Usually when I go to a grocery store or target back in the States I’m there to buy food, cosmetics, sometimes clothes, or maybe a movie. Typically I go to the store find what I need and leave. I’m pretty oblivious to what other shoppers are doing and not really interested in why they are there or what they are shopping for. So when we went to Tesco in the UK and Prague to do ethnography I really had to stretch myself and do something I had never done before. While in the UK ethnography was still a new concept to me and I think I still looked at the people through a more American lens and focused too much on the visual aspects of what I saw. After a bit more experience however in London, Manchester, and Prague, I began to understand better how ethnography requires all the senses and requires you to look beyond what you would normally see to the things you may typically ignore.
In the UK’s Tesco I walked in and immediately felt like I was back in Milwaukee at a Pick n’ Save. My experience walking around and observing there was rather uneventful because I just brushed off the store as a normal grocery store and assumed that the shoppers were just like American shoppers. I took the time to walk down the aisles and look at the brands and the shoppers and what they were doing, but I think at this Tesco I was focusing too much on the bigger picture and not on the little details. Focusing and relying too much on visual really hindered my ability to see all the details that would have really made my experience there a lot richer.
In Prague however I had a bit more of an understanding of ethnography. Also, by having an activity that forced me to limit my visual observations allowed me to really tune into my other senses. In the Czech Tesco, our mission was to spend 30 minutes and record 30 things using our senses about the store, products, and people. Only half could be using sight. I began downstairs in the grocery area. I think smell and hearing were the two senses I utilized the most in this department because of all the smells from the food, but also the sounds coming from the customers and workers shopping, stocking, and checking out. I took the time to walk around and touch different produce, packages, and displays. Each aisle I walked down I breathed deeply to try and smell everything in the vicinity. I also stopped to listen to feet pattering across the floor, conversations in other languages, and cardboard ripping as stockers disassembled boxes and crates. Moving onto visual, I noticed that shoppers took their time in the Tesco to compare prices and inspect packaging and products and the majority of shoppers using carts or baskets had shopping lists. Also I feel like shoppers were not “perusing” but had a good idea of where they were going and what they needed. I spent the last half of my 30 minutes upstairs in the clothing, cosmetics, toys, sporting goods, and electronics. I thought the contrast between floors was insane. The lower level felt like a typical grocery store, while upstairs felt like a K-Mart or Wal-Mart. One of the first things I noticed about the consumer upstairs was that there were far more women upstairs than downstairs. The upper floor even smelled like a Wal-Mart with its mix of rubber scent from bike tires and sports equipment, the synthetic leathers and plastics from some of the apparel, and topped off with heavily scented cheap perfumes and lotions near cosmetics. I walked around the clothing department and noticed how the clothes not only looked like they could be in a discount retailer in the states but felt like clothes in a Wal-Mart too. The cottons were rougher and not soft like higher end garments and the jeans were stiffer and not a quality heavy denim. Everything about the products’ scent, feel and look fit in with the store’s concept.
My shopping experience as an ethnographer was so much better in Prague than in the UK. I had a better understanding of how to observe people and really see the whole picture.