November 3, 2015

Foodie supermarkets as the last hang-out place in a cocooning climate?

In an earlier post, I asked if there was going to be any type of place to replace the moribund coffee shop as a public hang-out spot.

Outgoing behavior peaked in the '80s, and was linked to particular types of public hang-out places -- the mall above all, but also video game arcades and roller rinks for youngsters, and bars and dance clubs for adults. As cocooning set in during the '90s and malls died off, the emblematic public hang-out space shrunk from the mall to the bookstore-and-more (Border's and Barnes & Noble). During the 2000s bookstores became abandoned, and the even smaller coffee shop took its place. Now that coffee shops are dead, I speculated that this would be the end, since you can't get any smaller of a hang-out place than Starbucks.

I was right in the sense that there are no new places where people linger indefinitely, perhaps showing up in a group or perhaps alone, and maybe interacting with other patrons and maybe not.

But there is a fairly large place where bustling crowds turn out every day, and where the patrons go in to feel an emotional rush by being part of that crowd. The only trouble is, nobody will linger there -- indeed, the nature of their trip requires them to leave as quickly as possible. And that is the foodie supermarket.

Sure, Whole Foods has tried to create a cafe / cafeteria kind of atmosphere outside of the main shopping aisles, akin to the mall food courts of the '80s or the Starbuckses of the 2000s. However, hardly anyone treats it like a cafeteria, campus dining hall, etc. The benches are usually sparsely occupied, and not for very long. A handful of folks show up with their laptops, like just about anywhere, indicating they want to hang out there indefinitely (while not actually paying attention to anyone else, of course). Still, very few do this, nowhere near the device-addicts' opium den that the coffee shop now resembles.

Nope, most of the crowd that goes there to feel a little excited in a social public place is there to pick up groceries. That's not to knock it, since this is about as open and letting-their-guard-down as people are willing to be in the 2010s. To their credit, they aren't walking around staring into their phone or laptop, they're mindful of their environment, including other people, and they actually make some eye contact and the occasional facial expression to strangers.

And since foodie-ism is a thriving cultural scene, it really does feel like you're all part of the same club, unlike the people who are filling up their cars at the adjacent pumps at the gas station. People look forward to going, and feel excited while they're inside.

Nevertheless, by its very nature a trip to pick up some groceries is destined to be brief, non-interactive, and inconvenient for groups to show up together.

Unlike clothes from the mall, books from the bookstore, or coffee from the cafe, what you purchase at the supermarket is going to spoil unless you get a move on. This is a built-in way for cocooners to avoid succumbing to the rare temptation they might have to hang out for awhile in public -- can't, ice cream melting, gotta go! It also supplies them with plausible deniability so they don't seem like an anti-social retard, like someone who showed up to a bar for a single drink and left in under 30 minutes on a happening night. It's not that I want to go -- I have to, or the food will spoil!

Moreover, you know that all the other patrons are going to be doing the same thing, so you're excused from not bothering them with any interaction. And they know not to bother you. And they know that you know that they know that.... It's all common or shared knowledge, so there's no awkwardness or misunderstanding about everybody keeping to themselves and clearing out ASAP.

Aside from other people being pressed for time, they're technically out running errands. They're supposedly in utilitarian mode, not leisure mode, so approaching them would be an interruption of their to-do list for the day. Wandering around the mall, browsing a selection of books, waiting for your coffee to cool off -- these are all clearly leisure activities. Filling up your basket with items to stock up the fridge and the pantry -- clearly not. Grocery shopping is the prototypical "errand-running" activity.

And why would you show up with friends to buy groceries? You're only buying for those in your household. At most you'd go with your spouse, cohabiting partner, or housemates. It's rare to see a group of friends shopping for groceries as a group -- and almost never if they're all guys (not counting a pack of homos cruising for their next STD). At the mall or at a dance club in the '80s, it was rare not to show up in a group.

Public places with large crowds cannot support much socializing unless small groups show up to begin with. An individual feels uncomfortable without an intimate home base to return to while out navigating the crowd, and it eases the tension for one group to approach another group, rather than one individual approaching another individual. Responsibility can be spread out over each member of the group, so no one feels the spotlight, as opposed to the will of the approaching individual being totally clear. Without this nesting of smaller into larger groups, the supermarket offers little opportunity to get to know anyone else.

The lack of interaction is even stranger when you consider that a lot of the patrons at any given time are regulars and may in fact recognize each other. But, no time to chat, the fresh spinach is wilting as we speak. It would be odd for regulars at a coffee shop or bar to never interact. Perhaps you only go as far as being friends within the cafe or bar, not outside, but that's a far stronger bond than making eye contact with another regular at the Whole Foods.

The only people you will regularly interact with are the cashiers. Cocooners may be afraid of socializing with their fellow community members, but not with someone who's being paid partly to exchange pleasantries with the customers. There's a clearer expectation of boundaries and not getting to know each other very well, if they're a worker and you're a customer.

Very few of the cashiers are middle-aged or old people (unlike the regular supermarket, where debt-saddled Boomers who won't retire are stealing jobs that belong to youngsters). They're chosen to be as hip and good-looking as possible, just like the baristas you got to know back when coffee shops were the go-to hang-out. But unlike the workers at Starbucks who you could chat with off and on, there's a constant rush in the checkout line at the supermarket, so unless you've got over a thousand dollars worth of stuff, you won't have much time to shoot the breeze with them, learn about who they are, what's going on in their lives, and so on.

In every way, then, the foodie supermarket is even less social as a public hang-out than the coffee shop, much less the mall from way back when.

Related to that is the increasingly narrow demographics of the regulars. Everybody from all groups used to hang out at the mall, including senior citizens who were there as long as the teenagers, and who also traveled in pairs and in packs. The bookstore narrowed it down quite a bit, mostly on age, but also on worldview, politics, and the like. The coffee shop, even more so.

At the foodie supermarket, it's narrower still: you don't see many people over 50, nor are there high schoolers looking for something to do after school. The sex ratio is biased much more in favor of women, especially in groups -- like I said, no group of guys would head off to a supermarket for a social trip. A good deal of wealth strivers rather than lifestyle strivers showed up to the Starbucks, whereas just about everyone at the Whole Foods is a hardcore lifestyle striver. They're almost 100% liberals / libertarians, and even higher in median income than the coffee shop regulars.

About the only advantage that supermarkets have over the earlier public hang-outs are the lack of colonization by creeps, weirdos, and bums. As normal people abandoned the mall, scummier people took it over. Ditto with bookstores, and now with coffee shops. Supermarkets are avoiding this because they do not lend themselves to squatting -- everyone goes in and comes out within 30 minutes max. Bums can't pretend to be shopping for items for hours on end, in the way they can squat in a bookstore or coffee shop all day long.

This would seem to be the end-point of public hang-out cocooning, since the arrival of parasites would eventually drive out normal people from the Whole Foods. Now that cocooners have discovered the strategy of hanging out on-the-run, they won't have to worry about the atmosphere becoming polluted after the dregs of society figured out that this is the place to creep out the normals.

Before too long, people will tire of having no public hang-out places whatsoever, and will get sick of having to sneak in their public "socializing" in 15-minute snippets while busily running an errand. With no bums and creeps around to remind them of the possible downsides of public hang-outs, they'll wonder why we aren't spending more time just enjoying each other's company at a leisurely pace in public. It's not like any bad people are going to show up.

Once that thought process begins, we'll start hanging out in public more, first only at the level that people were comfortable with in the late '50s, coming out of their Midcentury cocoons. It'll still be a couple decades after that for people to be as un-self-conscious in public places as they were in the '80s. But even that will probably happen within most of our lifetimes, so it's something to look forward to while we wait things out here in the doldrums.

10 comments:

  1. It is astounding to me how the malls have cratered as a place for white kids to hang out. Something happened in the early 2000's to kill that concept. When i go to the mall now it is filled with minorities, asians, blacks, mexicans, Indians etc. Very few whites and the ones you do see are actually shopping in the big stores like Macy's and not hanging out in the mall section. My own anecdotal explanation for this is 1. Millennial whites are not as "open minded" and multicultural as we are led to believe and hence avoid the mall like the plague. 2. Much fewer white kids compared with the explosion of immigrants/non whites reproducing. 3. On line shopping and Facebook virtual reality has replaced the brick and mortar hang out. 4. Revival of main street and more "hip" destinations. But this leads back to anecdote #1 on my list. Still makes me sad these kids do not have good memories that I have of hanging out in the mall, great times.

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  2. The biggest demographic in the mall tends to be middle-aged women and women with small children. Kids may stay away because not a lot of them have disposable income these days, and prices have become exorbitant.

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  3. "When i go to the mall now it is filled with minorities, asians, blacks, mexicans, Indians etc."

    White people are more likely to be helicopter parents, no matter if the climate is outgoing or cocooning. Black kids were more unsupervised than white kids in the '80s, as well as today. All groups are less outgoing than they used to, but this means whites hardly go out at all, while blacks and Mexicans will go out now and then, giving them a larger share of the mall-going population.

    Also important to remember that malls went into decline across the nation during the '90s, not just in southern California or Texas where the Mexican population was shooting through the roof. Midwest, Appalachia, you name it -- white people in white communities started abandoning malls 20-25 years ago.

    The handful of minorities who may be found there today are settlers of abandoned ruins, not a victorious army that crowded out an unwilling white population that still wanted to hang out at the mall.

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  4. Emblematic of the rapid abandonment of malls is Ogden City Mall in Ogden, Utah. In 1987 it was the setting of the video for "I Think We're Alone Now" by Tiffany, a #1 hit that was in constant rotation on radio and MTV. There must have been over a thousand people in the crowd for the shoot:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6Q3mHyzn78

    According to DeadMalls.com, it began fairing poorly already by the first half of the '90s, was bought out in the mid-'90s, and then closed in 2002:

    http://www.deadmalls.com/malls/ogden_city_mall.html

    Old VHS footage of the demolition, being cheered on by spectators, with triumphant music playing over a loudspeaker:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmGntFTNx_k

    As of 1990, Hispanics were only 4% of the Salt Lake City -- Ogden metro area, and most of their growth was during the 21st century. (Both cities are 20-25% Hispanic as of 2010.) So, the mall was abandoned well before there were sizable non-white populations in the area, which was still not only heavily white but heavily Mormon.

    Just 15 years between Tiffany packing the place for her music video, and its complete demolition. That's how fast people fled public places once cocooning began.

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  5. Suburban_elk11/3/15, 7:15 PM

    In most of the world the market is the common gathering area and it’s outside. But in this country the market is a store with a parking lot. Yay America.

    In the planning and development of the civic architecture, something went wrong. I guess that when things got built up, over the last 50 years or so, there wasn’t such a need for public space, because there were social bonds intact at the family and neighborhood level, and so things such as stores and markets were not built with that in mind - a need for public space, and what it provides.

    Malls, coffee shops, bookstores, grocery stores - none of these things is public space, they are all privately owned businesses. But their appeal is that they substitute for public space. And they try and pretend to fulfill that role.

    ***********

    People love to go and buy food. It is a quick and easy way to get something, and seem to accomplish something. It is probably more fun to go and buy the food than it is to eat it.

    The number one thing that “we” could do, in order to form a more perfect union (or something), is to establish open air public markets.

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  6. Interesting post. By the way, are there any trends you have noticed with regard to traveling to visit family/friends or hosting visitors from out of town, and the signature approaches cocooners bring to these roles? I am planning holiday travel and wish to avoid any bad habits I might've picked up from cocoon exposure. Thank-you for any insight you can muster.

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  7. "In most of the world the market is the common gathering area and it’s outside."

    In most of the world, there isn't that much rain, snow, humidity, strong winds, and extremes of hot and cold. Yay indoor malls.

    "Malls, coffee shops, bookstores, grocery stores - none of these things is public space, they are all privately owned businesses."

    Unlike the open-air market where all the vendors represent the government, the church, etc.

    The mall was the Western version of the Middle Eastern bazaar -- lots of small shops operating under a single over-arching climate-controlled structure. Walkable corridors, storefronts close to pedestrians rather than set back 50 feet, no vehicular traffic of any kind, skylights, fountains, plants, places to relax. Public restrooms (more available at a mall than any government-operated public place, or individual private stores).

    Most importantly, no expectation or requirement to buy anything just to hang out there all day long -- the opposite of a privately owned business where if you don't buy something soon, they kick you out. Super-shoppers subsidized the suburban flaneurs who rarely bought anything -- as long as the stores and the mall as a whole did good business, they didn't mind those who showed up for hang-out purposes only (unless they started trouble).

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  8. Born in California, so thankfully not added to Utah.

    But you missed the big story here -- she married her gay makeup artist. He's been a makeup artist for over 20 years and has gayface. And there's no pictures of them together (nor of their son). Smells like a sham marriage -- involving a Californian singer who's supported gay rights for over a decade, I know, sounds crazy.

    The twist is that he was just starting out in his makeup career when they married, and he isn't rich or good-looking, so he brought nothing to the marriage. She was cute, famous, wealthy (enough), charming.

    So it sounds more like he was covering for her. Either she didn't want to date, and he was her gay eunuch to ward off questions about why a beloved pop star wasn't getting married. Or she's lesbian herself and he's her beard. I shudder to think she's a rug-muncher -- lesbians aren't that cute and vulnerable. I'm going with her wanting to retreat from the high-pressure dating world of pop stardom, and picked the first convenient gay eunuch -- a makeup artist who she worked with on one shoot and had no history with.

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  9. In support of the "mere gay eunuch" idea, when they divorced in 2004, she married a blond white Englishman named Ben George, who has long hair (no gays wear their hair long), no gayface, only job I could find for him was as a businessman in industrial machinery sales. Therefore, not gay.

    She was just waiting to find someone and didn't want high-pressure popstar dating, let alone as her star was beginning to fade in the '90s. She needed to quietly retreat from the public eye, and not have any nagging questions about why she wasn't getting married.

    It's disgraceful that she sham-married a gay Aztec makeup artist, but eventually she saw the light and for-real-married a hetero Englishman (there are still some left, evidently).

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  10. My neighborhood YMCA is great.

    Packed with people who come regularly.

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