Those among you that read my contributions to this blog will know that there is nothing I love more than a bargain. I’d love to let on that I only buy my groceries from upscale farmers markets and Waitrose but in reality I shop in Aldi pretty regularly and will admit to appreciating the local produce and salt-of-the-earth bargains that my favourite German chain always delivers.
Anyway. Aldi is where I found myself where this story begins. Queuing at the tills I tuned into a conversation between the lady in front of me and the cashier. The lady was upset that Aldi had run out of piccalilli. The cashier explained that it was a temporary situation and that any day now there would be an abundance of piccalilli back on the shelves. The lady was not happy though, and said she would have to source it elsewhere. To diffuse the situation, I apologised for overhearing and informed her that they would probably have piccalilli next door in Family Bargains. She thanked me, and with a final glare at the cashier, left. While I was paying for my groceries it occurred to me that it might be quite nice to have some piccalilli with dinner. I hadn’t had it in ages. I decided to pop to Family Bargains myself.
Five minutes later I found myself in the queue at Family Bargains behind the same lady, both of us armed with a jar of Piccalilli. We had a good old laugh at the situation. But unfortunately the fellow in front of us appeared to be causing all sorts of chaos buying an abundance of lawn ornaments (in January!! Who does that?!) and as time went by and the lady and I realised that the only thing we had in common was a passing interest in piccalilli, the conversation dried up. In desperation, I enquired what other pickled things she liked. She replied that she didn’t care for piccalilli, in fact, she was buying it for her husband. More time passed. I contemplated opening the piccalilli and just smearing it over my face to ease the awkwardness.
Six hours later I arrived home to find that not only had I left my Aldi groceries in the fridge at work, I had left the piccalilli as well. Flipping brilliant. So, what’s this all been about, I wondered? Well, even though dinner, as a result of my absent mindedness would now consist of leftovers from the night before, a couple of elderly potatoes and a questionable carrot, I hoped my adventures during the day hadn’t been a waste of time.
Having spent a lot of time over the years working in wine shops, attending tastings, and generally dealing with folks that like wine, the piccalilli situation was uncomfortable territory for me. Had the lady in the queue been armed with a bottle of wine, I am certain that our conversation wouldn’t have descended into silent awkwardness. I could have struck up a conversation about it, and maybe even given her some suggestions of other wines she ought to try. If she were armed with something awful (and in Family Bargains, this is sort of inevitable) I could have heroically disarmed her and saved her the agony of having to drink it. Part of the joy of selling and buying wine is just talking about it with people – wine people love to chat, and they are full of passion.
I wondered whether there were any other products that people could easily bond over and strike up interesting conversations with strangers about in shops. I decided to put this to the test with a mini-experiment during the month of January. At Christmas I had accumulated a number of gift vouchers for various shops so I decided that as I used each one, I would attempt to make a new friend in the queue for the checkout by bonding over mutually purchased products.
My first stop was Debenhams. I had made my mind up to purchase some decent make up so I went straight to the Clinique counter. In the absence of any other customers, I struck up a conversation with the lady who worked there. Twenty minutes later with a faceful of Clinique, I had learned all about their product range, been painted for a night on the town, and parted with £50 more than my voucher allowed. Still, I didn’t feel like the conversation had been one that I was actually involved in. Mind you, those people really do know their stuff, and boy can they sell, but I didn’t feel like we had necessarily become friends.
The next stop on my agenda was Matalan. I attempted to engage the lady in front of me in the queue by complimenting the shoes she was holding. It didn’t go down well as she informed me that she was returning them, but that her good-for-nothing husband had lost the receipt. I wasn’t sure how to progress from here, and while I patiently learned that her good-for-nothing husband had taken their son to Sports Direct instead of assisting her in Matalan, again, I didn’t feel like this was the start of a blossoming friendship and I was relieved when she was summoned to the customer service checkout.
My final stop was Waterstones. I left with a book for my nephew, a couple of thrillers and an additional book that the sales assistant had recommended at the counter. I was pleased with my purchases but felt that there had been some judgment when I was asked how old my nephew was and I had held my hand out to a point on the shelf and indicated he was ‘about this big’. The last-minute recommendation at the counter had brought us closer, but were we on the brink of becoming friends? I didn’t think so.
Maybe it was naive of me to think that the sort of bonding that wine people do would naturally happen in other shops, and to be fair my experiment was rather limited. Maybe people reading this will recall all sorts of incidents in which they’ve bonded with strangers in shops over homemade jams or artisan potatoes or cat litter or other things, but I felt that my curiosity had been, for now at least, satisfied.
Feeling deflated, I popped into a wine shop on the way home. I was offered a tasting of some red that had just been opened, which I accepted. I started browsing and before long I was having a natter to a tall chap that was wandering about with a glass. It turned out we had attended the same tasting recently. He liked New Zealand Pinot Noirs. I wrote down the website address for 12×75 for him and jokingly said I would mention him. I felt like I had come home, and left with a couple of lovely bottles and a sense of enormous wellbeing.
Hello Pete, by the way! I hope you like the blog.