Similar to my previous piece, this is an extract from a larger project I completed as part of my material culture module.
For this lab session, I decided to “follow” my friend who ordinarily does her shopping on the online supermarket – Occado. She has asked to remain anonymous and shall be referred to as “Jessica”. I met Jessica last year as she lived in the same halls of residence as my girlfriend (although Jessica and my girlfriend have known each other since childhood). Now, they live together with one other flatmate, all of whom are students at a large London university. Jessica studies medicine and holds American, Italian, and Swiss citizenship.
I went over to Jessica’s Fulham Flat on a Tuesday evening. As my girlfriend lives there, I am often there. Sometimes I am referred to as the “fourth flatmate”. On this occasion, it was just me and Jessica home. She was cooking at the time so I sat down to jot down some expectations for the shopping experience.
- What are your general expectations of this kind of shopping?
- What might it be for?
- As Occado is a supermarket, I imagine it will be for groceries. I imagine it is faster than shopping in person, largely because we don’t have to move anywhere, and there are fewer reactions.
- Do they have an image in mind beforehand of what kind of thing is to be bought, and what it will be like?
- I know Jessica to be a very health conscious person, who drinks a lot of almond milk. She was briefly a vegan last year, but gave it up due to health reasons.
- I asked Jessica if she had a list, she told me she looks through her cookery books, picks individual recipes, and selects the ingredients from those recipe lists.
Consider the layout of the shop.
- How are products presented?
- There is a “featured” items and “favourite items” on the homepage. Favourite have been bought before. This is the Occado homepage. The customer is introduced to the service with pictures of fresh, healthy food, and the offer of money off their purchase
What is the actual experience or event?
- The experience is sitting at a laptop on the dining room (which was also the living room) table. I asked her if she normally did her food shopping at the dining table, and she told me that she did, as the cookbooks were kept on the bookshelf in the living room.
- There was a pile of cookbooks on the table. We sat down and Jessica took one of the books, opens to a page for “spiced roast cauliflower” and searched for turmeric on the web page. Then the oven beeped and she shot out of her seat shouting “my potatoes!” and went to check on the potatoes.
- It turns out the potatoes weren’t ready yet, but it this was interesting, as it is something unlikely to occur in an ordinary shopping trip; no more
- Jessica went back to the cook book and search the down the list of ingredients and clicked add to basket each time she needed something. Not everything on the ingredients list was needed, because she already had them in her kitchen.
- Shortly afterwards, Jessica searched for courgettes. She said, “oh no! out of stock!”. I asked her what she would do instead of the courgettes and she explained that actually it was only the organic ones which were out of stock, so she would begrudgingly buy the inorganic ones.
- She later expanded that inorganic ones have pesticides on them, and this is her objection to them.
- Jessica then logged onto the thermomix website (Jessica has a cooking device called a thermomix, with the device is included some recipes, and more are available online).
- She found they weren’t all free, and instead started to look through her books alternative recipes.
- At this point the oven timer went off again and she went to get her potatoes from the oven. She is currently munching on them.
- Outside of the recipes in her book, Jessica also bought some basics, like eggs and whatnot.
- She commented the Eat Natural bars were on sale, and so she was buying a lot of them (though I didn’t see how many were actually added to your basket).
- Jessica then told me she did that with expensive things, like salmon, if they were on offer and would freeze them.
The kinds of products bought, technologies involved, and the platform of shopping online says a lot about Jessica’s social class. Shopping patterns speak very highly to an individual’s social class in the United Kingdom (Miller, 1998). The particular style of healthy foods, use of thermomix, and reputation of Occado as a shopping platform (which is similar to Waitrose) is indicative of a well-off upper middle class individual.
- Then, unprompted, Jessica showed me what happens if you click on the favourites tab: you are shown a list of your commonly bought, or recently bought items. She tells me she often clicks on the favourites tab to see if she’s forgotten anything, and then often buys things she likes which she didn’t intend to.
- She then seemed to become distracted scrolling through the favourites.
- Then she started scrolling through the offers tab, just to see what there is.
- Jessica then went back to scrolling through “ooh, they put pinto beans on here” She told me they had good but weird stuff on there.
- It seems to me that what Jessica referred to as weird
- She then told me she’ll review her cart to see if she really wants all the things she clicked. She deleted sweet potatoes, explaining she loves them, but has eaten them a lot recently.
- Then she checks Facebook briefly and responds to a message.
- She told me she was done, and the final cost was £55.10.
- Shipping was free with “Smart Pass” which cost £3.99 a month. Otherwise shipping can go up to 8 pounds a shop.
- Then she presses order. You can choose an hour time slot, up to three weeks in the future. She tells me she always orders for the next day.
- As it’s the night before, most of the delivery slots were taken, we realized that because she was at a play tomorrow evening and her flatmates would be out in the evening, she wouldn’t be able to pick up the order tomorrow. She seemed very upset.
- She then flicked to apple calendar and marked the delivery slot in.
- After pressing order, the next page that loads tells you how much you saved on smart pass. She saved
- She then immediately closed Occado and opened WhatsApp web and Facebook. Checked them both briefly and got up to put the recipe books away, stumbling on the laptop’s charging cable.
- This process lasted around 30 minutes.
Notes after that fact:
Throughout this process, there was a strange dynamic between Jessica and me. We are friends, and hang around with each other often. But Jessica wasn’t speaking to me as she normally would, it was as if she was presenting what she was doing while were doing it, as one might make a presentation to a classroom. This got stopped a little bit when I told her she didn’t need to walk me through the shopping process, and that I was here to observe. I later realised the strange way Jessica was talking was due to how to position’s we now had, mine as a researcher and her’s as a subject, the power dynamic of our relationship had been completely altered without my realising, hence her feeling the need to perform.
It further occurred to me later that while in some ways this was a much faster shopping experience, in other ways it was much slower. While the act of purchasing the food had taken only 30 minutes, and required no travel time, a key difference is that at the end of the act of shopping, Jessica did not have her groceries, and needed to wait until Thursday, in two day’s time, before she would have it.
Other interview questions
Adam: How does it compare with other shopping?
Jessica: Oh, it was awful. I used to spend several days compiling an Occado order, I would just add to the page as food popped into my head. Now though I do the planning ahead of time and it has become much faster.
Shopping for necessities (as with grocery shopping) is usually viewed as work (Miller, 1998). One of the great benefits of Occado is that the process of shopping can be broken up, so instead of one large piece of work, it is several smaller pieces of work, spread over time.
In addition, sitting at the table on the computer is a different experience to shopping with an individual in a shop. In the case of the latter, both are engaging in work. In the case of the former, only the individual at the commuter is working, and any individuals nearby are not. This creates a form of liminal atmosphere, whereby the person at the computer can switch instantly between working and socialising whilst doing their shopping. This is evidenced by the fact that Jessica was eating chips and chatting to me whilst doing her order. We had the social aspect of mealtime, but the work aspect of shopping.
A: Do you ever go to a physical shop?
J: For special occasions I’ll go to a physical shop, if I want to bake something and need some special ingredients, or something like that.
A: Do you always stick to your list; do you buy what you intend?
J: I pretty much always stick to the list, unless there is something on offer.
The seems likely a product of the online shop. At this point, I wanted to know what social relations and responsibilities are involved:
A: Do you only buy for yourself, or do your flatmates ask you to get things for them too?
J: I’ll sporadically buys things for them, but not often. If they’ve asked me too it’s for a specific item that they need in the moment because they’ve asked her to, for a specific item.
A: Do you always collect it from the door, or do your flatmate’s sometimes collect it for you? I ask because I remember once, when I was waiting to be let in to the flat the order arrived, and I signed for it myself.
J: [Laughs] Yes, thank you for that. No, generally I collect it myself, but on occasion they collect it for me. I remember once I left the house to go rock climbing, and I forgot to get my order!
A: Is this a standard sized order for you?
J: Yes, I know it’s expensive, but I spend a lot on food. Food is very important to me, and fulfils a big role in my social. I don’t drink, so the money I might otherwise alcohol goes into buying food. I cycle everywhere, so the money I don’t spend on transport also goes into food. I like to bake, and that’s a good excuse to invite friends over so that we can bake together and try the food. This isn’t an exceptionally high cost food order, but it is in the high range of what I would spend. I bought a lot of long life goods this time around.
A: Such as?
J: Like this time, I bought a lot dates, which I use to cook with.
A: The friends you cook for; do they drink often?
J: Most of them drink, perhaps average for a student, but not very often. I guess their priorities are different. We would rather spend Friday nights at a climbing gym than at a bar.
This shows shopping as an act of love (Miller, 1998). It is not the same kind of love that Miller is referring to, but nonetheless through shopping (and subsequently baking, Jessica maintains relationships with her friends (Miller, 1998). Furthermore, the act of ordering ingredients for baking encourages the sharing of the product of those ingredients.
A: Do you do all of your shopping online unless it’s a special occasion as you mentioned before?
J: Not unless I’m craving something in the moment, or I forgot something on Occado.
A: Do you do your non-food shopping online?
J: Generally, no.
A: Any reason why?
J: I consider them “convenience goods” like tooth paste running out, so I just buy it in the moment.
The house is opposite a Sainsbury’s local, so these are easy to obtain.
A: How about cloth shopping?
J: No, I like to try clothes on.
A: Is this a weekly shop?
J: Pretty much, may a little more, 8 – 9 days.
I wanted to know how the people around Jessica influenced her shopping choices, which is how these following questions were chosen:
A: Do you ever buy things for you to share with your flatmates?
J: You know I’m not sure. Occasionally we use each other’s tea, but not really, hmmm.
A: Do you ever buy food with [your boyfriend] Gary in mind?
J: Yeah, sometimes! I think about him so we can cook together. He’s a vegetarian so I think I’ve started buying more veggie meals. I only generally eat fish anyway, so it’s not such a big change.
A: Do have any special dietary needs you buy for?
J: Yes, I eat gluten free and dairy free. I don’t actually need to, I’m not intolerant to either of those, but I have an auto-immune disease, and eating this way helps my stomach not to act up as a result of it.
With some prompting, Jessica revealed that the auto-immune disease was Lupus. She seemed embarrassed by this, and only wanted me to include it if I were to anonymise her. Thus, although large aspects of Jessica’s identity are represented in her shopping basket, it also reveals aspects she would rather minimise. In doing her shopping in front of me, Jessica was also constructing her identity: the food items she chose were her way of influencing how I perceived her. Me asking into areas she would rather not draw attention to made her uncomfortable, because I was taking away the control she had over how I perceived her.