Final day: Reflections on the shopping cart as a technology the mediates and organizes society, and how it affects and is affected by covid-19

We chose the shopping cart as a technology that affects how we organize and mediate. We chose it because we wanted to genuinely examine an everyday technology that has been used in new and different ways during COVID-19.

Already before deciding, it was apparent to us that each of our experiences in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Denmark were very distinct from each other; this from an epidemiological, legislative, and emotional stance.

The experience of how to procure sustenance was however relevant to all of us, and we, therefore, decided to highlight this phenomenon.

 We have applied both ethnographic fieldwork, academic literature review, discourse analysis, and incorporated different artistic negotiations.

 We decided to examine it as a two-fold symbol of consumption, examining both the analog shopping cart and the digital shopping cart.

Both are central vehicles that support and organize shopping and allow customers to gather intended and unintended items. While the analog shopping cart, as we know it, was patented in the 1930s, we understand the optimal digital shopping experience as the one-click experience patented by Amazon, where the shopping cart is completely removed and the purchase is directly done to eliminate a process of consideration of the purchase.

In the context of Covid-19 the analog shopping cart and experience surrounding it has also been linked to microbiological danger, while the online shopping cart has been repositioned as a pure and ‘safe’ option to continue engaging with consumption practices.

Different shopping experiences

Today, I am not in Davos, but St. Gallen, where I study. I am in the supermarket, coop. I would like to talk to you about the shopping experience here in Switzerland and the lessons my colleagues observed in their respective countries.

First of all, I shop with a mask and gloves. This mask is a special one that brings in fresh air into my mask the same time. I live opposite the supermarket, so usually, I would shop daily my things and use only a basket.

Nowadays, I use a cart in order to hoard for a week. Like in all countries, I unluck the cart with a coin. Here at coop they give you even their own key chain for it. I have here the self-scanning device and a loyalty card. I first unlock the scanner with the loyalty card, finally can start choosing the items and eventually pay my self.

We have this system for nearly ten years, and my research has shown that Germany slowly started last year. I guess it is trust culture the supermarkets have. The lady told me that if they do not control sometimes, the thefts or wrong scannings goes up by 30%. In Germany, we observed much stronger, that people are using the cart as a safe harbour trying to find the distance.

In Italy, shopping carts are a must-have, but they also use small ones because of the narrow shops.

In Venice, there are very few shopping carts. The majority of people use their own shopping carts from home, which we have in this picture.

Else in Italy, they also have baskets and sometimes with wheels, which is also common in Denmark. In Denmark, Suzan hasn't experienced any special innovation in the past 30 years she has been alive.

Surveillance & Regulations

The shopping cart might be intended as the boat we navigate on in the ocean of products available to us. The companies are very aware of it and therefore are using different tools to track the consumers, profile them, to send extremely targeted advertisements that are aimed not only to fulfil consumers’ needs but also to create new ones, the customers might even be not conscious of.

This is true both for online companies and physical ones whom both profile their customers through loyalty programs and data analysis. This might generate a feeling of frustration and of being violated for the customers. Therefore, in order to be able to protect our fundamental rights of freedom, preserve our right of choice without being unconsciously pushed into certain buying behavior, and to prevent misuse of our personal data, fraud, and other illegal or unethical behavior.

The European Parliament made a huge step towards the freedom of the customers with the GDPR. This regulation aims to protect and secure data of the consumers within the EU. What we want to highlight however is that the GDPR gives us the option not to reveal our data, but it is up to us to take actions into protecting our privacy. This is the fundamental difference between regulation that is a rule made by a formal authority, and the resistance, that comes by taking active actions and requires a dose of animosity.

Resistance and "mis"-use

Another thing we found regarding misuse and resistance during this week is that the analog shopping cart has been and is being used as an extension of the body

Not just to assemble and transport groceries but also as a means of transport outside of the supermarket for furniture or other heavy things. During the ongoing pandemic it is also used a lot as a protective layer for shoppers to maintain social distance. -even used to play football in Germany “safely.”

Also shopping carts have been and are being used by some people for mobility or racing with them as a leisure or extreme sport activity as they are easily accessible. 

The main form of resistance we have found out about, is shopping cart abandonment - online and offline. Over 70% of online shopping carts are discarded without buying anything. It appears that online shopping and filling the basket can be a form of dreaming or playing or as we called it “digital window shopping.” 

 In general, what became very apparent to us this week is how these different technologies shape our behaviour of consumption. And this behaviour is increasingly being monitored to manufacture and steer consumption behaviour.

So, even if there is a 1-Click button or a scanning shopping cart, think twice about your consumption choice and if you want to use a certain technology. 

 If you think that this is not influencing you, ask yourself why you move slowly when pushing a shopping cart. Because when you go faster, it makes a lot of noise!

Shopping carts alternative (mis)use

(Un)intended Usage of the analogue shopping cart

Regarding the global pandemic and various government regulations, the shopping cart has undergone an interesting development. Rather than just functioning as a container to assemble items in, it is now used in many supermarkets in Germany to keep distance towards other people in the store. It somewhat functions as a protective layer, an extension of the human body to keep distance from potentially infectious people. This has gone as far as people using shopping carts outside stores to play football while maintaining social distance.

While this usage of the carts may seem rather ridiculous, it symbolizes very well how the use of shopping carts has been altered through the spread of the pandemic. As Donna Haraway has stated that we are cyborgs, using the shopping cart as part of the body is another example of how humans and technology are entangled. 

Of course, shopping carts have already been used in different ways than their traditional use in the supermarket. Some people use them to move stuff from one place to another, as shopping carts are free (or 1€) to take away and a good alternative to transport things without having access to a car. Thus, they have also been used for general mobility, moving around town as can be seen in the documentary “Carts of Darkness.”

Shopping Cart races seem to be or have been a very popular activity in general, some people even motorizing them. Here is one example, but I would encourage you to check out the videos on Youtube! 

The shopping cart and intent

While we in the analogue world may play around with the cart itself, the digital world offers a different experience of shopping. Firstly, things organized on a long and explicit list, rather than piled on top of eachother. Mediating and changing the basket content is a different experience. In many ways, it is not assumed that the customer changes their minds in the supermarket. If they do, they will have to retrack their steps in a physical space that is not intended for multidirectional movement; the store has a path of experience that is heavily planne; it starts at the entrance usually with vegetables, and ends at the register and the sweets. Having to go back and put an item back disturbs the ‘natural’ order and flow. Customers may leave an unwanted product at the register, but this demands a confrontation with staff. Often customers leave goods in random places in the store if their decide not to purchase them. While this is the path of least resistance for the customer, this costs supermarkets tremendous amounts of money every year, as frozen and cool goods may not be put back if the temperature has not been monitored and they don’t know how long goods have been left for. In online shopping it is however a complete different experience; while stores of course intend for people to use the basket to support purchase, baskets are often abandoned. Online shipping baskets can be used simply to negotiate desire, dream or to play; shopping as a leisure-activity requires no purchase, and the basket is used as a prop to organize the play, in this sense. 

Statistics and online checkout

As noticed, there are significant differences among the ways the physical shopping carts and the online ones are used, and misused. The habit of putting items into online shopping carts without finalizing the purchase is the typical behavior of the online customer. As a matter of fact, according to statistics, almost 70% of the time, the items are just abandoned in the shopping cart without converting the selection of an item in an actual purchase. This can be due to many reasons: the customer might need more time to decide, might not be truly willing to buy the good, might not be satisfied with the price or with the conditions of the delivery, might not have enough funds on his/her credit card, might be willing to search for alternatives on competitors’ platforms and so on. Of course, the companies want the conversion rate (i.e. the percentage of visitors of a website that complete a desired goal, called conversion, out of the total number of visitors) to be as high as possible. A high conversion rate is indicative of successful marketing and web design. Companies try to implement several strategies to lower the abandonment rate. The most common ones are about optimisation of the check-out process, ease of purchase, reduction of the time spent on the purchase and many others. One interesting example of strategies aimed to increase the conversion rate is the Amazon’s One Click button that allows the customer to completely skip the shopping cart step.