Scaling the Great Wall

Here is my essay from Washingtonian magazine, adapted from An Economist Gets Lunch, about what it is like to shop at a Chinese supermarket for a month.  Here is one bit about search theory:

Then there’s getting your cart down the aisle. The main aisles fit two carts side by side, barely. It’s hard to get down the aisles, and that discourages browsing. My initial tendency was to search the empty aisles, if only because I knew I could get down them without much delay. This obviously isn’t the best strategy, and it led me to spend too much time looking at the highly durable items, which are purchased less frequently by other customers. Overall, I felt far less mobile than in an American supermarket. I started going later at night and avoiding the weekends to circumvent these problems.

It’s common to see a Great Wall customer spending a solid minute or two inspecting the quality of a pineapple, thereby blocking that portion of the aisle. The customers who seek green peas go through the bin pea by pea. One woman became entranced picking out the best garlic chives, and a man asked for sales help in selecting the best clams–by what standard he judged them I’m not sure. No one was much enamored of the scooping technique for filling a plastic bag.


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