Like many people who spend all day staring at their phones, stabbing at the glass in a search for meaning and diversion in an empty world, I was excited by the announcement of the Target beacons. These devices, arrayed around the store, would send your phone notifications about great deals. Say goodbye to boring shopping, and welcome in the 21st century, where you get a buzzing sensation on your thigh and think, “That’s got to be a hot deal on beans.”

Well, I went to the store to see if it worked. I’m not sure it did. I know what you’re saying: Are you sure the store had beacons? And was it a Target? And were you carrying a handset from a phone you pried off a wall?

Yes, clever boots, I am pretty sure it had beacons. I checked a list of stores that had beacons. What’s more, my phone was fully compliant: I downloaded the app to make sure I had the most recent version, because heaven forfend you’re running 7.032 when 7.033 is available, and I went through all the steps that said, “So, basically, we can track you and collect information on you for the rest of your life, including how long you stand in front of the salsa aisle silently weeping inside because you think ‘restaurant style’ means it’s chunkier, but you’re not sure. ACCEPT/DECLINE”

I accepted this, because in the words of Ben Franklin, “those who give up liberty for security will end up with neither, but they’ll get 10% off selected Up & Up Incontinence Aids.” Besides, they know me well here. I hand over my card, the items are scanned, and I’m sure it goes into a vast database that sifts through my purchases and spits out things like “he always buys the same things. Never give him coupons for any of them.”

Why would they? If they know I always buy Master English Muffin Toasting Bread, then why drop the price? They may notice that I only buy their house-brand coffee when it’s on sale, but they’ll never conclude the price should be permanently lowered, because someone buys it when it’s full price. You can hiss “you’re ruining it for everyone” at the people who pay full price, but it doesn’t matter.

Anyway. I was pleased when the app showed some ads:

“40% Off Jeans for the Family.”

Great! My wife always says, “If you’re going to Target, get me some pants.” There was also an ad for dorm decor. Really? Surely their vast whirring databanks knew that I started buying Gerber Gummable Mushed Prunes and Diaper Genie refills in 2000 AD, which meant it was unlikely Daughter™ would need college dorm stuff now. It’s still a few years away, Target Shopping App. I know it will pass as quickly as a shooting star in the twilight firmament, and soon enough I will feel the empty ache you get when you walk past the child’s room and it’s clean and neat, a few old stuffed animals on the shelf staring sightlessly out into the unoccupied room. I KNOW I KNOW, DON’T RUSH ME.

Turns out the app isn’t voice-activated, so it can’t reply if you shout this in aisle 3A, but people do come up and say, “I understand.”

Speaking of Aisle 3A: You can make grocery store lists, and the app will tell you where the items are. This is helpful, since the store I attend decided to move a few things around to keep us on our toes. Tortillas? They’re now in Housewares, by shoelaces. I typed in milk, because you always need milk. But because I can’t type on a phone, at all, I typed MULK.

Suggestions included “Mulan,” in case I wanted to pour the Disney movie over the Raisin Bran; “mules,” which might mean women’s shoes or pack animals or the former wearing the latter.

It did not suggest milk, but it did let me add mulk to my shopping list. There was a question mark by the item, as if to say “dude, seriously, what?” and no aisle number appeared. Believe me, if it had said A23, I would have headed straight over for some mulk, just to find out what it was. Probably some form of chalky laxative. Oh: Let’s test the autocomplete on laxative, by typing LAXA. Three suggestions: laxatives, relaxation music, (which could serve the same purpose; I’m sure there’s a “101 Strings Play Songs for Gentle, Overnight Action”) and laxa, which for all I know is a runny cheese that pairs nicely with mulk in whatever parallel dimension I’d entered.

I tried SPAM, and it came right up with SPAM, Aisle 3. But I realized to my horror what I had done: In an app logged into Target Central, I had tweaked my profile to add “constipation” and “dense blocks of aggregated meats.” Surely this would influence the mobile coupons I would get for weeks; I mean, I did an online search for tombstones two weeks ago and I’m still getting browser ads for grave markers. It’s like being followed around by a cadaverous man in a top hat with a vulture on his shoulder.

Anyway. It didn’t seem like I got beacon-activated ads, but this may be my fault, and I’m sure the bugs will be worked out. Future improvements might include a button to ask for help in case the bathroom tissue aisle looks like a news story from Venezuela. Then I can wait for the impassive recorded voice to ask, WHO IS RESPONDING. That voice always makes you think they’re wearing shock-collars around their ankles.

Before beacons and other helpful things there was just Dale, the guy in the wheelchair who knew where everything was and had been there for years. But they let him go, you know. Maybe future versions of the app will simulate his humor and good will, and the way people loved to see him.

That’ll happen the same day they send me a coupon for mulk.

 

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