts to be deliberately inefficient. Several years ago, the UK established a Minister of Loneliness to systematically create ways for citizens to interact. As one example, the UK has been reticent to close some of its remote, little used post offices for fear that residents would lose an important social hub for interaction.

A Dutch grocery store, Jumbo, has introduced a “chat checkout” for customers who are not in a rush and want to converse with the cashier. These “slow lanes” were first introduced in the summer of 2019 as part of the government’s One Against Loneliness campaign. The feedback for the initial pilot has been so successful that they plan to build 200 of these lanes across the nation. This family-owned grocer sees their stores as “the heart of society” and facilitating social interaction is part of their role.


Whole People Need In Person Interaction

Whole Foods stated purpose is “to nourish people and the planet.” According to the dictionary, nourish means “provide with the food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition.” While Whole Foods is a global leader in providing food essential for nourishment, it is clear that their interpretation of nourishment is too narrow; facilitating human interaction is part of what’s necessary for proper nourishment.

For each of us, in person interaction is part of what’s required to be whole. If modern society makes it more difficult to interact with others in the normal course of life, greater responsibility falls on the individual to make sure such interactions happen. Slowing down, being less efficient and striking up conversation with those around you may be part of the trick.


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