Do supermarkets inspire impulse buying?

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Dubai - Sushmita Bose reminisces over the traditional ways of grocery shopping at local 'kirana' stores (corner shops of India)


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Wed 18 Aug 2021, 7:10 PM

I have great respect for those who can stick to a brief when it comes to shopping for essentials. I studied Commerce briefly in high school (only because I had presumed — rightly as it turned out — it was easier to cram up than gravity-defying Science), and I was enlightened about needs, wants and luxuries. Needs — what I termed “essentials” — are stuff you, well, need. Groceries, garbage bags, cleaning agents, hand sanitisers. My problem is all I need to do is to step into a supermarket, and wants and luxuries become compelling needs. I see ‘organic flaxseeds’ or ‘oxygenated water’ or ‘raspberry-injected dates’, and I’m suddenly besieged by neediness, even though I don’t need to buy any of them, and would have normally rolled my eyes at the pretentiousness of the idea. I walk down the bakery aisle, very aware there’s more than half a loaf of bread basking in my fridge, and yet I will get one more loaf just because I see “chia” in the label. The shower gel bottle in the bathroom is 80 per cent full, but I still reach out for one that claims it has sea salt as an ingredient that adds the extra punch during ablutions.

Blame it on the ambience of supermarkets, the invitation to court consumer dalliances every single time. Yet another “marketing” term I picked up while studying Commerce in high school was “impulse purchase”: when you go in to a shop with no agenda whatsoever to buy what’s being flashed in front of you, but end up falling for it — thereby morphing into a marketer’s dream.

Consequently, my residence is overflowing with packets and packages that I stash away in drawers. “The organic flaxseeds I’m going to start ingesting [as sprinkles on low-fat yoghurt] when I embark on that long overdue diet I plan to start next week,” I tell myself. And then, obviously, I forget I even had them because the long overdue diet doesn’t come to fruition. On any given day, if I open cabinets or chests, I am struck by how many needless things — which must have seemed appealing when I bought them — have piled up. Pasta, [different kinds of] rice, sauces, nuts, dried fruits, kettle-fried crisps, etc: the reason why I knock them in for posterity is that these are usually items with long shelf lives. Alas, by the time I stumble upon them again, they are past their sell-by-date… that’s how needless these are in my scheme of things, I don’t even remember I have them in the archives.

It’s pretty common for friends and guests who drop by at my place and open my fridge door (is it a sign of over-familiarity to open someone else’s fridge door at will? I’m still undecided on that one) to exclaim in horror: “What happened here?” It looks like a population explosion. Tons of refrigerated bodies lying supine, standing awkwardly like the Leaning Tower of Pisa… many of them expired, waiting to catch the next day’s garbage disposal gravy train.

I used to think it’s only me who’s a shameless wastrel, but that’s not true. I was once house-sitting at a friend’s place — she’s someone who swears by Marie Kondo and says minimalism is her calling card — and decided to clear her fridge. I think I was looking for an excuse to raid the larder and figure out her lifestyle eating choices. While rifling through, I realised most of her stuff was expired. Cheeses, soy milk, doggie bags (leftovers she had been meaning to eat), juices, cooked food that had turned organic — they were all there.

“I can’t believe you too are a waster,” I pinged her, with a series of ‘before’ [cleanup] and ‘after’ shots.

“Even I can’t believe the amount of needless stuff I pick up and I never really consume,” she pinged back.

Many years ago, when I used to call my friendly neighbourhood kirana store (corner shop) in Delhi for home delivery — the nearest supermarket was not within striking distance — I would carefully write out a list of essentials so that I didn’t miss out on anything. Every single item would be bought according to “need”. Six eggs, never more. Half a litre of milk. A small loaf of brown bread. One pat of butter. One packet of detergent.

When my list was made to order, I rarely had the chance to even toy with the idea of non-essentials.

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