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The ‘soulless corporation’ look – yes, it’s Amazon on the high street

Barbara Ellen
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

I may be a retail misanthrope, but are the till-free Amazon Fresh shops a depersonalised step too far? At first sight, the basic concept (wander in, wander out, get charged later) looks tailor-made for me.

I already don’t need much shopping “face time”. I was never one for going 1950s-walkabout with a wicker basket collecting items from different artisan shops, served by smiling central-casting shopkeepers, straight out of a Happy Families card deck. Each to their own: if people get their kicks cosplaying Camberwick Green, then good luck to them. Though you have to wonder if this nostalgia is their own or, rather, a borrowed memory from parents or grandparents.

Personally, I couldn’t care less if shopkeepers don’t know my name. I’m happy sashaying around my local supermarket with the self-scanner. I was also happy – far too happy – with the advent of online shopping. Even before lockdown, I did 95% of my Christmas shopping staring at a screen, prodding keys. I ended up feeling guilty about my one-woman assassination of the British high street. But Amazon Fresh is on the high street. Whatever else you could criticise it for, it’s a real-life, real-time experience. So, what’s the problem – why does it all look so creepy?

First, the obvious issues with Amazon: data-harvesting (though data is only kept for 30 days), tax-swerving, reported bad treatment of workers, and the rest. Amazon Fresh has staff, just not as many as regular supermarkets. All those jobs “disappeared” for your customer convenience, and it’s disturbing how, increasingly, even the jobs that do exist are shuffled out of sight.

What seems different with Amazon Fresh is that everything about Amazon, right and wrong, is suddenly right up in your face

What happens when the wifi blips and people are charged for 7,000 Amazon own-brand falafel wraps? What isn’t disturbing about cameras tracking your every move? Moreover, in this big-tech era, surely customers should be able to tally their shop as they go, instead of waiting for phones to cough up the information hours later? It just seems sly, as though shoppers are being encouraged to turn into impulse-buying zombies. Ah, wait…

Maybe that’s the issue. Amazon Fresh truly replicates online shopping, in good ways (ultra-convenience) and bad – customers lulled into next-stage retail-detachment. So, what’s new? For decades, we’ve fretted about fast food; did we really think that fast shopping would be consequence-free? What seems different with Amazon Fresh is that everything about Amazon, right and wrong (efficiency, depersonalisation, manipulation), is suddenly right up in your face. It’s the ramming home of not only Amazon’s dominance, but also its attitude problem.

Even for convenience-first souls like me, that feels like a little too much Amazon. “Dystopian” is a word that’s been cropping up, and certainly Nineteen Eighty-Four springs to mind. Big Jeffer staring down as we submit to Amazon, including the food we eat. Amazon may have made a mistake. Amazon Fresh just might wake us all up.

There are plain speakers. And then there is Shaun Bailey

Shaun Bailey
Shaun Bailey: said a universal basic income would be squandered on drugs. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/REX/Shutterstock

When will Tory contempt for the poor cease to be dressed up as plain speaking? Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey told the London Assembly, where a trial for the universal basic income (UBI) was being discussed, that UBI would lead to people buying “lots of drugs”.

Bailey cited his experience as a youth worker to back this up, but surely it doesn’t belong in a general discussion about poverty? Or, to a certain Tory mindset, have the disadvantaged been promoted from “benefit-skivers” to “extras on The Wire” now?

Bailey also pondered whether UBI would “drive prices up for basic goods when we know people could just buy them because the money’s there”. Thanks, Shaun, that was all very interesting.

This isn’t Bailey’s first motormouthed rodeo. He became a special adviser for David Cameron when the then-prime minister might have been keen to demonstrate that the “40-year-old black man” he mentioned in the 2010 election debate wasn’t the only BAME person of his acquaintance. Bailey failed to get elected in 2010 and 2017, though this hasn’t deterred him from sharing his opinions about the homeless (they should save for a mortgage), single mothers (they want to live off benefits), and more. .

This kind of drivel masquerades as plain speaking when it’s mere dog-whistling to those who deride struggling people. Bailey’s statement seems yet more astonishing at a time when one in five schools have set up food banks. Perhaps, UBI would enable people to buy food for their families, or is that too much plain speaking? Regardless, on behalf of all Londoners, I’d like to thank Bailey for showing us exactly who he is.

Feuds aside, Taylor and Katy are thoroughly modern women

Taylor Swift and Katy Perry
Forever sisters? Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Photograph: Danny Moloshok/Reuters

Time was, it was difficult to keep up with the Taylor Swift/Katy Perry feud. The once-sworn pop foes spent some time engulfed in a frenemy-mushroom cloud of diss-tracks, shared exes, cloaked tweets and stolen backing dancers. Think: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of the Spotify generation. Last time I checked, they’d made friends again. In one way, they’ll be forever sisters.

Swift has just rebuked Netflix for a “lazy deeply sexist joke” that appeared in the sitcom, Ginny and Georgia, where a character says: “You go through men faster than Taylor Swift.” Nice bit of casual slut-shaming there. Meanwhile, Perry has been photographed in a swimsuit playing on the beach with her six-month-old baby. Perry looks perfectly normal and gloriously happy. Apparently too happy for some – she was subsequently body-shamed for having human thighs.

What life-affirming messages these are for the female fans of both artists. One, women are only allowed one sexual partner in their entire lives, or they risk becoming on-screen shorthand for promiscuity. Two, if you haven’t slimmed down to a Twiglet six months after giving birth, you have completely failed as a woman, and must be placed under house arrest until further notice. Let’s hope that Swift and Perry are friends again – they sure have a lot in common.

  • Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist