debbie millman

Sunday, April 05, 2009


In all of the years that I have been employed, one of my all-time favorites jobs was working as a cashier in a supermarket. Because I am an exceedingly noisy person, this occupation gave me free reign to survey and take measure all of the items people purchased and took into their homes. There was Bruce, the man who owned an office furniture company and who was married to a red headed artist named Cindy. There was Priya, who was always in love with bad boys who didn’t love her back. There was Matilda, who wore a different headdress every time I saw her, and told me she covered her head to keep away bad vibrations. There were the Coca-Cola people who I swear looked different from the Pepsi-Cola people; there were the lonely people buying single serve frozen dinners and magazines, the busy people buying single serve frozen dinners carrying dry-cleaning, the college students buying single serve frozen dinners and six-packs of beer, the underage folks who tried to buy cigarettes, and the folks like me, who worked there, and bought whatever they wanted for 30% off and $3.75 an hour.

I talked to nearly everyone who came to my register, which infuriated my boss. He couldn’t understand why I needed to know everyone’s name and where they worked and how many kids and pets and bathrooms they had. But I did. To me, seeing what they were buying in the supermarket was akin to seeing them in the most intimate, vulnerable manner and I wanted the experience to be less random, less anonymous. I needed to feel connected to them. Some of my customers appreciated my friendliness and answered whatever inane question I asked them. Given my penchant for chitchat, I wasn’t the fastest check out girl in the supermarket, which my boss took personally. “No talking,” he would scold me. “Talking takes time, and time is money!”

It confounded me that my boss didn’t want to know everything about the people shopping in his store. To me, being able to look into the shopping carts of my customers was the equivalent of looking into their souls. Being able to see their inner lives pass before me was an unprecedented opportunity to somehow peer into a sort of collective humanity. To me, this was like magic.

According to Thomas Hine, author of “I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers,” “Shopping is deeply human. It may not be the most important expression of human freedom, but it’s as close as most of us get in ordinary life. Shopping is the contemporary expression of our complex relationship to things. Objects are useful. They are repositories of magic. They carry meanings that are more powerful than words because they can embody the paradoxes of life.

For most of human existence, only a few people have had the power to possess large numbers of objects….to create images for themselves and their families that the world would recognize. For the billions who live in today’s world of abundant consumer goods, this is commonplace magic. But it is magic nevertheless, and few are willing to give up the power of choosing and owning desirable objects. It is the way in which contemporary people address perennial questions: What will we feed our families? How will they be clothed? What tools are needed to survive and prosper? How should we present ourselves to the world? How should we express our deepest beliefs?”

I agree with Hine when he states, “Making material choices is a privilege, a responsibility, and an essential activity of modern life. Shopping is about fantasy and necessity, generosity and greed, thrift and indulgence, identity and possibility. It is also about freedom and responsibility.”

But if we can understand how we arrive at the choices we make about what to buy and what not to buy, is it also possible to get beyond these assumptions? Can a can of soda ever be just about a can of soda? This year I am worrying about money more than I have in decades, and sometimes, when I am visiting the supermarket, it seems that many of my choices are as much about what I am NOT going to buy as much as what I am. As we navigate through these turbulent times, perhaps we can learn to become less dependent on what our choices say about us and care more about what we actually say.


Anonymous Lorraine said...

I think that need to relate to your customers and hear their backstory might be a trait common to those in the communication/design field. How better to serve your client than by understanding where they are coming from? It doesn't matter if your clients is in a grocery check-out line or partnering with you to gain a new branding direction for their company.

4/05/2009 10:37:00 PM  
Blogger Yee Ting :Denise said...

Choices in daily necessities like food seem to be indulgence in some places, but when it comes to expressing yourself, there is no other person to tell you how the decision should be made.

The inner voice will never be tamed.

4/09/2009 02:42:00 AM  

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