The Convenience Store at the End of the World

If it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, then the post-apocalyptic grocery store is there to help imagine both. Catastrophically emptied of employees with shelves left stocked waiting to be raided by roving bands of survivors—it is common to the mise en scène of the end-of-the-world film genre as a sign of the collapse of the economic relations that define our current globalized-capitalist-market-economic system. Products in the store-at-the-end-of-the-world are left unguarded and free for the taking. Every customer becomes is a shoplifter at the final out-of-business sale.

So imagine my surprise when I happened upon an eerily empty convenience store in a local park on a sunny weekend afternoon some weeks ago. Its shelves were stocked, yet nobody was home. The lights were out and no employees were on the clock.

The BOX Zhixiangyi Station demonstrates many of the formal aspects of the familiar store at the end of the world. But, of course, the BOX is not at the end of the world as one might see in films—its goods are not free to be raided by the post-apocalyptically needy.

It does, however, suggest a different end—an end of yet another link in the retail service chain. It is the end of needing employees to serve customers.

The BOX Zhixiangyi (lit. smart, enjoyable and easy) is a “24-hour self-service smart retail store” that offers a shop emptied of humans, full of products, and a place where customers can experience being enmeshed in a zone of high-tech surveillance and policing systems.

Now, with the right amount of watching, retail customers can serve themselves.

The “smart” in “smart retail store” doesn’t mean, of course, that the store knows what customers need or that customers can expect any special service. No, the store is simply a shipping-container sized box filled with many of the same things that an ordinary convenience store might have.

“Smart” means that the shop’s surveillance systems will make sure that customers don’t steal anything while selecting, scanning and paying for things that they wish to buy. In other words, smart refers to the store’s panoptical achievement. In the BOX, a “smart” retail exchange means smart policing, not smart service.

While it might seem that the store is there for the customer, in fact, the customer by their own participation becomes there for the store. The invisible surveillance makes the customers entirely visible to the surveyor. To enter the BOX store one needs to install the appropriate WeChat application and authenticate one’s identity. In doing this, the customer offers up real name information, the names of all friends and acquaintances shared on the platform, as well as banking, location, and other data.

Rather than the simple and anonymous transaction of, say, buying can of soda or a bag of chips from a vending machine or a more typical convenience store, shopping in the BOX opens customers up to visual surveillance and complete transparency of identity. Not only does the BOX shed labor costs associated with a retail sales force, but also collects valuable information from all customers as a condition of entry.

Commerce is typically associated with the vibrant hustle and bustle of objects and social interactions in a marketplace. By contrast, it is an eerie feeling to see the dark, silent and empty store sitting alongside the road—waiting to be activated by the arrival of a human customer.

In his fascinating book, The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher describes that the sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something (61).” The eeriness of the BOX stems from both an absence and a presence. One feels there should be people inside—salespeople and customers. Instead, the BOX stages an odd act of quiet solitary exchange (autoretail? autoconsumption?) in a transparent fishbowl, in the presence of an eerie unseen force—the auditory, visual and computing systems of the “smart store.”

Fisher argues that it is important to consider the eerie because it, “…turns crucially on the problem of agency, it is about the forces that govern our lives and the world. It should be especially clear to those of us in a globally tele-connected capitalist world the those forces are not fully available to our sensory apprehension. A force like capital does not exist in any substantial sense, yet it is capable of producing practically any kind of effect (64).”

It seems to me that agency under a regime of surveillance is precisely an issue raised by the BOX. The existence of the BOX makes it possible to imagine a future where the labor of retail exchanges are self-driven and self-actuated in a totally policed environment. The appearance of the store—emptied of people yet filled with things and surveillance—has me thinking:

  • Are there lasting effects to submitting to such extreme zones of policing and surveillance for something as simple as the everyday purchase of a Coke or a bag of peanuts?
  • Does it mean something that potential customers would casually give up so much for the novel experience of shopping in an empty store? Or in the current era of pervasive social media is this already a moot question (i.e. “nobody cares”)
  • A zone of restricted access is by definition also a zone of potential exclusion. What can be let in, can be kept out. What happens to those who do not have WeChat, do not have authorization and cannot gain entry? Currently, someone could be standing outside the locked door of the BOX with thousands of Yuan in their hands and yet unable to buy a single bottle of water.
  • The invisibility of production in the global system has already led to the hidden structural violence of sweatshops, labor issues, environmental damage and worker health. What might be the effects of an added layer of invisibility at the point of purchase—when there are no workers visible at all?
  • As the retail commodity chain has shortened over the past decades customers have taken on more and more of the cost of transportation and logistics of the goods they purchase (they drive farther to move more product across space, pay for the costs of transportation and storage, refrigeration, etc.) Now if they are not only responsible for the labor of shopping, but also the labor of purchasing, bagging and payment, is the only added-value of the retail experience of the BOX the surveillance? (And, I suppose the marginal enjoyment of the novelty of an “automated store.”)
  • Is it significant that customers’ experience directly with a product is only mediated by surveillance technology—invisible to the user and yet offering up the user and the transaction transparently to the surveyor?

If the vacated store-at-the-end-of-the-world is a cinematic sign of an end to the relationship of capitalist consumption, then might the visible emptiness of the “smart” store signal an equally dramatic change? Could an automated store like the BOX be a chrysalis for the metamorphosis of retail relations from their current form? Is this really the future?

3 comments

  1. Jeff

    I don’t know whether this is “the future” in the sense of replacing other retail models but it could be part of the future. We have evidence that people are willing to make these adjustments. The effects on privacy, separation from production, and potential exclusion are already built in when you purchase online (or, for that matter, when you ordered from a paper catalog 20 years ago). If retail existed only online and stores didn’t exist, this would feel like an intriguing physical extension of that experience rather than a creepy shadow of something familiar. People would celebrate the convenience of not having to wait several hours or a couple of days to receive their goods.

    Everyone frames our evolving retail model as a competition between online vs brick-and-mortar. (People who use the word “omnichannel” talk about how online and offline can work together, but whatevs.) However, if you’re looking to our buying habits for a sign of our progress toward dystopia, the model that I think is more interesting is the in-app purchase. Things like the BOX (and the identity management and surveillance that enable it) erode the boundary between “shopping” and “not shopping.” There have been vending machines for decades, but buying things bigger than a bag of chips has traditionally required some intent to reach for your wallet. There are a lot of non-commercial situations and activities that are probably subject to disruption by an encroaching virtual storefront.

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    • I like your point that if stores were added after online then these would feel like in “intriguing extension” rather than a “creepy shadow.” I agree that the real issue here is the erosion of the boundary between shopping and not shopping—or, more broadly the boundary between any specific zone of activity and a generalized pervasive and persistent tracking. This is why I do find the issue of agency an interesting one. What does “agency” mean if, from morning to night, each of us is simply a constantly running stream of tracking data flowing from our devices into various diagnostic algorithms?

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      • Jeff

        Are we not more than the footprints we leave behind? I’m not excited about our surveillance culture but I don’t know that I’m ready to accept the premise that I’m somehow reduced by it. For all the hype surrounding data, analytics can only tell you so much about the world. If Google chooses to view the universe through the lens of retail determinism that says more about them than it does about me.

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