Why you should care

Because you sure as hell will once you’re over the hill.

Outside, it’s raining — and inside, it’s hellish prime time. The grocery store is packed with unhappy people. I’m daydreaming in the shortest line when a swat lands on my arm. I look down to find an elderly lady with a rose-colored purse swinging from her shoulder. “This isn’t your line!” is all I can make out from her angry torrent. The grandfather in line behind me offers up only a nod in agreement. I look across the store at the other queues only to see dozens of beady, angry Brazilian eyes all staring at the gringa in the wrong line.

And that’s the day I learned how Brazilian supermarkets work: They set aside a “Preferential” line or two for the elderly (or people of “third age,” as they say in Portuguese), the crippled and the knocked-up. Get in that line without gray hair, a cane or a baby bump, and you’re liable to get swatted, just like I did. In its supermarkets, at least, Brazilians place a high value on protecting the weak, and that means not forcing them to wait in the infernal lines that define the national consumer experience. You know what? The United States, an ostensibly functioning and progressive country, should follow Brazil’s lead.

Preferential lines are a symbol of civilized society, IMO, and all the more important as our demographics shift. By 2050, nearly 84 million Americans will be older than 65; today the number is about 43 million, says the Census Bureau. Imagine yourself, bunioned and half blind, waiting in an interminable line. Or, perhaps worse, coming to grips with one of those abysmal automated checkout machines. Preferential lines are a no-brainer for Daryl Travis, the author of How Does It Make You Feel? Why Emotion Wins the Battle of Brands: “Since supermarkets have handicapped parking, why not handicapped lanes?”

Why stop there? My mother recalls how when I was growing up in a small town in Louisiana, there was a line at the grocery store with a sign that read “Line for Parents With Small Children — No Candy.” In Berlin, they’ve designed an entire grocery store with elderly people in mind, complete with magnifying glasses and lower shelves. Back in the U.S., some pharmacies have installed carpeting over shiny floors to avoid slip-and-falls. Dr. Yuanyuan Yin, a lecturer of design management at the University of Southampton, came up with her own design for a supermarket adapted to the elderly — less out of compassion than competition, she says, citing the U.K.’s own aging population.

A representative of the National Grocers Association says similar ideas are in the pipeline, with operators “reimagining their stores as community hot spots,” complete with Wi-Fi and nutrition advice, as well as checkout help. And in general, of course, the lines in the U.S. are across-the-board shorter than they are in Brazil, so the stakes are lower: The time a weaker person will be forced to stand around might be less in an average U.S. line than even in the Brazilian preferential line.

Still, if grocers don’t adapt, the checkout line could very well go the way of the dodo, in favor of online shopping. So don’t get mad the next time you get swatted in the wrong line in Brazil. Get jealous, because their supermarkets are kinder than ours.

What do you think the supermarkets of the future should look like?


OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.