The experimenter sits me down on a desk chair with a forced smile. It spins and creaks slightly under my weight. She begins to explain the procedure and I’m distracted by her accent, unable to place it, East European, perhaps? What I’m here for is simple enough; a consumer insight programme designed by a group of probably conglomerate-funded Masters students who sincerely believe they’re making ground-breaking psychological discoveries.
My task is simply to go shopping. To stroll around the artificial supermarket they’ve set up in this disused theatre, buying what I would usually buy, taking the sort of path I would normally follow, and then answer their questions about my choices afterwards. After 1 hour I get to leave with a crisp £20 note, for hardly any mental tax at all.
“You are all ready?” asks the student with that slightly manic smile. Already what, I wonder, belatedly understanding her simple question. “Yes, of course,” I laugh, following her through the realistic glass sliding doors.
The setup is startlingly bright, clean, crisp. Piped music plays faintly from the tinny speakers. The shelves are arranged in their familiar rows, low enough to reach the top shelf, high enough to feel enclosed by the rows of boxes and tins. The student stands in the doorway holding her clipboard. As I step across the ‘Sup-O-Mart’ branded doormat she gestures mechanically towards a row of three miniature wire trolleys. I unclick one, and off I go.
At first it’s an oddly pleasant experience. I marvel at how neat everything is, how bright the colours of the simplified mock branding. In the fruit aisle I choose a box of ripe pears and some bananas reduced to 20p, that’s good and sensible, thrifty. Then onto carrots (with tops), tomatoes and courgettes (out of season but my favourite). I feel as though I’m on holiday, in a luxurious mini campsite supermarché, imagining what I might cook on my camping stove that evening.
A bit of fish wouldn’t go amiss; I imagine it’s a coastal village I’m staying in. I could smell frying last night and it was mouth-watering, so I head towards the deli counter. Casting my eye over the (plastic) fish bodies with glass bead eyes staring woefully up at me, I remember that I don’t like fish. The eyes look too real to be glass and I feel nauseous as I steer my trolley away.
The laundry detergent aisle is newly baffling. What do I normally use? I don’t see the brand here, there are only made-up ones like Flosh and Baz and Supawhite, and if it’s biological it does sound like it might have something living in it, yeast or a small life-form that folds the laundry after, as long as everything comes out as white as these damn lights dazzling me I’m sure it’ll be clean. I throw a huge bottle of Baz Bio in the trolley and its empty plastic rattles hollow.
It must be the lights but I start to feel hot, really hot, and I want to sit down. But surely I’ve only got a few aisles to go and it’s not hard, really. Just choose.
As I steer the trolley with butter-smooth motion around the corner my trainers squeak on the immaculate white tiled floor. No store has ever been this clean. There isn’t another soul here; it must be past closing time. I should hurry.
Crisps, my god so many crisps. Or rather, huge plastic bags of smaller plastic bags filled with air, red ones, green ones, blue, yellow, purple, black…towering above me and stretching to the end of the aisle. Barbecue and salt and chicken and cheese and vinegar and my god is there any food that hasn’t been basted over a slice of fried potato? Roast chicken. I reach for the orange… no, no, those were the ones my father likes but I hate because they remind me of the time I was sick at school. Or was that my sister? Why can’t I remember? If someone would only turn down these lights…
If I tore open every packet and spread the contents over the floor I could crush them all to crumbs with my shoes and they would be no flavour and every flavour. Except not, because they are air, pretend bags of air tying my memory into knots.
Dizzy now, I look out of the pretend-but-real window and see rows of empty red velvet seats beyond the bright strip lights, a huge crowd of nobody observing me in comfort. Over them, the reflection of the faux supermarket interior, me in the corner of the screen, a pathetic figure in winter clothes hunched over a near-empty trolley. Why are they watching, I wonder, and wonder if the piped music is the show’s theme tune.
My mouth is dry as I look around trying to decide on another direction to pursue. Which instructions to follow from the packets jostling for my attention, the cheap and the bright and the numerous things. Why are there so many things? How long do I have to stay? I don’t want anything, I just want to go home, I…
I decide what must be done. They will never know. I take a deep breath and race away from the audience, grabbing packets galore. Crisps, take them all. Oat biscuits, baby food, hair conditioner, raisins, floor cleaner, in they go. Spaghetti, tinned tomatoes, parmesan cheese, a newspaper with no date. Olive oil, tinned tuna, men’s razors, I’m running now, scooping things off the shelves as I run, my trolley overflowing as I head at full speed towards a door marked ‘Exit’. I can hear shoes squeaking, security must have spotted me, I laugh at their slow reaction as I burst through the doors and out into the street beyond with my stolen wares, my packets and boxes and tins of air and colours, and run until a wheel falls off the stupid miniature trolley, and collapse on the pavement laughing because I’ve won, I’ve won.
Written by Emma611.