All I can say is that I should have known better. No, my decision to visit the newly opened Amazon Fresh location near where I live was not at all a good match for the month-long program of mindfulness and sparks of joy that I tentatively launched on January 1. January. But there I was anyway, curiosity having gotten the best of me. And yes, the result was predictably horrible. As no doubt any self-respecting wellness guru could have told me, herein lay a simmering desperation and almost overwhelming desire to buy a pack of Jacob’s Mini Cheddars.
I still have no idea how Amazon got the go-ahead to set up a branch of the grocery wing of its runaway empire in the Grade II listed building I now inhabit: a former tram station that when I first came to this part London was home to plenty of little antique shops (RIPs). There was, I think I remember, a bit of trouble over his alcohol license, but in the end they gave him the green light, despite the fact that there are already three large supermarkets a few meters away. It now stands there in rather sad shape, its creepy sign apparently aimed at attracting those who just can’t be bothered to cross the street, or those who prefer to keep their headphones on while they shop. (The USP of Amazon Fresh is that it doesn’t have a cash register, so customers don’t need to talk to anyone.) This, as I have read, is one of the 10 branches in the capital so far; by 2025, the company hopes to have 260 across the UK.
For a while, I wandered around in a daze, struggling to absorb the whole—sorry, I’m going to have to use the word—dystopian weirdness. The silence. The bright lights. The banks of cameras over my head. The store is, I would say, heavily skewed towards the young and single. There are plenty of meals for one in clear plastic boxes and a wide selection of instant noodles. But it’s quite a hodgepodge. Some of the stuff is Amazon branded, but there’s also, strangely, a number of things from my beloved Booth’s, the so-called Waitrose of the north.
On the day I visited, there were three staff members available: one at the entrance, which has doors that you enter via an app on your phone; another standing guard over the drink; and a third at the counter where you can pick up Amazon packages. But it does not matter! Instead of human interaction, there are urgently joyous signs. “SO GOOD IT’S GONE” would say those on whatever shelf is temporarily empty.
I followed (in strictly non-quirky fashion) a woman in her early 20s with a massive backpack that she was throwing her purchases into while chatting frantically on WhatsApp on her phone. It seemed hard to imagine that she could just walk away, “YOU’RE GOOD TO GO,” says the sign, with all this loot. But when, like a nervous granny, I checked, the man at the door assured me that the cameras don’t miss a thing: no packet of ramen goes unnoticed by his all-seeing eyes. Does this have a peculiar effect on buyers? I guess he does, and he will until the novelty wears off. Because there’s no bill added or money exchanged (you’re charged through your Amazon account), it’s almost like everything is free. It’s the sober daylight version of drunken late-night internet shopping, though 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 of course, even though I was inside Amazon Fresh, I could feel it starting to itch. If there was nothing he needed, surely there was something he wanted. Wandering restlessly through the halls, I felt like when I left home and hardly knowing how to feed myself, my diet was often strange and messy. In my bag I put some spring rolls, a box of Feel New tea (an energizing blend of aniseed, 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.