Rumination 69: It’s All Leek to Me

Continuing the retail-focused theme for rumination this week—let’s face it, I overthink a lot stuff at the shops—Natasha and I made a quick trip to Aldi on the weekend, after we had visited Coles and Country Grocer, where we buy our fruit and veggies.

I’ve long been a fan of the Aldi checkout experience, as they approach bagging with ruthless German efficiency. Yes, say ‘hello’ and be polite, but don’t linger for too long or expect someone to pack your bags for you. Not to mention, if things get really busy, they very quickly open another checkout lane to deal with the crowds, then close it when everyone has been addressed. They mean business.

As Natasha and I visit three different supermarkets in the one centre each week, we always display the printed receipts on top of the relevant bags in our trolley, just to show that we’re not dishonest or hardened grocery thieves. This time at Aldi, as the staff member behind the space-age, anti-COVID-19 super-sneezeguard finished scanning all of our items, she turned to me and said, ‘May I see your receipts for those other groceries, please?’. Natasha and I instantly flashed the two pieces of paper in her face.

She then continued, ‘Oh wow, that was quick, you must be used to doing that!’. After running her eyes over the receipts, she said, ‘Ah OK, there they are! Those leeks in your trolley look a lot like the ones that we have here’. We subsequently completed the transaction, said ‘thanks’ and left the shop.

As we walked through the centre to reach the car park, Natasha and I discussed this comment about similar-looking leeks, feeling somewhat baffled. There was no packaging or labelling on the leeks that we purchased so that certainly was not the reason for leek-theft suspicion. She must have thought that the leeks themselves looked the same.

Following this, we wondered, ‘How much variation could there possibly be between leek varieties at Australian supermarket retailers?’. Indeed, the leeks did look the same, as they are leeks! We had also purchased capsicums, mushrooms, apples, oranges and other fruit and veggies at Country Grocer before arriving at Aldi and I can tell you, having walked past the equivalent products at our final food destination, they all looked the same too.

Perhaps the next time that we visit Aldi, if I see the same person, I may have to strike up a conversation about the aesthetic similarities between varieties of this edible, elongated cylindrical bulb within the genus Allium—to which the beloved onion also belongs. Furthermore, we may even have to conduct a detailed analysis of said leeks, to measure the extent to which the vegetable’s flat leaf-sheaths overlap each other, when compared to samples from competing retailers. To conclude, depending on the enthusiasm of the Aldi staff member and their willingness to waste (undoubtedly measured) time at the checkout, we could even explore the history of this vegetable and its noble status as the Welsh national emblem.

Until then, it’s all leek to me.

Rumination 68: Beware the Bagging Area!

My last rumination was inspired by a trip to the shops and so is today’s. (To be honest, my next one will also refer to a recent shopping experience.) In general, shopping centres and supermarkets offer wonderful opportunities to observe the weirdness of society.

During our most recent trip to do buy groceries, we were forced to use the self-checkout machine at Coles, as a number of lanes with humans were closed due to social-distancing measures. Those that were open had long lines. Typically, I avoid using these contraptions because I find them to be slow, unreliable and an example of automation that does very little to help anybody, particularly those who would otherwise have a job in the exact same space if it weren’t for that machine.

This most recent experience confirmed for me why I do not use them. Although we followed the recommended bagging procedure, the machine froze after only one item had been scanned; we required a staff member to unlock it for us. I took the photo below in immediate frustration, with the intention of writing this piece.

The funny thing is that this occurred three more times after I took this photo. With each freezing of the machine, we had to wait like fools for the same staff member, who was responsible for all the other befuddled customers in the same area who were experiencing the same problem.

We wasted so much time at this checkout and watched others struggle. It leaves me wondering what the actual benefit of these machines could be, other than profit (due to not paying people). It certainly couldn’t be saved time and with the increased likelihood of shoplifting, that makes it even more confusing.

The next time that you visit a supermarket, if such machines are available and you can avoid using them, do exactly that to send the organisation responsible a message. The less that we use them, the better.

29. Mass versus Niche

Niche communities, identities and communication channels—they are a sign of the great diversity of interests, views and cultural groups in our society… but they can also be a sign of fragmentation. In a world that’s brimming with super-specific feeds, tailored content and targeted advertising, could some mass media actually offer a better way of engaging with major global issues and movements, such as #BlackLivesMatter? I (a white person) try to consider and discuss this respectfully.


28. A Potted Computing History with Special Ordinary Guest Andrew Canion

These days, most people take their devices for granted. As an antidote to this, I speak with fellow Microblogger and tech hobbyist, Andrew Canion. We share our early memories of computing, our current preferences, touch-typing origin stories and how we both ended up choosing the Mac as the hub of our digital lives. Last, we discuss where we’d like technology to go in the future.

Find Andrew Online


Rumination 67: Tailor-made Absorbency

Whenever I do the grocery shopping with Natasha, she often has to hurry me along as I spend time too much shaking my head at some of the ridiculous marketing, packaging and product installations that can be found around the supermarket. We all know that this environment is constructed to encourage us to buy stuff that we don’t need, however many people do not stop to critique some of the more ludicrous things. I make a point of doing it.

I do not have any children (yet), however for a long time I have been put off by the relentless gendering of products for young kids. This is one thing that I sometimes stop to observe. One product that stood out to me during a trip to the shops on the weekend was nappies. In this case, it was not just a matter of blue versus pink on the packaging, there was also this stupid claim:

Yes, that’s right: tailor-made absorbency is available for each sex! It’s now not enough simply to tell people which product to buy based on colour; we are supposed to believe that buying the incorrect nappy will lead to a less-than-optimum rate of absorption, which (who knows?) could lead to undesired spillage.

When I first read ‘tailor-made’, the image that came to my mind was one of a refined gentleman in a boutique, wearing a measuring tape around his shoulders, helping parents to measure up the finest disposable nappy for their new bundles of joy. This makes a huge difference for infants.

These days, we live in a world that is so saturated with products that companies are desperate to differentiate their own offerings in the most outrageous ways possible. Many things are simply a commodity, so they need that extra push. False advertising apparently is not permitted, however the definition of that term seems to have been made less clear. What does it really mean to advertise falsely today and how do we identify it? Clearly, if this sort of claim of ‘tailor-made absorbency’ is allowed, false advertising must be so blatant—such as the reporting of a completely false statistic—for it actually to be noticed. The thing that makes this claim so laughable and yet apparently not false enough to be challenged, is that it is a mass consumer product that is being sold with the message that it has been customised. No one is taking their baby to a gentleman in a boutique to make this possible.

Disappointingly, I also believe that responsibility falls on consumers in general to call this out or make a change and they’re not going to do it. Even with all of the chatter about content and messages being ‘targeted’ and ‘personalised’, you would hope that people would realise that what they see in their online feeds, on the physical supermarket shelf or in their ‘watch-next’ queue is not really personal or tailor-made at all.

Despite what many say, I believe that we continue to live in a mass culture—it’s just that we only see a sliver of that which is delivered en masse, because we’re dim enough to inform marketers of what it is that we like. It’s the same old mass culture dressed up as personal in a saturated market of fragmented options. Online, for instance, although people may see TikTok or Instagram videos that match their interests, what is it that everyone’s talking really about? It’s the networks themselves: TikTok and Instagram. This goes back to Marshall McLuhan’s classic aphorism: the medium is the message. The personal messages that we receive matter very little (if at all); it’s the medium/platform that exerts this influence and we’re all still using the same stuff. That’s mass culture and it being sold to us falsely.

Bringing it back to nappies, I would simply say this: do not buy anything that makes such a spurious claim on its packaging or description. If you do, you’ve just told the manufacturer and its marketing people that what they have done is OK. When you think that something is ‘tailor-made’ or ‘personalised’—whether on a shelf or online—and fail to see a boutique gentleman with a measuring tape, question if it really is the case.