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Dutch supermarket chain caters to the lonely

AP
Updated: December 06, 2019 02:39 PM
Created: December 06, 2019 02:29 PM

For many, heading down to the local supermarket to do the grocery shopping is a mundane chore, rather than a social highlight.

But for 89-year-old Bart de Wilt, a shopping trip in his hometown of Vlijmen, south of Amsterdam, can really brighten up his day.

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Today he's shopping at the "Jumbo" supermarket, and it's not just the grocery range that attracts him here.

It's also the opportunity to see some friendly faces, share a joke, and perhaps sit down for a coffee as well.

According to research published by the Dutch public agency "Volksgezondheidenzorg" ("Public Health and Care"), such outlets can be hard to find for many people in the Netherlands.

The agency reported in 2016 that 43% of adults say they are lonely, and it also estimates that 10% of adults have psychological problems linked to feeling socially isolated.

Experts say, as the Dutch population rapidly ages, the problem is becoming more acute.

That's where this supermarket comes in, with initiatives like this one - the "coffee corner", set up amid the shopping aisles.

"Here there are also shoppers who want to take a short break, a bit of a rest. Most of them are elderly people, but there are also other shoppers who want to have a break while shopping. And here (at the coffee corner), you can get in to contact with each other, which normally doesn't happen when you walk in and do your grocery shopping," explains Bart de Wilt.

Indeed, slowing down at the supermarket goes against the grain of what many supermarkets have been doing.

But here, local manager Dick de Fijter says, a slower pace is proving a hit.

And it's not just the "coffee corner" that keeps shoppers coming.

"What we see here is the "chatter checkout", our new initiative. It's connected to the "coffee corner". This is actually the opposite of self-checkouts (which) help fast processing grocery sales quickly. Here it takes a bit longer to process your payment. And people appreciate this, and also see it as an additional service offered by our supermarket. They can make a choice between self-checkouts, or a chatter checkout," he says.

For Bart de Wilt, the chatter checkout is preferable to the self-checkout, any time.

A retired farmer, he enjoys sharing a word with the cashier on his shopping trips, and sometimes even shares his farming knowledge by making observations about the products for sale.

It's a nice interaction to reflect on, as he makes his way back home, a lonely trip since Bart De Wilt's wife Jo de Wilt died, five years ago.

Here, home on his own, a 24-hour satellite channel streaming classical music concerts helps with the sense of isolation.

But it's been a tough few years for Bart de Wilt, especially the first two years after Jo de Wilt's death.

"I have noticed that returning home is the most difficult part. When I am alone at home, it's not easy to deal with loneliness. But still, the hardest part is coming back home to an empty house," he says.

As self-checkout technology has grown more popular, opponents have occasionally drawn connections between speeding up grocery trips and the loss of social connections.

And while the problem of "loneliness" is often thought of primarily as something that affects the elderly, they're not the only people at risk.

That's why the "coffee corner" here caters to all comers.

Alexander van Weert, a project leader at NGO Alles voor Mekaar ("Everything for Each Other"), says such initiatives can really have an impact.

"We don't have any age limitations, but we know that loneliness affects the elderly the most. (But) the problem of loneliness affects all ages of the population, for example, divorced people, or the unemployed. There are different categories of people who we want to reach out to," he says.

And more will soon have this opportunity: after the successful pilots here, the Jumbo chain plans to extend the "coffee corner" and "chatter checkout" initiatives to 60 other stores, next year.


(Copyright 2019 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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