ONEAll I can say is I should have known better. No, my decision to visit the newly opened Amazon Fresh store near where I live did not fit at all with the comprehensive, month-long program of mindfulness and joy I was trying to embark on January 1st. But there I was anyway, curiosity had overwhelmed me. And yes, the result was predictably terrible. As any wellness guru worthy of the name could no doubt have told me, along the way lay a smoldering desperation and an almost overwhelming desire to purchase a box of Jacob’s Mini Cheddars.
I still have no idea how Amazon got the green light to build a grocery store branch of its rampaging empire in the Grade II listed building it now occupies: an old tram depot I first saw in this part of London hab was home to many small antique shops (RIP). There was a bit of hassle about the alcohol license I think but in the end it got the green light even though there are already three big supermarkets a few meters away. Now it stands rather sadly, its garish sign seems aimed at either attracting those who just don’t feel like crossing the street or those who prefer to keep their headphones on while shopping. (Amazon Fresh’s unique selling point is that there are no checkouts, so customers don’t have to speak to a single soul.) This is one of 10 stores in the capital so far, from what I’ve read; By 2025 the company hopes to have 260 across the UK.
For a while I wandered around in a daze, struggling to absorb the full – sorry, I have to use the word – dystopian madness. The silence. The bright lights. The rows of cameras above my head. The store is, I would say, geared towards young and single people. There are many meals for one in clear plastic boxes and a wide variety of instant noodles. But it’s quite a mishmash. Some of the items are Amazon branded, but there is also – bizarrely – a number of items from my beloved Booth’s, the so-called Waitrose of the North.
The day I visited there were three staff present: one at the entrance, which has gates that you enter with an app on your phone; another stood guard at the alcohol; and a third at the counter where you can pick up Amazon packages. But no problem! Instead of human interaction, there’s a dire need for naughty characters. “SO GOOD IT’S GONE” could be read on every shelf that was temporarily empty.
I followed (in a completely unusual way) a woman in her 20s with a huge backpack into which she threw her groceries while frantically WhatsApping on her phone. It seemed hard to imagine that she could just walk out with all that loot – “YOU’RE LOSED” reads the sign. But as I watched like a nervous old granny, the man at the gate assured me nothing escapes the cameras: no packet of ramen goes unnoticed by their all-seeing eyes. Does this have a special effect on buyers? I suspect it does and will until the novelty wears off. With no bill totaling and no money exchanged (you’ll be charged through your Amazon account), it’s almost as if everything is free. It’s the sober daylight version of late-night drunk internet shopping – although it’s open until 11pm, so it can be both I guess.
The great trick of 21st century capitalism is to make us crave the useless and unnecessary, and indeed, bleak and lonely, even though it was inside Amazon Fresh, I could feel this itch starting. If there wasn’t something I needed, there was certainly something I wanted. As I restlessly roamed the aisles, I felt like I did when I first left home, and since I had little knowledge of what to eat, my diet was often odd and disordered. In my bag I packed some spring rolls, a box of Feel New Tea (apparently an energizing concoction of aniseed, fennel, and cardamom) and, yes, a packet of cheddars, which I ate on the way home, feeling a little dead inside. The future was in front of me, all vegetable oil, bad decisions and urban devastation.