This wasn’t always easy. No marriage is so perfect that both parties are in total agreement about how things ought to be managed domestically. One persistent area of disagreement between my late wife and I was where we did our family shopping.
She loved Waitrose … it was also about the people she came into contact with there.
She loved Waitrose. Partly it was the fancy food and customer service. Partly it was emotional and historical. Years earlier she had worked in the Waitrose store in our local town as a teenage student. But it was also about the people she came into contact with there – often other middle-aged women like her.
She hated shopping on a Saturday because that was, she said, when the men arrived. Tutting and eye-rolling as they queued, while she chatted amiably to her check-out ladies. She refused to see the encounter as rushed or transactional. And it was a mark of the impact she made that, at her Requiem Mass, a pew or two was filled by those same women from the tills.
I thought about those women as I calculated my household budget. It was a time of hard choices. If I was to keep working full-time in London, widowhood would mean lots of new outgoings. Laundry, cleaning, school runs. Some of it I could do myself, but not everything. To pay Peter, I would have to rob Paul. Amongst other economies, Waitrose was out, Sainsbury’s was in.
I made an early decision not to opt for home deliveries. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, I had time to repent of this decision at my leisure. But I didn’t really. I couldn’t afford to shop at Waitrose any more, but I could at least honour the idea of physically going to the supermarket and talking to the people who handed over my weekly bread.
And chat I did. Perhaps not so much as my late wife. But, compared to the people who preferred the charmless robotics of the dehumanised bagging area, I was garrulousness itself. And, going once a week, I gradually got to know the check out staff. Carol, with her wicked Northern Irish humour. Sharon with her toothy grin.
It pays to be nice to folk and at my local Sainsbury’s it made for an unofficial loyalty scheme. No matter how busy the store was, I rarely queued for long. Approaching the tills, often with several children on hand to help with packing, always with a trolley brimful with shopping, I would hear a colleague announcement on the tannoy system. It usually presaged my interception and redirection to an empty check-out.
It pays to be nice to folk and at my local Sainsbury’s it made for an unofficial loyalty scheme.
Earlier this month I did my usual weekly Friday afternoon shop. Carol looked uncharacteristically downcast. She started, as she always does, with the words “my love”, but this time adding, “we’re being closed down in January”. It had, of course, been rumoured before. There are two Sainsbury’s in my local town. And although the town is expanding fast, the smaller of the two stores – where I go – is rarely packed to the gunnels.
Along with everyone else, I’d assumed that Covid-19 put closure beyond consideration. The tills had never been busier than they had been earlier this year. What with the panic buying and the overspill from the nearby Asda. But close it will, even though Sainsbury’s overall sales jumped 8.5 per cent this summer, because of the pandemic. At a time when our retail grocery sector, you would think, needs all the floorspace it can muster, closing stores right now seems bizarre.
Strange too when you think that second and subsequent coronavirus waves may yet test the resilience of the just-in-time logistics practised by our highly efficient and, it turns out, vitally important food outlets.
And it seems an odd way of rewarding poorly paid shop-floor workers who were feted as heroes at the height of the crisis. Many of them were working with inadequate PPE, handling cash they knew might contain traces of the virus. I asked Sharon how much redundancy pay she’d be getting. It wouldn’t be right to mention a figure. Suffice to say that it was low enough for my jaw to drop.
An outlandish move also, to me at least, when I think of the people who shop there. Many of them elderly and isolated. Carol pointed. “Look at the bus stop there. They can get here easily. A lot of them don’t see anyone from one week to the next. They come here for a chat.”
As did I.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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