Can supermarket shopping really be therapeutic? Join the debate

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Stylist Team
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It’s a trivial little part of our daily lives and most of us are, at best, indifferent towards it. But can supermarket shopping ever be considered joyful - cathartic, even? Following the news that supermarkets could introduce slow lanes to make shopping more relaxing, two Stylist writers go head-to-head on the issue of (grocery-based) retail therapy...

“Nothing soothes my spiralling mind more”

Stylist’s Sarah Biddlecombe

There are only a few surroundings I can tolerate when I’m feeling truly stressed and believe it or not, one of these is a supermarket.

After a bad day you will most likely find me wheeling a trolley through the winding aisles of my local Sainsburys, where I will shiver my way around the refrigerated display of cheeses or lose a happy half hour imagining the meals I could make with the ingredients in the Asian cooking aisle. I’ll spend more time than necessary investigating the new brand of Swiss chocolate stocked alongside the usual offerings from Cadburys, while surreptitiously judging the contents of my fellow shoppers’ baskets.

The perfect location for distraction and procrastination, nothing soothes my spiralling mind as much as a trip to the supermarket. A place of suspended reality, there is no room for negative thoughts – this is somewhere that sells food, after all.

But even if I don’t need to buy anything, I’ll still find myself walking automatically to the welcoming doors of a store. Shopping is at its most joyous when you’re looking for stuff you don’t really need, and you can justify anything you buy from a supermarket as an ‘essential’ (even if that item is a giant faux fur rug that costs half the price of the one you originally wanted from John Lewis).

Even better, supermarkets have an uncanny knack of killing your phone signal as soon as you walk in, and there is something deeply satisfying about hiding from your responsibilities while merrily perusing row after row of imported wines and spirits.

It offers a unique sense of escapism, where you can easily imagine becoming the kind of person who splurges £100 on a bottle of champagne to drink on a weeknight - even if you already know you’re going home with whatever brand of Sauvignon Blanc happens to be on offer that week.

Unlike every other shop on the high street, supermarkets are also the one place that can truly cater to your inner OCD, and this in itself can be immensely calming.

If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed, try losing yourself among the ordered aisles of neatly stacked boxes in a supermarket. I made my notes for this article on a lunchtime visit to our office’s local Waitrose, where I stood breathing in the warmth of the bakery section while tiny bricks of tension lifted off my shoulders. It really works.

So where did this (admittedly weird) love of supermarkets come from? I originally chalked it up to weekends spent picking up groceries with my parents, but in reality my overwhelming recollection of those trips was one of boredom. Instead, I think it has to do with an ingrained sense of familiarity, which has enabled supermarkets to stand in as a place of comfort during times of need.

Next time you’re rushing through your weekly food shop, and impatiently tripping down the crowded aisles, take a moment to imagine the store as a destination, rather than just the home of an annoying task that has to be done before you can get home.

You might just find you enjoy it.

“It brings into sharp focus everything you don’t want to think about”

Stylist’s Anna Brech

For me, supermarkets bring out the same kind of low-level anxiety as a packed tube at rush hour.

You know you have no choice but to enter into the madness even as your body cranks up a gear into flight or fight, cortisol pumping through your veins.

My aversion isn’t logical but like Pavlov and the dog, it’s unavoidable – a conditioned response with multiple triggers.

It’s the grating twang of trolleys untangling themselves (and why do they always have to be so unwieldy and truculent?)

The omnipresent strip lighting, harsh and unforgiving even at 8am.  

The packed veg aisle, where you have to roll up your sleeves and tussle for a half-priced cucumber - only slightly soggy on one end.

The soulless automated check-out, forever berating you over unexpected bagging.

The undercurrent of angst that comes from so many people going about the boring minutiae of their daily lives in close proximity.

For me, a supermarket brings into sharp focus everything you don’t want to think about; the repetitive, dull yet stressful and inevitable rhythm of 9-5 life. It’s just not good for the spirit.  Loiter too long in the frozen goods section on a Saturday morning and you could find yourself in the throws of a minor existential crisis.

Above all though, the real problem is the choice. I  know it’s an unbearably First World issue but studies show time and again that too much variety is bad for us. We become paralyzed with indecision and uncertainty.  It’s little wonder some of us feel overwhelmed when faced with 14 different types of Fair Trade tea.

In supermarkets, every tiny decision becomes a series of inane questions. Small eggs or large? Free range or organic? Do you want some bread to go with that? Wholemeal or gluten-free? What’s the point of gluten-free? Oh, wait – there’s a recipe card. Do I need some sprinkles on that? WHERE DID MY BASKET GO?

Champagne problems yes, but still a chronically listless process for someone vague like me, who can easily end up wandering around in circles all day  - caught helplessly amid those superior beings who go in Focused and With Lists.

Even when you reach check-out the torture doesn’t end; instead, as you wait in line (there’s always a line), you’re confronted by the enormity of your own poor life choices. Oh gross, am I really that person who prefers a six-pack of fizzy drinks to the glossy overload of butternut squashes toted by my trolley neighbour? Apparently I am.

I’ve tried ways to overcome my supermarket phobia. I’ve lingered in the relatively serene magazines area and read the cute “ask your grown-up helper first” signs over free trays of apples. I’ve even tried skidding on the trolley wheels (woooo… fun).

But it’s a lost cause. Time to check out, and log-in. Thank GOD for internet shopping.