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.