Assigned to perform some fieldwork in the real world, concerning folkloristics, I opted to pay a visit to the local Stockmann supermarket, to have a closer look at human behaviour and space and time. To successfully perform the task given, I had to distanciate from my personal proclivities, which proved to be quite a Herculean task. Nevertheless, in the following I will set forth my findings.
Stockmann is a big supermarket that sells lots of different groceries. It sells fruit and vegetables, but also black truffles and bear-paté, selling from €120,- per kilo to €230,- per jar. The supermarket takes its appearance seriously and tries to make the customer feel comfortable in a nicely lit atmosphere with a large variety of products. Analyzing the shop starts with the entry, of course.
Entering the Stockmann supermarket facility demands crossing the cosmetics-department first (omitting entering the entire Hansa building in the first place, which is already the first step into the disorienting inner world of departmentstores, like entering the whale that swallowed Pinocchio). From there one can descend into the frantic world of delicacies offered in the sweet bowels of the Hansa building, because in fact, the supermarket is housed in the store’s basement. That doesn’t show, since this supermarket, like most in its kind, does not bear windows to grant a view of the outside world while shopping.
To the point: once descended from the escalator, that leads one into the belly of the beast fully automatized, there is immediate exposure to a decadent accumulation of fruit and vegetables, lit by soft but sufficient artificial light that brings out the purest and most appealing color fruit and vegetables are able to radiate. Here the manipulation starts. The customer is instantly seduced by superstimuli. This turns the voluptuous “food-horn of plenty” into regular foodporn. Now, the guileless customer is initiated into Stockmann’s world of plenty, completely unaware of the outside world and filled in by desires dictated by Stockmann’s cunning spin doctors, as our way to the daily necessities like dairy and toiletpaper leads us past calorybombs like Jules DeStroopere’s arsenal of cookies, vast amounts of chocolate, all kinds of luxurious oil-varieties and well-lit fish, meat and cheese.
From a personal point of view, I must confess I was instantly enchanted by Stockmann’s broad array of products that promise to be true extacy to the taste buds. But since this assignment gave me a reason to reason Stockmann’s spell to death, I resist the temptations of this consumental Cockaigne and note my findings.
The shop’s design doesn’t really show through all the colorful products that misguise ones way—as the crow flies—towards the noted down alimentary necessities. The horizontally and vertically placed shelves and coolers obstruct plain view on the backside of the store, where the most boring but most necessary products are kept. If it weren’t for the goods, this store would be a massive open space, white ceilings and black floors. This probably to establish firm ground but raise the limits of the skies. It aids the consumer in positioning himself in the maze of products, strictly obeying the geometrical axes that cut through the shopping space. These shelves also impeed the customers ability to perform sudden, fast or spaceous movements. Maneuverability is limited to following the axis set by the shelves. This might form a problem, taken into account the lack of interpersonal communication and private space-claims I will get to later.
Stockmann’s interior is thus filled with colors that appeal to the human eye. The variety in colors and sizes and shapes makes the eye search for relevant information, which is effectively hidden inside colorful delusion. Eye movements go fast, but are consoled by the sobriety of the shop’s own colorscheme and the hardly discernable backgroundmusic. Another very important aspect is the lack of smell, apart from the fish-, cheese- and meat-departments. But these are conveniently located adjacent to another, so the smells don’t protrude too far into the shopping area. Besides that I am convinced that the shop maintains a very efficient air conditioning system that might even be suitable for subconscious manipulation in the shape of feromones sent out to relish human noses. But that is much too deep into the Swamps of Speculation.
The store does not feature a place to sit down or relax. There are benches, but they are outside the shopping grounds. Only after payment can one lie himself to rest on a wooden bench. I used this bench to count the types of customers without being too much in security’s eyesight. I experienced this psychological border very explicitly while standing still nearby the fruit&veg-stalls. Yes, I have been effectively taught the doctrine of supermarkets. I am society’s lapdog. Trying to escape it’s mental claws made me realize that once again. Anyway, the supermarket is not meant as a place to socialize or hang around. Lack of furniture illustrates this. I also missed the free, though bad, coffee that is (self)served in Dutch supermarkets. It’s a pretty common thing in Holland to be able to sit down halfway shopping and have a sip of hot Joe, but apparently, the Finns rather rush their way through their groceries. An interesting cultural discrepancy. The absence of relaxing and/or social space aids to the ideology of personal space and anonymity upheld by Stockmann.
Personal space / privacy
Stockmann’s customers walk around the store like zombies, like shopping human beings do in supermarkets all around Europe. Although they take part in a very common and populous ritual, they seem perfectly capable of ignoring the fellow-shopper. Everyone seems anonymous. Bumping into another shopper is quite common, but also experienced as very annoying, since another nameless person invades ones personal space. This area is defined by the turning cycle of the customer, including his or her shoppingbasket or –cart. In this circle of personal space nothing but personally desired products are tolerated. The occasional bump is being handled with indifference, leading to comical situations of social awkwardness and discomfort. But in Stockmann’s basement, other rules apply, and these instances of annoyance are quickly forgotten.
What is also considered to be rude is blocking off shelves from other customers with ones cart, or by staring at and contemplating on the choice of pasta for too long. Coughs generally signal the other’s wish to invade one’s private moment with the pasta on display, and even as generally are these requests granted with silent sidesteps.
No one knows one another, apart from the occasional older women who seem to have their punctually determined shopping hours and keep running into one another, taking the opportunity to get up to speed with local gossip. These infarcts of locally clogging customers can lead to unease in traffic I will deal with in the next paragraph.
Although Stockmann is a quite densely crowded area on a saturday afternoon, the rules of anonymity still seem to apply perfectly. And although personal space is very highly respected inside on the supermarketgrounds, it is never immobile. Customers move around constantly—apart from the occasional clog—in search of their desired goods. Maintaining a specific location is, in fact, a ground on which security guards have reason to believe one is up to no good. It creates suspicion not to move along with, or criss-cross through the paths of motion dictated by the fellow-shoppers. I experienced the unnerving sensation of being taken note of by the eyes of the security cameras. Because they are there aswell, just as there’s people behind mirrored glass near the checkout. This glass parts the common space of privacies ruled by the customer from the adament faceless authority.
The products seem to belong to the community on the supermarket’s shopping grounds, they are only assimilated as one’s property after having paid for these. That border is hard to pass without enacting the ritual of payment, but once successfully performed—with also minimal interaction with the checkout girl—goods disappear in personal or paid-for bags, and the customer can freely flee the subterranean well of joy.
Payment has to take place in order to leave the shop. Fences obstruct the exit at closed checkouts. Behind the fence lies the free world, but only after parting of money. It is very uncommon to leave and pass the checkout without claiming some space on the checkout girl’s conveyor, that guide the products to the fast and efficient calculator that makes you realize you, once again, went over budget in shopping, but you promise yourself to take it easy the next time. Fleeing the scene is a psychological border that demands a high tolerance of social discomfort. Shoplifters will be the object of ridicule for the entire body of customers, shame is pressurizing enough to prevent most potential thieves from stealing. This is another psychologically drawn line, helped along by physical demarcations.
In-store mobility and traffic
As mentioned earlier, the customer is expected to move around in the shop. Mobility is stimulated by the lack of hang-out-spots, benches or free coffee machines and the continuous stream of people coming down the escalators. I also mentioned earlier that I felt this awkward sensation of being observed while standing still. One stands out in the mass when inert, and this draws attention. Nobody in the store wants this to occur, so everyone stays in motion. Stockmann is not a place to socialize.
Traffic movement is supposed to flow, as the above implies. Clogs created by gossiping elderly are usually answered with grunting or disapproving glances, but there is no lingual communication between shoppers, unless they take part in the same shopping entity, like (married) couples and schoolgoing youngsters. Help is seldom requested from personnel, although they all are tagged with names and language proficiency. They wander through the shop on a different level, products are not desired by them, they are put away. Interaction with these wanderers is, as stated, scarce. It takes guts to disturb a Stockmann-employee in his routine of stocking shelves. And when consulted, they give staccato directions, only to continue their task with skillful speed and dedication.
The placing of shelves forces the customer to walk certain routes. Experienced shoppers know their way around and are not distracted by signs and notes pointing out the sales and offers. These obstacles are skillfully bypassed, unless something desired is on offer. Since every customer demands other goods, there’s regular obstacles in the shape of other customers picking goods from shelves or reading packaging, much similar to the contemplation/doubt-situation sketched earlier. Once aware of ones role as an obstacle, one will most probably move and let the traffic flow through. In this, one must capitulate and allow the other to reframe ones personal private space. In this respect, wandering through a supermarket is a concatenation of personal invasion, since there is always—and lots of—people present in limited space.
Time and perception
Although there are clocks present in the store, they are generally not paid attention to. The checkout features a large one, but it is probably there for the checkout girls to measure their shifts. There is also no view outdoors, which separates the indoors of Stockmann’s from the outside world, creating some kind of vacuum in which shopping is the only imperative. Besides that a window would probably take up valuable stocking space (if there was anything to look at anyway, since Stockmann’s supermarket is below ground level). The artificial lighting and lack of climatic differences with the adjacent outdoors makes the store an isolated island of luxury in subterranean areas that are most commonly known as damp and dark. Still, there is no reference to these features whatsoever. Stockmann successfully created an Land of Play that has no direct connection to the everyday world of the outdoors, turning the store into a true heterotopos.
This shuts the customer off of any quotidian norm, giving way for time- and boundaryless consumption. Though, if the clock does bear a certain function, it’s probably to point out one is spending time there, since there’s no primary reference to the weather or the position of the sun or moon (means of navigation and timetelling our old ancestors used, and which still is part of our genetic material, probably). Thus tearing us loose from our habitat and overflowing us with superstimuli which should make us act as homo erectus. Nevertheless, we maintain some of our sapient dignity and move around in an orderly fashion. Our true primitive nature only shows when colliding with another specimen, as I have pointed out earlier.
There is no progression of time inside Stockmann’s supermarket, but this appears to clash with the notion of perpetual motion that is propagated by the stores architecture. People move around continuously or they clog up traffic, which leads to irritation which in its turn inevitably leads to interhuman communication that is quite undesired, because of the guarantee of anonymity customers take for granted. On the other hand, every shopper displays a certain level of cosmopolitism by walking around with profane and pricy goods that display a high living standard. So in one respect the supermarket is in fact a place to show off ones excellent taste (for instance demonstrated by the insanely expensive glass jars of black truffles or the bear meat), whilst remaining anonymous throughout the ritual of shopping and enriching ones stock of alimentary goods. I am curious about probable non-verbal communication or ‘showing off’ by customers who purposely shop for the expensive variety of goods, just to display their higher standard. A thing that certainly not happens in discount stores like Lidl, since everyone who shops there has peace with his/her low shoppingbudget. But Stockmann is a high-profile store that takes pride in its service to the higher educated Finn, as the entrance of staggering heaps of impressive fruit and vegetables implies. Stockmann concerns itself with presentation, that’s obvious.
Though I did visit the store on a saturday afternoon, which is sort of an obvious time for grocery shopping, I am under the impression that this store is always full of people. There was specific crowdedness over at the meats-section (a place where there’s no self service, so interaction is mandatory. But there’s also the option of going anonymously for some products prepared in advance, though one might risk having to choose goods not 100% answering ones wishes), but the flow of people will generally not indicate a specific time of day. This aids to Stockmann’s desire to successfully create a heterotopia where time and space differ from commonplace reality.
Résumé of psychological factors
To sum some of the most important features of Stockmann up:
- One has to descend into the well-lit subterranean area of the Hansa building, which marks a crossover between the familiar and the unknown, aiding to the state of heterotopy.
- There is only (atmospheric) artificial lighting allowing no intervention of climatological disturbances whatsoever, much alike a subtropical paradise.
- There is faint music, as a distant memento of civilization.
- There is no explicit smell, save maybe some hardly discernable perfume to cover up the meat, fish and cheese smells.
- There are no big open spaces, probably for a twofold of reasons. (1) It’s a waste of valuable stocking space, and (2) it would allow too much movement by customers, which might cause worse traffic clogging than predetermined routes.
- There are no facilities to relax and/or sit down. Nor are there beverages for consumption while shopping. This might indicate that the shop visit should last not as long as the time needed to empty a hot plastic cup of coffee.
- Shortcuts are not given (apart from where it concerns help from personnel, that is tagged by name and language proficiency), one has to find his own way, which might prove difficult (primarily due to the seductive array of beguiling goods on display en route).
- By far most products don’t need interhuman communication. Stockmann is a perfectly safe place for misanthropes, misogynists, autistics and the otherwise socially incapable.
- Time is present if needed, but foremost for realizing one should hurry shopping. Speedy service is also appreciated at the checkout, since there’s a lot of checkouts fully equipped, one only has to wait for a minute before being serviced. Also, lights indicate which checkout are in service, so no time is wasted on searching for a payment terminal.
- Customers remain anonymous and honor each other’s privacy, demarcated by the turning cycle of their shopping gear. Interaction is minimized to the utmost necessary amount, like the usual greetings exchanged with the generic checkout girl and the exchange of money, most commonly via electronic payments, so no bodily integrity is ever compromised. Personal space is also demarcated by the socalled ‘turn-bar’ that indicates personal space on the checkout-conveyor. This is a very highly respected private space that should not be meddled with.
- The dark floor and white ceiling suggest vertical open space, simulating the outdoors, but yet ignoring that with the use of artificial light and isolation from the outdoors.
- The shop is divided into a shopping ground (A), a payment service that also offers small and disposable goods like cigarettes and chewing gum (B) and an off-shopping ground (C) inbetween the supermarket and the liquor store (E, I have not mentioned, but is there). C offers a place to sit down after shopping. To conclude, there is an off limits personnel-area behind a barred door and mirrored glass (D) no one knows the specific purpose or interior of, though the ones inside probably do have an allseeing eye in the shop (that made me feel uncomfortable while being immobile).
Stockmann does a good effort of separating people from their natural habitat and money by plunging them into a world of plenty where everything looks nice and appealing. Lighting is very important, since there is no daylight down in the store. Customers are not distracted by the outdoors and are expected to act on primitive impulse, enhanced by superstimuli frenzy displayed at the entrance. The descent into Stockmann’s grocery basement already grants a nice view of the decadently piled flow of fruits and vegetables, aided with lighting and mirrors. Unlike casino’s, that cover their floors with crowded and complex carpets to keep customers mobile and busy, Stockmann has quite a sober interior, but this is made up for by the display of colorful products.
In this Stockmann-universe time doesn’t behave as it does in the outside world. Perpetual motion is stimulated by the arrangement of shelves and coolers, people are drawn to the various corners of the shop and pass by a large variety of luxurious goods to pick up en route to milk and toiletries. An occasional clock notifies one of the time spent in the underground, since there are no celestial bodies to tell time or navigate by, Stockmann even seems to meddle with biological clocks in some way, since my sense of time seemed irregular. The ongoing flow of people makes one realize that one is already spending too much time underground and this pressure impeeds serious contemplation on products. Motion is priority.
Space is being divided into private pieces, governed by carts and baskets. Interaction is sparse and undesired. People really do seem overflown by primitive impulses, established by the superstimuli mentioned earlier. Stockmann embodies a subterranean no-man’s-land inhabited by psychological spheres that move their own way around the candystands and its alluring colors and shapes. Prices are only explicitly mentioned at the checkout and then it’s too late to retaliate. Once upstairs, into the open air, blood flows back to the brain and impending epiphanies see the light of day. Stockmann seems to shut off the sapient brain successfully, still, despite my indepth analysis of what is going on underneath Hansa’s foundations, I am not fully sure what makes me switch to consumer-zombiemode down there.
Fact is that time and space are completely reorganized in Stockmann’s belly. Time goes too fast, though the shop has long opening hours, and space is taken by these separate psychological entities that seem to be blind to one another. They try their best to be, at least. Unnerving how these rules and regulations, although nowhere mentioned, do apply to every single visitor, with an exception for the occasional crying infant or nagging toddler. We are all brainwashed.