AAll I can say is that I should have known better. No, my decision to visit the branch of Amazon Fresh that just opened near my house was not at all a good match for the extensive month-long program of mindfulness and joy that I have tentatively put on in place on January 1. But I was there all the same, curiosity having got the better of me. And yes, the result was predictably horrible. As any wellness guru worth their salt would no doubt have told me, there was a simmering desperation there and an almost irresistible desire to buy a packet of Jacob’s Mini Cheddars.
I still have no idea how Amazon got the green light to set up a branch of the grocery wing of its rampaging empire in the Grade II listed building it now inhabits: a former depot of tram which when I first arrived in this part of London was the home of many small antique shops (RIP). There was, I think I remember, a bit of a fight over his liquor license, but he finally got the green light, despite the fact that there were already three large supermarkets a few meters away. Now it stands there rather gloomily, its ominous sign apparently aimed at attracting either those who just can’t be bothered to cross the road or those who prefer to keep their headphones on while they shop. (Amazon Fresh’s USP is that it has no checkouts, so customers don’t have to speak to a single soul.) This, I read, is one of 10 branches of the capital so far; by 2025, the company hopes to have 260 across the UK.
For a while, I wandered around dazedly, struggling to absorb the full – sorry, I’ll have to use the word – dystopian weirdness. The silence. Bright lights. The rows of cameras above my head. The store is, I would say, heavily geared towards young people and singles. There are plenty of single meals in clear plastic boxes and a huge selection of instant noodles. But it’s a hell of a potpourri. Some things are Amazon-branded, but there are also – oddly – a number of things from my beloved Booth, the so-called Waitrose from the north.
On the day of my visit, there were three staff members on site: one at the entrance, which has doors you enter using an app on your phone; another guard standing near the liquor; and a third at the counter where you can pick up Amazon packages. But whatever! Instead of human interaction, there are urgent and joyful signs. “SO GOOD IT’S GONE” read those on any shelf that is temporarily empty.
I followed (in a strictly non-specific way) a woman in her twenties with a huge backpack she threw her groceries into while frantically WhatsApping her phone. It seemed hard to imagine she could just hang out — “YOU’RE GOOD TO LEAVE” the sign said — with all that loot. But when, like a nervous old granny, I checked, the man at the door assured me that the cameras hadn’t missed a thing: no packet of ramen goes unnoticed by their all-seeing eyes. Does this have a particular effect on buyers? I guess it does, and will until the novelty wears off. Because no bills are totaled and no money is exchanged (you’re billed through your Amazon account), it’s almost like everything is free. It’s the sober daylight version of drunken late-night online shopping – although it’s open until 11pm, so it can be both, I suppose.
The great trick of 21st century capitalism is to make us yearn for the useless and useless and of course grim and lonely even if it was inside Amazon Fresh I could feel that itch starting . If there was nothing I needed, surely there was something I wanted. Relentlessly pacing the aisles, I felt like I was leaving home and, barely knowing how to feed myself, my eating was often strange and messy. In my bag I put spring rolls, a box of Feel New tea (an energizing blend of anise, fennel and cardamom, apparently) and, yes, a packet of Cheddars, which I ate on the way home, feeling a little dead inside. The future loomed before me, all vegetable oil, bad decisions and urban desolation.