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What The Tech: Smart shopping innovations won’t save students when the munchies bite

Tech-enhanced shopping couldn’t have arrived at a worse moment for returning students with an insatiable appetite for learning and a few other things besides.

This week saw two changes that are designed to make shopping easier than ever. Firstly, in the government’s annual budget it was revealed that the contactless payment limit will more than double, from £45 to £100. The second innovation was the opening of an Amazon Fresh store in London, which has no checkouts – you simply walk out of the store, and the in-house tech calculates your shopping bill and sends a digital invoice based on the products you’ve placed in your bag.

Now it’s not exactly an original thought to suggest that these measures will make it ever easier to part with your money; in fact, that’s surely the point. The Chancellor himself acknowledged this when he said “the contactless limit increase will make it easier than ever before for people to pay for their shopping, providing a welcome boost to retail that will protect jobs and drive growth”. When humans find a path of least resistance, they flow through it just as surely as an electrical current does.

Believe me, I’m not saying this with an air of snobbery, but with my head bowed in defeat; readers of this column will remember that I begged Mark Zuckerberg to ban news from Facebook in this country as well as Australia simply because I lack the self-control to stop using his infernal app. No, this isn’t a condemnation but a cry of compassion for the group that’s been seriously adversely affected by the pandemic and now, as it lifts, could meet a whole new world of pain; I speak on behalf of our students, who can return for on-campus teaching starting from March 8.

Having missed out on nearly two years of face-to-face tuition, access to university libraries, and – most importantly – the social life that’s the only possible justification for those outrageous £9,000 per year tuition fees they’re obliged to cough up, the gaggle of twenty-somethings who are hardly renowned for their fiscal discipline in the first place will now have to navigate their final months of higher education with all the restraints taken off their spending.

Just imagine if you had been able to pay up to £100 without so much as typing a four-digit number on the card reader, or without even having to shamefacedly meet the eye of an unimpressed cashier (very probably a student themselves, albeit one of the more hard-working variety). How much more of your maintenance grant would have been spent on the very day it landed in your current account? Be honest.

How many frozen pizzas would you have stockpiled as your source of food for weeks on end? How much coffee would you have imported wholesale in a blind panic before the exam season got under way? How many bottles of booze would you have bought when stumbling from one house party to the next? How many friends would you have credulously believed, and come to their financial aid, after they’d pleadingly but only semi-comprehensively slurred: “I’ll definitely pay you back in the *hic* morning, promise”? And after smoking some of Satan’s salad, you’d surely have sold your soul and far else besides to have a big bite of some sufficiently greasy morsel that your reddened eyes had set their sights on.

This generation of students who had thought they’d already played the game of life on hard mode will now wake up (in the afternoon, as is tradition) to find that their ordeal was just a preparation for the final boss fight: money vs munchies. And this time there are no checkpoints and no replays. Good luck.



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