I want to share a surprising and uplifting moment that occurred a few weeks ago in the supermarket. But first let me tell you about a new twist in shopping at a market where I used to shop when I lived for a few months in the Netherlands.
Let’s set the context. You have the groceries in your cart. You’re adding them up mentally, wondering why eggs and butter cost more than last week – are the hens and cows on strike for better pay? You look over all the lines and try to guess which will be fastest. It took too long to find what you came for, and even the self-checkout line is long. You pick the line that looks fastest, hoping the cashier isn’t a new hire who hasn’t memorized the produce codes yet. When it’s your turn you return the cashier’s greeting, watch the tally grow, pay what you owe and head out the door.
If shopping for groceries is a highlight of your day, it hasn’t been much of a day.
Jumbo, a Dutch grocery chain, thinks it does not need to be this way. A year ago one of its stores designated a special lane, in effect, for slow checkout. Signs direct interested shoppers to a kletskassa, a “chat checkout,” where they exchange more than a quick “Dag!” with the cashier. Shoppers are encouraged to linger. Store staff are expected to ask how the day is going, whether the shopper’s children will visit for the holidays, whether they have read a good book recently, and so on. The idea has proved so popular that 200 more Jumbo stores across the Netherlands will soon follow suit.
Shouldn’t retail stores always strive for speed and efficiency? Isn’t that what customers demand? Not all of them, according to Colette Cloosterman-van Eerd, chief operating officer of the Jumbo chain. Some customers want meaningful human contact when they venture out. Many of them are elderly. And many of them live alone.
Jumbo is a corporate member of the National Coalition Against Loneliness (Nationale Coalitie Tegen Einzamheit), an initiative of the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. There are about 1.3 million residents of the Netherlands over the age of 75, and in response to surveys half of them say they frequently feel lonely. That age group is expected to grow to 2.1 million by 2030. In response the ministry is encouraging individuals, civil society groups, and municipalities to explore new ways to communicate and connect. Jumbo’s slow checkout lanes are an example.
Paradoxical as it may seem, sometimes the best shopping experience is not the fastest but the slowest. We’ve all experienced this from time to time: a clothing store clerk who is just as interested in your niece’s wedding plans as in selling you a sportcoat, a hardware store employee who takes the time to share some tips on how to install your faucet, a bookstore staffer who directs you to the recent novel you want and then tells you about some of her favorite books in a similar vein. Jumbo’s contribution is to offer this to anyone who chooses the marked checkout lane.
When I read about the new slow checkout option at Jumbo I thought back to a shopping trip late last year when my initial frustration turned into an occasion for joy. I had found the items I needed, I was in a hurry to get home, and I chose a checkout lane with no line. Unfortunately it also had no cashier on duty. The man standing by the register was collecting a printout after finishing his shift, not assisting customers, and I had not noticed that the light marking an open lane was off. The man was preoccupied with his task and did not look up as I approached. The cashier in another lane did.
“Sorry, that lane is already closed,” she called out to me, “but mine is open. Did you see the light?”
I walked over and took my place behind another customer, and when my turn came I was singing softly to myself a gospel song that her words had brought to mind:
I saw the light, I saw the light,
No more darkness, no more night
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight.
Praise the Lord! I saw the light
She joined in, and together – loudly enough to attract a few puzzled looks – we sang:
I wandered aimless, my life filled with sin.
I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in.
Then Jesus came, as a stranger in the night.
Praise the Lord! I saw the light.
I learned this song from folksingers of the 1970s, and I’ve also heard versions by Hank Williams from the 1940s. I’ve sung it in living rooms and at folk festivals – never in church, so far as I can recall, but the churches I frequent are not much into bluegrass gospel.
I wondered where the young woman at the till had learned it: from her parents, or around a campfire, or in her church? I didn’t ask. I was delighted that she knew the verses, and she seemed happily surprised that I did.
By the time we finished singing the chorus my groceries were all scanned. And I went on my way rejoicing.