Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A late-night lesson from the produce aisle

When I was a kid, banks closed at 3 p.m. and weren't open on weekends. I remember this because trips to the bank had to be carefully scheduled. If you didn't go early enough, you risked having the rent-a-cop at the front door lock you out just as you approached the gleaming glass and chrome doors.

It was the same thing with regular retail stores. They were open regular business hours. Most stayed open late on Thursday night, resulting in big crowds in the checkout lane as working families headed out to fill their pantries and clothe their little people. Conversely, the world stood still on Sundays.

Over the years - don't worry, I'm not that old - the world gradually opened up. Changing legislation, an increasingly competitive business environment and evolving social mores made more liberal opening hours a reality for most of us. We now expect those doors to be open when we pull up - whatever time that may be - and are mighty ticked when they're locked and dark.

Quiet Sunday morning walks to the bakery to pick up bagels gradually morphed into noisier trips as traffic levels on this formerly non-working day built to near-midweek levels. It didn't evolve overnight, but evolve it did. Today's world looks, feels, and sounds nothing like the one in which I grew up.

These days, some stores never close. As I touched on in this week's photoblogging expedition to the grocery store, our neighborhood A&P has gone 24/7. I'll be the first to admit that when one of our munchkins involuntarily begins to violate the laws of gravity by projectile-vomiting supper onto the kitchen floor, I secretly thank the powers-that-be in some distant head office who decided to never lock the doors on this seemingly insignificant supermarket. Then, short non-denominational prayer over, I peel out in the minivan (yes, they do lay strips if you really try) and scoot my way to that friendly, glowing beacon in an otherwise dark night.

But as I cruise the aisles of the nearly-deserted grocery store on a non-emergency trip to top off our supply of breakfast cereals and bananas, I can't help but wonder what we've lost along the way to our need-it-now society.

There is no more planning. Period. As soon as we decide we want and/or need something (let's face it, want usually trumps need), it's off to the store we go. We don't time-discipline ourselves because, frankly, there's no longer any need to do so.

The silence of a Sunday morning stroll is history. The guarantee that there are certain days and times of day that are off limits to commercial activity is now an interesting relic of history, gradually fading in the memories of those of us lucky enough to remember.

I have short-listed a story on how stores - and regular folks like us - have adapted to a 24/7 world. I want to paint a picture of the 3-a.m.-shopper, to illustrate what's so unique about cruising the produce aisle at a time when normal folks really should be asleep. It's a picture I suspect most of us have not yet considered, but will ultimately need to as our own evolving existence makes middle-of-the-night shopping trips an increasingly real part of our lives.

On one hand, we gain. On the other, we lose. I'll leave it to you to decide how far ahead, or behind, we really are.


Mark said...

I remember when I was a kid, going to Scotland with the folks on a shopping trip. It was Sunday and shops weren't allowed to open in England. It was such an event!

opinionatedguy said...

I agree with you 100%, Carmi. I've noticed that the pace of life is much, much faster now. The increased use of "time-savers" such as computers, e-mail (communication is now expected to be quick), fax-machines and 24/7 shopping have had, in my opinion, a negative effect on society. I often wish for the good ol' days when we'd be frustrated that we couldn't shop on a Sunday. We didn't know what we had.

Rachel - Wicked Ink said...

Thanks for posting this, it has certainly spurred on many thoughts.

I think it's time for my family to start acting like we can't go shopping on a Sunday, to plan our excursions better, and spend more time together.


Amelia said...

Very intersting story, it really does signify how much the pace of life has changed for families.

In Western Australia, major supermarkets are NOT open 7 day a week. Like the olden days, we still queue up in the hundreds on a Thursday night!

Maybe we can learn something from the rest of the world, or maybe we will succumb and just want what we want when we want it!!

Jenny said...

Very interesting, Carmi. I was thinking about this the other day, as the independent grocery I frequent is closed at 8pm, and on most holidays, with reduced hours on Sunday.

The thing that strikes me is the lack of anticipation. TiVo allows us to watch programming on a whim. Christmas displays in August have us burned out by November. Fast food lures us with quick and now, stealing away the pleasure of aromas filling our own homes.