The Inadequacy of Cooked, Peeled Prawns

I’m an angry man. I really am. And I really need to vent some spleen. Will you join me? Excellent.

I understand that raging on the internet about my first world problems is the epitome of entitled behaviour. I know, and I am truly sorry. The problem is that what I am currently so furious about is ordering food online. I know, I should keep my mouth shut and weep in to my organic houmous.

As a family, we are very conscientious about our meal times: we follow best practice. I plan a menu many weeks in advance, based on the things we want to eat. I review it a few days before we go shopping, to make sure that it’s all still valid. My partner and I discuss it, and make changes where necessary; she then writes the shopping list, and we go to the shop and buy the things we need.

Because we shop on a Saturday, by Friday night the fridge and cupboards look rather sparse. We plan, and we stick to our plans. We don’t just guess what we might need, and we don’t pile endless unplanned stuff in to our trolley as we make our aimless way around our local supermarket. The boys from “Eat Well for Less” would be so proud. And don’t we love to tell everybody about it?

The problem comes when changes to our plans happen. Rather, when we know we won’t be able to make it to the shops. It doesn’t happen very often, but life is such that it is bound to happen once in a while. We have to resort to buying our weekly food order online. And that’s where it goes wrong.

I know that some people find online an absolute boon: it takes a large time sink of a task out of their busy schedule. Good on them. They have quite clearly developed the methodologies to extract what they need from the process. They have quite clearly developed the coping strategies to deal with the myriad disappointments and privations which outsourcing your produce selection entails. They have quite clearly cracked something which I have not, can not and now will not, get my head around.

In my life, online food shopping is an emergency measure, and only that. It doesn’t work for me, and it makes me angry that it so consistently goes wrong. At Christmas we were lulled in to a false sense of security, when an online food shop actually worked. This was an anomaly, a deliberate fault in the ordering system, designed to pull us back in to the fold once more. We were suckers to believe it.

Menu planning all goes on as normal: I write it, I edit it, we discuss it, she writes the list. Only, this time, the list is written directly in to the shiny app of a major supermarket chain. They shall remain nameless here, but if they ask me about my online shopping experience I will give them both barrels.

The crunch comes when items which arrive are not the ones you would have chosen had you been there to pick them up yourself. I would never, for instance, buy a punnet of strawberries which had a “Best Before Date” of the next day. I like a longer date than that, so I will dig for it. I understand that supermarkets are businesses with very fine margins, that if they choose longer dates over shorter, their shelves will fill up with old stock, going bad. What I don’t understand is a business which would send out strawberries which then go mouldy the next day. That’s something I find unacceptable.

The same happened with the leaves we bought. We like salad in our house, especially when the weather warms up. What we don’t like is a bag of rocket which has started to go limp and soggy, and which cannot be rescued, regardless of how much kitchen roll it gets wrapped in. Also unacceptable.

We go to the same supermarket week in week out. Aside from the increasing frequency of shifting sections about, our grocery choices tend to be based on what we know we can buy in this particular branch of this particular supermarket. We once tried to buy our usual stuff in one of their rivals, and found that we couldn’t get everything we needed. That was rather annoying, and we vowed to never make that mistake again. Only, the items available on the app don’t match the items we want.

As an example, the name of the fizzy water we buy is different online and in store. The water which arrived was the same, but when we went looking for it, it was not to be found. That’s an issue. Our preferred type of toilet tissue: also not there. We use an own brand type, with Aloe Vera. Their own brand. It wasn’t there. We had to change the loo roll we buy, and frankly the new one is utter crap.

This made the whole process of inputting our shopping list to their app more infuriating and time-consuming than it ever should have been, than it was built to be by their developers. I’d imagine that they had their systems optimised by user experience experts. Our experience was sub-optimal.

My problem is not with online ordering in general: While I was waiting for my food delivery to arrive on Saturday I ordered a new pair of trainers. They arrived on Sunday, and were precisely what I had been expecting them to be. There were no enforced substitutions on my shoe order, because the shop knew precisely what they had in stock. Why can’t supermarkets have that information too?

I wanted some large, raw, shell-on prawns. Once we’d navigated the labyrinthine pathways of their grocery lists to find vaguely the right area, we compromised on a product similar to the one I would usually pick up in store. Only, when it arrived, it was substituted. Instead of raw prawns they were cooked; they had no shells, and they had a very short date. For a meal I wanted to cook on Friday, they were utterly fucking useless. However, I stupidly accepted the substitution for speed. They also substituted a 9-pack of chocolate bars for one 4-pack. That just seems wrong-headed on every level.

We can’t just accept these minor inadequacies, and learn to cope with them. Supermarkets need to wake up to the fact that this is not on. Then again, we also need to do more ourselves to tell them.