Monday, March 27

Living the dream: what’s a sleepover inside a supermarket really like? | supermarkets

Night had fallen, and so had inches of snow. It was 21 December 2009 and Deborah Strazza, managing director of the John Lewis department store in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, had just realized what she had to do. The now 56-year-old made her way to the store’s Tannoy system and broadcast an announcement: could the customers and staff remaining in the building please gather in the restaurant? Outside, the roads were frozen and gridlocked and a supermarket delivery lorry had jack-knifed across the car park, trapping the parked cars within. About 50 customers and 50 members of staff were now snowed in at the department store – and they were going to have to stay the night.

In front of the sports section and underneath the thrum of the yellow ceiling lights, employees set to work pulling sheets on to duvets and fluffing pillows on back-to-back rows of display beds. Someone from the electronics department set up a PlayStation to entertain the children as soft animals made their way over from the toy section into the loving arms of younger kids. Deborah made toast and coffee while a few customers popped to a nearby supermarket for toothbrushes and toothpaste (and a bottle of whiskey). It was an idle fantasy made real – for many of the children, a dream came true. Except the heating was off.

Who among us hasn’t traipsed the aisles of a big supermarket and fantasized about spending the night? Your survival instincts would leave you with no choice other than to tear open giant bags of crisps. You’d have to pull down games and magazines to pass the time, and it would only be right to sit in a trolley and launch yourself across the squeaky floor. The same is true, of course, of department stores and sweet shops and theme parks… The question of what it would be like to be trapped in a public space has been answered by various pieces of pop culture (from romcom Career Opportunities in 1991, to an episode of the sitcom store in 2019). But come on, what’s it really, truly, actually like? Is it as good as it seems?

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Get the drift: the Tan Hill Inn under heavy snow. Photograph: PA

Bizarrely, there were multiple such lock-ins in November and December 2021. On 1 November, 30,000 visitors were held inside Shanghai Disneyland after one guest tested positive for Covid and fireworks lit up the sky as workers in hazmat suits handed out swabs. A month later, customers and staff were snowed inside a Danish Ikea and hunkered down on showroom beds. A week after that, 61 pub-goers spent a long weekend in the Tan Hill Inn in Yorkshire after a snowstorm. Yet Deborah Strazza did it first, more than a decade ago.

“Your brain naturally, over the years, gets rid of all the bad stuff; you only remember the good stuff,” says Deborah, who lives in St Albans and now runs her own company, Galyna HR. One of her fondest memories of her is of a little boy who did not want to part with the teddy he’d been given the next morning – she let him take it home. Deborah was also proud to see her staff come together in a crisis. And then there were the two total strangers who’d volunteered to walk to the supermarket for supplies – they phoned a couple of days later and revealed that they were now boyfriend and girlfriend (yes, they were the ones who bought the whiskey). But actually – on second thoughts – Deborah can remember a lot of bad stuff, too.

“At the time, I didn’t think it was fun at all, because you were just thinking, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” Deborah says, explaining she was worried about health and safety. Though she lay down on one of the beds, she quickly realized she couldn’t sleep and instead spent the night in the restaurant. The store’s heating had automatically switched off, so the building was freezing. Then news crews arrived at 6am and Deborah balked when a presenter fretted about her makeup. “You just think, ‘I’ve been up all night and you’re worried about your lipstick!’” Plus, as cute as wide-eyed babes with teddy bears are, Deborah wanted to get home to her own daughter, who was worried about her mum from her.

Almost 12 years later, Ikea manager Peter Elmose had a parallel experience when heavy snowfall trapped six customers and 25 staff in his store in Aalborg, Demark. He called his regional manager and made the decision to host the impromptu sleepover. But unlike Deborah, Peter didn’t have to shiver in the cold – workers were already scheduled to work in the warehouse overnight, so overall things were less daunting. Looking back, the 53-year-old says he has no complaints.

“I think it’s better than fantasy, actually,” Peter says when asked if the experience lived up to our daydreams. “I think we fulfilled the imagination of how it would be to sleep in an Ikea store – there was no disappointment in that.” Everyone gathered in the staff canteen for cinnamon buns, hot chocolate and coffee, before playing card games, listening to music and watching football on TV. “Everybody went to bed between 11pm and 1am,” Peter says, describing the whole thing as “cosy” with “a good mood and atmosphere”. The night was such a success that co-workers who were safe at home later expressed their jealousy that they had missed out.

Becky Longthorp and her dog Charlie.
‘We couldn’t get any privacy. The panic, I suppose, came on Sunday ‘: Becky Longthorp and her dog by Ella Charlie. Photograph: PR

Yet Deborah and Peter and their charges were all lucky. The snow cleared overnight and everyone made an early morning escape. Becky Longthorp, one of the customers trapped in the Tan Hill Inn last December, was not so fortunate. For a fateful Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, she slept on the pub’s floor alongside her partner Gary, dog Charlie, and tens of other punters. “Oh God, it was cramped,” recalls the 36-year-old east Yorkshire beauty therapist. “We had Charlie on a tight leash, but he was licking somebody else’s face who was lying next to us in the morning.”

The Tan Hill is Britain’s highest pub, and revelers who’d gone to see an Oasis tribute band were trapped in the aftermath of Storm Arwen. After a night spent on the floor using the inn’s spare sheets and blankets, everyone was hungover but “giddy”. Becky says some customers ordered double Bloody Marys, downing four each by 8.30am. The staff called a meeting in their wedding venue barn and implemented a “no alcohol before lunch” rule.

An illustration of a man sleeping in a trolley, his arms and legs hanging over the sides
‘It would only be right to sit in a trolley and launch yourself across the squeaky floor.’ Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

Night fell again and it was still too dangerous to leave. Becky and Gary were dressed in winterwear and had a change of clothes because they had originally intended to camp outside the pub so, unlike others in their high heels and stylish jackets, they were able to go for short walks. A routine started: in the mornings, people seemed anxious but, by lunch, the mood improved. In the evenings, people played dominoes, drank and took turns on two guitars. “We just embraced it,” she says. But as the days wore on, the novelty wore off.

“It’s like being at a party and then you’re stuck at the party,” Becky explains. “You have no space. We couldn’t get any privacy. The panic, I suppose, came on Sunday.” In four days, Becky managed to have just one shower – and convinced her boyfriend to give her his spare pants from her. Both frequently struggled to sleep as revellers drank until 4am. But by far the worse bit was the cost – combined, Becky and Gary spent £700.

“They did a buffet one night and they did discount the food, but we still spent so much. On night one, I spent more than £100 because we got there at 4pm. We had dinner, we had loads of drinks. And the menu isn’t cheap,” Becky explains. Three more days of alcohol, soft drinks, regular meals and snacks added up – when the fresh food started to deplete, staff began serving freezer foods, such as scampi and chips. Seeing “Tan Hill Inn” over and over on her bank statements from her still makes Becky want to cry, but overall she’s happy she had the once-in-a-lifetime experience from her. “I think it depends on who you are as a person,” she says. “Our personalities suited it.”

By his own admission, Dan Davis did not suit getting locked inside a Kmart supermarket one Sunday last August. Dan – a 29-year-old who reviews tech on his YouTube channel DansTube.TV – was trapped in the Brisbane store after closing. He’d forgotten it was Sunday and had arrived just after the closing announcements. Dan was picking up candles and pajamas for his girlfriend from him when suddenly it went dark. “I put my phone light on and turned the corner and saw the gates were down,” he says. “I started to panic and began shouting out to anyone in the store.” No one was there.

Dan began jogging through the shop and met a security guard on the other side of the gates. “He didn’t reassure me. That was kind of terrifying,” Dan says, explaining the man said he’d be clocking off soon. When Dan later shared the story of his ordeal on social media, people said he should have ridden a bike down the aisles. But, says Dan, “I really didn’t even have any moment of, ‘What can I do? What can I check out?’ I just wanted to get out.” The creaking and clicking air conditioning unit started to make him feel he was in a horror film. Eventually, motion sensors alerted the manager of his presence and she returned to let Dan out. His imprisonment of him had lasted just 40 minutes.

A customer stuck in a Danish Ikea in bed in one of the showrooms.
Tucked up: a customer stuck in a Danish Ikea rests in one of the showrooms

in reality, it seems, being locked somewhere isn’t an invitation to do whatever you like and mobile phones mean that “Sorry, I ate the entire biscuit aisle to survive” no longer cuts it as an excuse. Yet Erin Westgate, a psychology professor at the University of Florida who studies boredom and daydreams, says we continue to have lock-in fantasies because it’s fundamentally escapist to imagine “experiencing familiar environments in unfamiliar ways”.

“We tend to daydream about the things we already do in everyday life,” Westgate explains. “One study found that about 54% of daydreams were linked to something about the environment people were in at the time.” But research into “affective forecasting” has found that nothing is quite as good as we expect, while “construal level theory” posits that we think of distant things in theoretical ways. “When we imagine events in the far-off future (or the imaginary future, in the case of daydreaming) we tend to focus on abstract high-level aspects of the experience – for example, ‘It would be so freeing!’ – and neglect the concrete details – ‘It’s very cold in this supermarket and I don’t have a coat’,” Westgate says.

Still, our fantasies aren’t going anywhere, and businesses now play into them, selling sleepovers in museums and aquariums. On social media, faked “trapped in a supermarket for 24 hours!” videos rack up millions of views. But for those who’ve made fantasy a reality, once was enough. “We had a lot of people the following year saying, ‘Are you going to do a sleepover?’” Deborah says, “and I was thinking, ‘You have no idea! We are never going to do this again!’”

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