Shopping, together

Alastair Somerville
7 min readMar 7, 2021

I live in Stroud. It is a small town in the South West of England. It is mostly set in five valleys, carved out over the years by rivers. The town has both a fairly standard selection of shops and a weekly Farmer’s Market. Our family tries to use both and support the local economy (tho the last year has led to more use of Click And Collect for supermarket and Amazon deliveries). This post is about both what I feel I need to shop more easily and also a discussion of what may be better socially and economically.

There are three parts to the post:

  1. Shopping comfortably – thinking of an individual product
  2. Shopping together – thinking of design of services for each other
  3. Shopping communally – thinking of balance of technological infrastructures and social networks

The questions we move thru are: do I need a service more than a product? More importantly, do I need a community more than a service?

Shopping comfortably

I can walk into town in 10 minutes and shop. Stroud is, given its position in the five valleys, quite hilly. As an old market town, it is also quite tight, rambling and cobbled. How to shop and carry everything comfortably is a problem.

As a family, we have tried just using shopping bags (but that gets unwieldy), pull-along trolley (tricky on slopes and cobbles, also causing backache due to twisting back) and backpack (good for capacity and easier for moving around).

The problem with backpack is that shopping gets mixed up in different ways that cause damage to the purchases. In particular, mixing fresh vegetables, dry goods and bread with hot food in containers takes care.

The Shopping Backpack sketch at the start of this post is how I would like to reorganise the experience. Separating the different elements and ensuring they do not spill over or spoil each other.

I shared the sketch on Twitter (as I publicly prototype most ideas) and got feedback. Some people pointing to Deliveroo-style packs (tho the ones I have seen seem bulky), higher quality backpacks (with separate zip pocket chambers) and baby care backpacks (with spill-proof pockets and multiple chambers).

However, there was also criticism that backpacks are antisocial in an urban environment and that alternative solutions might be better.

This is the problem of thinking of a solution purely as a product. A thing to be made, to be purchased and to be used by an individual.

Shopping together

I spent most of today driving to and from Wolverhampton to help my parents with a range of care issues. This provided time to imagine alternatives to a backpack.

The central issues are carrying a mixture of stuff from shops and stalls comfortably and ensuring it all does not damage each other while in the middle of Stroud or on the way home.

  • What if I did not need to carry all of it all the time around Stroud?
  • What if I could sort it out so it did not cause damage?
  • What if I could handover parts of the shopping temporarily to ease my physical stress?
  • What if I could be liberated from the whole hassle of carrying a mixture of goods home?

The two ideas I considered use social infrastructure and trust to provide services that could help me (and others).

Take my bag

Take my bag is relatively simple. Towns have spare space (especially with shop closures) and that capacity could be used to temporarily hold shopping for visitors. Having a safe drop off point for shopping enables a person to shop comfortably (and without a bulky pack or trolley). Circulating around the town, and around the market, is part of the pleasurable experience. Reducing the physical stress enables more of that pleasure.

There are some interesting design issues in providing the physical infrastructure and technological overlays to enable a system that is secure and safe to use. However, it would be easy to implement a simple version of this idea using volunteers with pen and paper.

It is easy to imagine a Premium or Enhanced version of such a service. Having many drop off points across the town could create a complicated mess for a person retracing their tracks. However, adding a service that moves bags to an agreed final pick up point could help. Using pedestrian or bicycle couriers to move bags nearer to transport hubs like the bus or railway station or the main car parks. This adds some new physical infrastructure to the service and some issues of timing but again is possible to prototype simply.

Are you going my way?

A more fluid service is one that eliminates the journey to drop off points (or even eliminates those points altogether). When you feel unable to carry a bag anymore, you ask someone nearby to take it.

Towns have physical infrastructure (the buildings and stalls that Take my bag uses. Towns also have social infrastructures. The mix of people and communities that make an urban space into a human place.

What if there was a social network of sharing the burden of shopping? A system of trusted relationships that means a person can stop in a street and signal for assistance (maybe a text message, maybe a word with a shop or stall keeper). In the jumble of journeys that people are making in a town, could a person take a bag and drop it off? There are privacy and security issues to be sure but what if there was trust and kindness?

Again, it is possible to imagine a Premium or Enhanced service. Why just carry a bag as far as a drop off point if you live nearby and have spare space on a bicycle or in a car. Why not deliver to a point closer to the home of the shopper requesting assistance?

Both Take my bag and Are you going my way are services that move away from an individual product sense of solution. Both use place and community to take the problem of carrying too many bags and a mixture of goods and provide places or people to mitigate or reduce the stress.

I have not described the service design in detail as that is the final issue to be discussed.

Shopping communally

In each of the four service ideas (two ideas with both a basic and a premium version), there are two axes marked outside the square box. These are:

  • Tech or Infrastructure
  • Social Trust

I have used these as frames for discussing how any of these services could be delivered. It is very easy to talk about service design solutions purely in terms of technologies required, physical infrastructures demanded and professional/volunteer staff needed. All of these are important and they do act as hard constraints upon the creation and delivery of a service.

However, they do not fully describe the possibilities of such services and the major reason for their success or failure.

Social Trust is crucial.

All these services need people to trust that they can leave shopping with other people and those bags will be kept safe until collection. Take my bags has a relatively low Social Trust requirement. The use of bounded physical spaces creates its own sense of security. Are you going my way is much harder. The network is made of people, of relationships and of kindness. That is very hard to project as a workable service when so many people are ingrained with ideas of distrust and suspicion. Yet even this is still a service. It take human kindness and makes transactions out of it and people trust it because it a transaction. Neighbourly behaviour is only trustworthy when it is formatted as professional not personal.

This is the most important, and final point, of this post. It is easy to talk of solutions in terms of product or service design but the most effective and most extraordinary solution lies in kindness and trust. However, that seems to be the most unimaginable of all the ideas. That we want to trust things, technologies and infrastructures more than humans is problematic.

How can we shop communally if we don’t offer each trust and kindness?



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX