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Illustration of a Walgreens receipt. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The best $0 I ever spent: Watching someone else shop

A small digital mishap made me feel connected to a stranger many brightly lit aisles away.

It all started in April 2021 with some children’s cherry cough syrup, a baby humidifier, and a 32-ounce box of Aunt Jemima pancake and waffle mix. That was the first receipt to hit my inbox from Walgreens ​​store #3924 in El Paso, Texas. Total: $67.89 on a Visa debit card with 63 cents earned in Walgreens rewards.

The thing is, the receipt wasn’t mine; I live 2,000 miles away in New York. Whoever had signed up for the Walgreens’ loyalty program in El Paso had put down my email address and, in doing so, had primed my Gmail for a wacky collision course with American drugstore commerce. And ever since that fateful day, each time they buy something at Walgreens, I get an auto-generated receipt telling me all about it.

Under more normal circumstances, this would be a run-of-the-mill modern annoyance, a very specific and righteous itch that can only be scratched by hitting unsubscribe and never leaving feedback. But during the pre-vax, isolated days of the pandemic, as social circles shrank and political spheres spun even further apart, these insights into life beyond the two square miles around me were oddly fortifying. Over the next several months, I would get an unearned peek at a consumer life that fascinated me and made me feel connected to a stranger many, many brightly lit aisles away. In ways both unexpected and unlikely, these digital scraps would teach me about how people are getting by in a time of unmatched physical and social separation.

Fortunately for everyone, what would ultimately keep this bit of digital voyeurism from veering even further into creepiness was the reality that the Walgreens receipts offered no identifying data about the shopper. Other than store location, items purchased, and method of payment, there would be no (legal) way to suss out who this shopper actually was.

And, as it turns out, it’s pretty tough to pin down a Walgreens customer anyway. According to the analytics firm Numerator, roughly two-thirds (!) of the American shopping public patronizes the drugstore chain. Its typical shopper is a white suburban boomer who makes $80,000 a year, drops in roughly once every three weeks, and spends about $22 each trip. My mystery shopper, however, lived in a mid-sized city and came back the very next afternoon, triggering another email.

This time around, the shopping log included sleeves of 16-ounce clear plastic cups (70 for $7), 90 paper plates for $4, a six-pack refill of Dollar Shave Club disposable razors, and a bar of something called Duke Cannon Big American Bourbon Soap, which claims to be made with Buffalo Trace bourbon. The sniffly baby apparently still a concern, a RaZbaby-brand RaZberry Silicone Baby Teether Toy and some Zarbee’s Naturals Baby Gum Massage Gel were also procured. Total: $47.54 on a Visa debit card, 44 cents earned in Walgreens cash rewards. A mental picture of my shopper began to sharpen.

The best and most surreal thing about drugstore shopping is that basically anything goes. Whatever socialized self-consciousness there may be about buying toilet paper in public disintegrates like discount one-ply. Judgment about someone else’s bunion pads or banana-flavored peanuts is (generally) reserved. Buying Reese’s Minis at a 35 percent markup just to get another one at half price is the kind of bad deal that you make when you’re inside a chain drugstore. There’s something to all the shelves: They’re so irreducibly filled with reminders of our obligations and infirmities and mortality, they drive us to shop with our ids.

And so, when my mystery shopper ambled to the Walgreens counter at 2:57 pm on a Thursday to drop $69.73 on a 24-ounce tallboy of Modelo, two more bars of Duke Cannon soap (this time infused with Old Milwaukee beer), two bottles of Stella Rose blackberry-flavored wine, a pack of Camel Menthols, and a full pound of Oscar Mayer bologna in two 8-ounce packages, I knew we’d entered a new dimension. A higher truth about life.

It was late April, 12 days after that first email. Over half of US adults had received their first Covid-19 shots and cases had dropped drastically in more than half of states. In my household back in New York, the contours of dinner invites and travel plans were nervously-but-optimistically being sketched up.

I will never know what had prompted the El Paso shopper’s latest spree, but it definitely seemed celebratory. More than that, it felt normal. Sure, I wondered if not having ever bought a pound of bologna for $4 at Walgreens placed me inside or outside of the American mainstream, but this latest receipt presented proof that regular life was still happening. I didn’t even need to catch a whiff of the weird Mother’s Day scented candles in the store or hear the Vanessa Carlton lilting airily overhead to sense that things were finally steadying.

This heady combination of booze and bologna also spoke of American resilience for historical reasons. One hundred years before, in the aftermath of another pandemic, Walgreens had undertaken a massive domestic expansion during Prohibition by way of selling alcohol — usually whiskey — that was medically prescribed for a litany of often dubious ailments. This (legal) gambit transformed Walgreens from a regional store with a few dozen outposts in the mid-1920s into a national chain of hundreds across 30 states in 1934.

By that time, Oscar Mayer had already been a fixture of deli-centered goodwill for decades because it had eschewed the unsanitary practices of other meat purveyors infamously outlined in muckraking tomes like The Jungle. If Walgreens and Oscar Mayer could thrive through troublesome years by being vigilant, maybe so could we.

It was nearly May. Outside my email tabs, a giddy energy had begun to take hold. Hot vax summer was surely approaching, threatening to let loose a flood tide of repressed horniness and good cheer. Sixty-four percent of the country expressed optimism about the coming year. By the month’s end, more than a half-million new jobs would be logged by the Labor Department.

Still, even the specter of normalcy has its limitations. After their late April spree, I didn’t hear from my novelty soap obsessive for over three weeks — roughly the statistical cadence for a normal Walgreens shopper. By the third week in May, they had switched to a newer store (#9173) about three miles west, next door to a Jack in the Box and across the street from a competing CVS.

They were making less splashy purchases, too — items absent of either mirth or malady. A gallon of whole milk, two 20-ounce Red Bulls, and another pack of Camels. At only eight cents of Walgreens cash rewards earned, they weren’t going to score a free pack of Hi-Chew anytime soon.

Zooming out, it seemed fair to ask if there would be a cost to the return of regular routines. Would we shed our new habits and discard whatever perspective we’d gained? Would we lose a dangerous status quo just to simply slip back into a dysfunctional one? As if on cue, following that modest Walgreens run on the third Saturday in May, the El Paso shopper went totally dark.

One overarching irony of the pandemic is that, as consumers, many of us drift toward health as much as we drift toward comfort. One study from The Journal of Consumer Research summed this up as a divide between Big Macs and kale salads, both of which have seen surges in popularity over the past two years. The dramatic loss of control with the pandemic means we seek out the familiar while also fending off death and disease with healthier practices. These impulses could just as easily explain why, as the delta variant descended, millions ultimately quit jobs that they didn’t like, that didn’t adequately protect them, or that just kind of seemed silly in the context of everything else.

I admit that not hearing from the El Paso shopper throughout the fizzle of our collective summer of redemption made me worry for them. It was heartening to see that, even as news from everywhere else dimmed, El Paso had managed to avoid the worst of the delta surge. Like a Big Mac or a BOGO bag of Goldfish, the silver linings were a temporary interruption from the free-floating dread.

Finally, in October, the El Paso shopper (inadvertently) dropped me a line. After shopping exclusively in northwest El Paso, they’d moved on to a Walgreens outpost on the east side of town. Around 10 pm on a Monday, they’d dropped in for a pack of Peanut M&Ms, two boxes of Raisinets, a box of Milk Duds, a Snickers bar, a theater-sized box of Reese’s Pieces, and four pouches of Welch’s Berries ’n Cherries fruit snacks. This time they paid the $7.50 in cash.

The following Tuesday night, they came back for two packs of Peanut M&Ms, an Almond Joy, and more Raisinets and Milk Duds. From afar, I imagined that an irresistible coupon had been the culprit in bringing them back again. Still, I was pleased to know our Walgreens membership had saved us 51 cents.

In another meaningful development, I noticed that Walgreens had also redesigned the format of its emails since the ones I’d received in the spring. The receipts were now warmer and less spartan, studded with colored icons that looked a bit like emojis: A shopping bag, a blue megaphone announcing Member Savings, and a banner above a bar code to emphasize the ease of making a return. The email footer also now contained a link to unsubscribe from digital receipts. I would never click it.

Adam Chandler is a journalist and author who lives in New York.

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