In the Fall of 1989 while on a trip to the US, the yet-to-be-president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, visited a supermarket in Houston. He was amazed, or so we are told, by the impressive variety of goods available to the American consumer, an observation that stood in stark contrast to the limited choices and long waits in his home country. Yeltsin’s experience in the supermarket has been described as a watershed moment in his political thinking, and may have influenced Russia’s move towards free market policies when he became President of the Russian federation in 1991. It was in 1991 as well that India moved towards a free market economy, primarily in response to running out of foreign currency reserves and currency overvaluation and perhaps in some measure supported by the forementioned move by Russia, some of whose economic principles India had mimicked until that point. Such was the butterfly effect, if one can use that term, of Yeltsin’s visit to a supermarket in Houston.

My visits to the supermarket have, in comparison, been of little consequence to the world at large, except mine. Ironically, it has to do with choice – a word that has come to be synonymous with freedom as gurgling with babies. And I am not talking of days-in-a-week number of choices – those can be handled without a headache. However, there is something unsettling about being confronted by an aisle stacked with more varieties of cornflakes breakfast cereals than there are letters in the English alphabet. For even in that hurriedly disappearing habit of the weekday that we call a breakfast, it is important to emphatically exercise the right to choose.

Like the guard of honor accorded to visiting dignitaries, the cereal boxes stand in quiet unwavering discipline as I walk by for the cursory first inspection. As the visual information is absorbed and processed – contents, nutrition charts, colors, images, claims – a running tape in my head plays out incoherencies that, if one could slow them down as in time lapse photography, would translate to something like this: “….almost choked on that lethally tasteless calorie-saver; not the one high fructose corn syrup – might as well smoke my lungs out; the boxes in pink or those with smiling kids are not targeted at you; raisins love to cling to molars- don’t want to be reminded of them in subsequent meals; that one doesn’t soak up the milk well; that discounted price is much higher than the non-discounted prices for the boxes stacked about half a mile away and closer to the floor; what are those colored things – m&ms in breakfast cereals? really? thats like exploiting child psychology …..”

From what I have seen in those long moments by the aisle, breakfast cereal buyers range from those that march with singular determination towards the desired box, grab, and go, to those whose cognitive indecisions outlive mine. The former I admire for their monastic disregard of distractions, the latter make me feel like a reality show contestant that has just been told that he has moved on to the next round while the others wait morbidly with the hope that theirs will be one of the remaining names announced. If you thought that your grocery-shopping routine is a boring activity, you probably fall in the first category of those that are in-and-out so quickly they might catch themselves coming in when they exit.

On one occasion, my cogitations was interrupted by a sense of being watched. There was a lady besides me observing me intermittently. But before I made any further attempts at interpretation, I realized that she was observing my shopping cart as well. Her attempts at subterfuge demonstrated an evident lack of practice for I spotted her making quick notes in a notepad. Aha! I had almost come to believe that shopping behavior surveyors was another myth perpetrated on a consumer that couldn’t care less. I contemplated on what she may have been noting in her pad. Perhaps something on the lines of:

‘Name: (lets call him) Y
Age-Grp xx-xx,
Ethnicity: xxx,
Shopping Cart: xx1,xx2, xx3 (subject will suffer *evil laughter*), xx4 (hmm..now why would the subject need that?).
Observations: spotted subject in cereals aisle looking at cereal boxes; subject reading contents; subject momentarily distracted by another shopper; subject trying to assess which one is the heavier of brand x and brand y ; subject shaking the contents of a brand x2; subject cleaning glasses; subject knocks off a few boxes; subject is checking the contents of brand x3 again for the nth time; subject goes to brand x1, places his left hand on the box, and with his right hand tosses a coin; subject repeats this with brand x2, repeats with brand x3.. repeats with brand x229.. repeats with brand x512…subject has disappeared.

Conclusion: subject is (such a loony time-waster and needs to get a life!) not a good representative sample of the population.’

********

The news bits about the visit of the late Russian president to the Houston supermarket do not mention if he made a purchase. If indeed he had ventured to do so, certain histories may have panned out without their watershed moments.

Advertisements