August 2008

Driverless, computer-controlled trains at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) have windshield wipers. But the train doesn’t need to—in fact can’t—see the physical path in front of it, and the train’s human passengers don’t need a clear view either. Do we think that, if we can’t see, the train won’t be able to either?

Another possibility: The trains are off-the-rack and came with wipers already. I wonder if the wipers activate when it rains. If so, how? There would have to be moisture sensors, because there would be no human to turn them on or off.

Note the mirror, three carrot-packets back. The mirror is installed at such an angle that it’s not immediately obvious that it’s a mirror. It looks almost as though the stacks of produce just continue, gradually sloping upwards and back.

But why the mirror? Are we more likely to buy a product if we believe there is more of it? There are no mirrors behind the crackers or the olive oil; if we came into the store desperately needing olive oil and there was one bottle left, we would buy it, and feel relieved. But the same scenario applied to carrots takes on a different story: we become suspicious of the remaining package of carrots. Why was it left here? Why is this package the last one available?

 Carrots—and all other produce—are not standard commodities, much as we’d like to pretend otherwise. Hence, there’s safety in numbers: Quantity, therefore diversity, therefore selection, therefore quality. One package of crackers is (almost entirely) exactly like the next. Not so with carrots or lettuce.

Part of this, I bet, is freshness: We understand that standardized, processed products are produced continually. A cracker factory can run 24/7/365, continually turning out crackers, sealing them into bags, sealing the bags into boxes, palletting the boxes, shrinkwrapping the pallets, and sending them by truck across the country.

Carrots (we hope) aren’t produced this way. There are the forces of nature to contend with: the rise and fall of the sun, the flow of irrigation. With produce, we have been conditioned to worship the idea of harvest, of natural cycles, and therefore expect that produce will arrive in waves, peaking at certain times.

Quantity becomes an indicator of freshness: The mirror is a clever, half-noticed graphic trick designed to bring the carrots’ harvest peaks to mind. More carrots, and they were harvested more recently; fewer, and maybe the carrots have been in the store for awhile.

Product-specific brand names run the risk of dilution or confusion when paired with products outside that brand’s purview. Dunkin’ Donuts-brand bagels? Iced Tea from a Farmer’s Cow? The redundancy of FedEx Express? All are examples of a kind of rust, a kind of calcification: The continual building-up of ideas and strategies and products available. Is there value in sticking to a more generic brand name (Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, etc.) so that no product is off limits?

A Staples aisle inside a Stop & Shop. The store is no longer bound by physical form. But then, the brand never was.

It’s not like they’re that expensive. The benefit of shifting some work to the consumer. See E.G. cake mix and eggs.

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