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There is no 'back'

Back when I was working my first supermarket job, we had a bit of a joke.

Whenever anyone came in looking for something and asked us to 'just check out the back', we'd nod politely and duck out through the giant, flappy panels - and take a five minute break. Then we'd return, looking appropriately apologetic, and give the customer the bad news.

Because there is no back.

In most supermarkets, what you see on the shelves is what's in stock. The back is a loading dock and a skip bin, maybe a goods lift, a very beige break room and an even beiger cash office - but that's it.

It makes sense, if you think about it: why keep something out the back where you'll need to pay a staff member to bring it out on to the shelves, when you could just have everything available on display?

Bonus points - and by points, I mean dollars - if you can figure out from past buying patterns exactly how often things run out, so you can order them right as they do and not have anything sitting around any longer than it needs to be.

(You can probably see where this is going.)

This is a carefully calibrated system, and it doesn't take much to upset it. Say, for example, someone gave the very sensible advice to grab a few extra items every shop - perhaps buying two weeks supply of, say, toilet paper, instead of one. Suddenly, without anyone panic-buying anything, people are buying twice as much toilet paper. The system isn't set up to handle it, the shelves go empty, and suddenly we've got a national toilet paper crisis on our hands.

It's funny to laugh at the 'stupid preppers', but there's a reason you don't know anyone who's doing it: it's because most of us aren't. Most of us are acting pretty sensibly, and following the advice that's given to us - it's the just-in-time supply chain that's in chaos, not society.

It's interesting that our first instinct - and I include myself in this, I too have done the snarky tweets and the office kitchen eye rolling - is to blame each other at the first sign of trouble, when what we're really seeing is a crack in the smooth, seamless edifice of consumer capitalism. That might sound a bit radical, but I don't mean it that way necessarily - it's just an interesting illustration of which aspects of our society we're primed to notice, and which parts we're encouraged to let blend into the background.

Or maybe it's that making fun of 'dumb people' is funny, while realising that our way of life is predicated on the continued operation of a devastatingly complex and interlocking supply chain is scary, so we choose to pay attention to the former while ignoring the latter for our own sanity.

I guess what I'm saying is... it looks like maybe we're in for a tough time, whether that's from the virus or the economy or the climate, and whatever it is, we're in it together. Maybe cultivating a little faith in your fellow humans isn't the worst thing to do.

04 March 2020, 06:43PM · #rants

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