Can grocery shopping make people less lonely?

Discussion
Photo: Jumbo Supermarkets
Sep 26, 2019
Matthew Stern

Social isolation is a public health problem that many sources identify as having grown to epidemic levels in the U.S. and globally. A recent in-store initiative by a grocery store in The Netherlands seeks to address loneliness among its shoppers. 

One location of the privately-owned Dutch chain, Jumbo Supermarkets, has launched a special “chatter checkout” line and a coffee corner both aimed at helping people who feel isolated socialize on their shopping trips, according to an article on Produce Retailer. The specially labeled checkout line invites people who are not in a rush to stay and talk with the cashiers. The coffee area encourages people to talk with volunteers from a local foundation.

The idea of slowing down shopping trips, may seem counter-intuitive. People shop online to avoid having to deal with checkout lines and utilize solutions like BOPIS and scan-and-go to minimize the amount of time that they spend in-store.

As checkout streamlining technology has grown more popular, though, opponents have occasionally drawn a connection between speeding up grocery trips and the loss of social connections.

An Oregon labor leader, for instance, recently brought about a ballot initiative to limit the number of self-checkouts in grocery stores, citing them as, among other things, a contributing factor to social isolation, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

It is not clear, however, the extent to which facilitating chatting between customers and cashiers or foundation volunteers, as is the case at the Jumbo location, would make a meaningful dent in the broader problem of social isolation.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association labeled loneliness as much of a public health hazard as obesity, according to a story on MarketWatch.

While often thought of as a problem that afflicts primarily the elderly, a U.S. News & World Report article indicates that young adults also experience social isolation and loneliness at an alarming rate.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Could grocery stores impact social isolation with such initiatives as “Coffee Corners” and “Chatter Checkouts”? Do you think people would make use of these types of services, and are there other — perhaps better — ways that retailers could help alleviate social isolation?

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Braintrust
"Any experience that allows for recognition and confirmation of the innate value of others is good in my book."
"There were a lot of us who saw social isolation becoming a problem ahead of the social media revolution. Just read Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.”"
"It would be a sweet irony that robots replace people in retail jobs for other people to be employed in retail to talk to those replaced!"

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25 Comments on "Can grocery shopping make people less lonely?"


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Art Suriano
BrainTrust

It’s an exciting concept, and I see it having some level of success. I agree that we, as people, have become less engaged with others. Today there seems to be a bit too much of “it’s all about me.” Online shopping rather than visiting the store, texting rather than picking up the phone and speaking, and streaming rather than going to the movie theater has gotten us used to tremendous convenience and immediate satisfaction. However we have lost the desire for human interaction and, for many young people, they cannot communicate and engage in a discussion or have an enjoyable conversation. This program is a step in the right direction but only in time, when technology finally gets to the point that individuals lose interest in the next best thing because they will feel that they have everything they need, will we find a balance between interaction with machines and the human being. I’m not ready yet to give up on humanity so, for now, I’m remaining patient.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Definitely! It is a fact that many elderly people have daily routines that take them to places where they know the shopkeepers, and the shopkeepers know them. These visits are a vital (pun intended) part of their existence and social interaction. They are not couch potatoes but, in their way, active members of their immediate community. Newsstands, grocery stores, coffee bars, post offices, banks, beauty parlors/barbers, and a weekly tennis/pickle ball match, can all be an attraction to the aged. The retail formats that know this will benefit from welcoming them with a friendly environment.

Evan Snively
BrainTrust

Jumbo’s initiatives are certainly worth pursuing, and I imagine will have a certain level of success with older generations.

One of this issues for younger generations is not an isolation from others, but rather an OVEREXPOSURE to others, specifically to loose social connections. So while the term “social isolation” might be an accurate representation of the feeling one has when experiencing it, it is not representative of the cause, which is complicated.

But back to the Jumbo initiatives – any experience that allows for recognition and confirmation of the innate value of others is good in my book.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Can grocery stores impact social isolation? Absolutely! Have you visited a Wegmans? Attended one of its Friday night dances or shared a table with a stranger for dinner or a glass of wine? I’m good with anything that brings people together, and the grocery store seems the perfect place to start.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This is one of the most important things people forget about retail: visiting physical stores isn’t always about the need or desire to procure physical goods. It is an easy form of interaction and a way of engaging with the wider world in a space that is convenient and designed for sociability. Taking this to the next level with functions specifically designed to encourage interaction makes a lot of sense.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

We’ve spent the last decade doing everything possible to avoid connecting with others: online shopping, texting, Facebook, etc. But humans are social animals, and it appears that our need for connection is beginning to push the pendulum back.

Grocery stores have the highest frequency of shopping trips of all retail, so making the store a place for social connection makes tremendous sense. It’s more than “chatty checkouts” though. The first step is to get more people (i.e., employees) out talking to shoppers. And creating gathering spaces makes a lot of sense. This isn’t just about seniors — we are all looking to connect.
Putting more effort here would benefit the community, and help to create a loyal shopper base for the store. Forget the robots – let’s invest in humanity.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

In our digital age, face-to-face contact has become more powerful — and rare.

That’s why grocery stores make an ideal fit for local social initiatives. Most consumers shop for groceries at least once a week, so grocery stores could help those who feel isolated by giving them weekly opportunities to feel like they belong.

Since the nature of food is communal, grocers’ social initiatives could instill a sense of community that offers meaningful social benefits.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Yes, grocers can make a positive impact and yes, I do think that where appropriate, shoppers will participate. This is a very positive step towards helping people that feel isolated and yes, not just for seniors but young people as well who use social media to such an extent that they are sometimes more isolated than seniors. The art of conversation is something that many young people struggle with. It is not the responsibility of the grocer to do this, but you see grocers in Europe doing this which is consistent with the way many other countries treat and in fact cherish their elders. In a way, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble have been doing this since day one. Although most will be engaged with their phones or computers, there is human interaction as well. Bravo Jumbo!

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
Well, well, well. Here’s an idea I wrote about 30 years ago finally come to fruition. Three decades ago I looked at the demographics and extrapolating forward concluded all retailers, but especially supermarkets, had the opportunity to build customer loyalty through compassionate capitalism. Twenty years ago Fred Crawford and I pushed the same idea even further in our book “The Myth of Excellence” arguing that businesses were being called on to offer people the same reinforcement they had previously found in church, work and school. There were a lot of us who saw social isolation becoming a problem ahead of the social media revolution. Just read Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.” And now Jumbo has taken the plunge. Can grocery stores positively impact this problem? Of course, and smart ones will. Will people make use of these services? Hang out with any retired Boomers and see if that is still even a question. Are there other things retailers could do like providing community meeting spaces for everything from adult education to lectures on aging? Sure, the sky… Read more »
Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Ryan, you were right then and you are right now. You were ahead of your time and American grocers should have been listening more carefully.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Thanks Zel,

What I missed then was that young and middle-aged people would also be as lonely, or lonelier, than aging Boomers. The pressures of working remotely or alone in gig economy jobs, the demands of keeping up with 24/7 social media, the ongoing breakdown of community-based institutions, economic, social, political, and cultural polarization — even the decline of malls — all make it easier for people of any age to feel isolated and lonely. This is potentially a very big opportunity for brick-and-mortar retailers.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

In a world of increased texting and the literal loss of multiple languages annually throughout the world, as well as decreasing human contact and increasing virtual contact, I think any opportunity for human interaction is a GREAT thing.

Heidi Sax
BrainTrust

Of course the young experience loneliness at an alarming rate–they’re glued to their phones! Shopping in physical stores, however, is inherently social. So as long as retailers continue to use brick-and-mortar to sell their wares, and use genuine human beings to operate their stores, they can help alleviate social isolation. I like the ideas of coffee corners and chatter checkouts for grocery. Ultimately, though, retailers must hire store talent for attitude, warmth, and empathy. A smile and genuine interest in shoppers goes a long way in enhancing social connections AND driving sales.

David Adelman
Guest

With technology increasing the speed of checkouts at grocery stores, cashiers at checkouts will become obsolete within a few years. Although speed is key for younger demographics like Gen Z and Gen Y, I still feel that technology in general is isolating us from each other. I believe still having one or two cashiers at checkouts would give the option to those who wish to still engage with a human.

However I wouldn’t go as far as calling them “Chatter Checkouts.” I feel this would enable many customers to hold up the line by overstaying their welcome. Customers might wait in line to chat but no matter how lonely they are, they still don’t want to wait long enough that their ice cream melts.

Just give customers the option but please don’t label it!

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

Recognition and acknowledgment at a grocery store is important not because it’s part of a business or training manual — it’s about human relationships rooted in genuine respect and kindness. We are a social species and need those confirmations to counter the march of alienation and isolation. Those chit chats during checkout at your favorite grocery store have an immeasurable power to uplift and bring warmth in unexpected ways.

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust
Just because the latest trend is for online shopping we should not expect that all customers want the isolation and speed that comes with that form of retailing. As this article states, many people need to have the social interaction of shopping and self-checkouts. Robots and other ways of reducing that social interaction may work for some but not for all. We have talked many times about retailing being a social activity. If people do not have other forms of social activity in their lives then we must not remove this substitute. Clearly Jumbo in Holland has realized that by offering these social, interactive activities in its store it is firstly offering a public service but also gaining customers and probably very loyal customers too. The whole store does not have to look the same or provide the same service. This is a great initiative and one that should be applauded. Other retailers should consider if they could gain from introducing similar initiatives – It will certainly help fight the online businesses. If automation and… Read more »
John Karolefski
BrainTrust

Many grocery stores in rural areas are community centers where shoppers begin their day with a cup of coffee in the cafe and where strangers become friends. “Chatter Checkouts” are a great addition to these stores where shoppers — especially seniors — are not in a rush. I remember reading a story about a supermarket in England that replaced many traditional checkouts with self-checkout terminals. The shoppers rebelled. As one said, “I miss talking to the cashiers when I check out.”

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

This is a nice idea with no downside. Our grocery store has a little corner that people share. There are always people there. The Whole Foods area for food isn’t as much for visiting as for eating. Starbucks built a business on this concept, surely it will work in grocery stores.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

I happen to have a lot of interaction with people who are widowed and now alone. My view of this is they crave interaction with others. In this case it is at a synagogue. In others it can be the grocery store. I have noticed they enjoy talking and being with others, and tend to be lively communicators. They look forward to that limited time where they are with others and can feel included.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

Just please clearly identify the “chatter lines.” When in a hurry, I do not want to be stuck there. On the other hand, if they are clearly identified, will using them be perceived as a social stigma? Maybe employees roving through the store engaging interested consumers in conversation would be more effective. Having areas for coffee and chatting provides an opportunity for social conversations with friends or with employees.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Yes, it’s hard not to notice how this contrasts with the obsession for “frictionless,” i.e. employee-less checkout. And I see nothing counter-intuitive about it … we’re talking about entirely different segments of the population.

Would it work? Probably too well. I picture a small number of people monopolizing the time of the few people who would be allocated for this. OTOH, others might resent what they see as charity.

Part of me supports this effort — it addresses a clear need and does so in what seems like a logical venue. But the other part of me is concerned about “amateurs playing doctor.” And what would happen (to the chatterers) if the service were to be ended … wouldn’t they be even worse off?

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

Within retail, grocery stores benefit from regular visits. We all need food right? And we don’t all buy it online — or we’re just grabbing a few bits. If it’s a local store that you pretty much always visit then you’re already likely to know some of the staff — or at least recognise them. This initiative is an extension of that. It’s a nice idea to encourage people to slow down and spend some time if they want to. I think as long as the store also has the necessary steps in place to serve customers who want to get in and out quickly so there isn’t frustration, then why not!

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

I love that we are talking about the social value of a shopping trip. The grocery is a classic “third place” where there are people and not expectations. So the social aspects aren’t simply about being around people but sometimes about being around people without expectations (like when things at home are rough).

All that said, I fully agree with the concerns at the end of the article. Overtly attempting to CREATE this experience with a “social area” seems a bust.

Stores SHOULD be aware of this issue. But the things which will make their locations good socially are far more subtle and will result from a thousand small changes — not a headline making “social area.”

Jessica Spencer
Guest
1 month 15 days ago
I don’t agree with retail stores trying to help social isolation, as it is not their job in the first place. I know of a lot of customers who come to the store just to get out of the house and they end up spending a lot more money just to tell all of their personal problems and their life story to a cashier who is not their therapist and the cashier needs to keep the line moving. If you let them, people will stand there and talk to a cashier for hours, and anyone who is waiting behind them hoping to talk to a cashier will have to wait forever just to be able to talk to one. I really think that lonely people need to go to social gatherings like church or community events, find a hobby or take a class to learn a new skill to offset their loneliness and find other lonely people to be friends with in the process. Cashiers are not meant to be therapists, and as someone who… Read more »
Christopher P. Ramey
BrainTrust

I’m not convinced that those who are truly lonely will be the first to participate in programs outwardly crafted for them.

However, it would seem that done properly, it will be attractive and eventually gain steam. Good ideas grow; sometimes slower than business would like. Let’s hope they’re patient.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Any experience that allows for recognition and confirmation of the innate value of others is good in my book."
"There were a lot of us who saw social isolation becoming a problem ahead of the social media revolution. Just read Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.”"
"It would be a sweet irony that robots replace people in retail jobs for other people to be employed in retail to talk to those replaced!"

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