Jason Rutledge is not one to shy away from conversation. But that's a quality you would expect from a man wearing a green hat shaped like a squid.
And that's why the grocery store cashier with the huge grin and infectious laugh can often be found behind the register of the new "slow social lane" at an Edmonton Sobeys — a check-out lane where customers can take as long as they want.
"I look at the time that I have with these people … our conversations, especially, are very sacred to me," Rutledge said.
For years, customers like Karen Just have sought out Rutledge to scan and check out their groceries.
"He's just a fun guy. He's so personable and friendly," Just said.
"It's always nice to come in somewhere where someone's got a smile on their face."
Officially designating the slow lane
Last week, the grocery store officially designated the slow lane, which is staffed by Rutledge and other like-minded cashiers.
"I can turn any lane into a slow lane," laughed customer Carolyn Krausher of her experience with the new checkout.
Store owner Jerry MacLachlan said the pandemic created the need for more social interaction for some people.
"COVID [has] kinda isolated us. It sorta divided us," he said, noting that some customers were there to get "a little bit of love from Jason, I guess."
Our conversations, especially, are very sacred to me. - Jason Rutledge, Sobeys 'slow lane' cashier
Sobeys is far from the first grocery chain to slow things down.
In 2017, the BBC reported that supermarket chain Tesco would introduce a "relaxed lane" at certain times of day to make life less stressful for some customers who needed more time. The pilot project was developed in partnership with Alzheimer's Scotland.
In September 2021, Dutch grocery chain Jumbo announced a goal to open 200 Kletskassa or "chat checkouts" across the Netherlands within a year. According to the chain, the concept that was first introduced in 2019 aimed to reduce and prevent loneliness and is for those "who have the time to enjoy a chat during the check-out process."
From quick chats to deep discussions
Conversations in the Sobeys slow social lane in Edmonton can range from seconds to sometimes up to 15 minutes, according to Rutledge, and the topics of discussion can vary.
"I've had days you come through and you're talking to someone about hockey," Rutledge said. "The next person comes through, they're a priest. So, I wonder, what's that like? 'How long have you been doing that?' "
But in the past, he says, there have also been some deeply personal conversations where he says he would start by asking, " 'How are you doing?' They would say, 'Oh, I'm OK.' 'Why are you just OK?' They start dropping stuff on you. They would say things like, 'I just lost my dad yesterday.' "
'It makes you feel better'
Els Thenu is a regular customer at the grocery store and, on this particular day, she sought out the slow lane specifically to say hello to Rutledge.
"He's always so friendly and his hats are amazing," she said.
Thenu admits she uses the self checkout when she's in a rush, but says she enjoys the personal contact when she has the time.
"Even if you are in a bad mood, when you go to his lane, you come out on the other end, you feel it's more fun."
In a world that seems to pride speed and rewards those who move quickly, the slow lane offers customers the chance to take a breath and enjoy a conversation.
"Before I came in here, it was like 'bleh,' " said customer Della Davey. "And now, he makes you laugh. It makes you feel better."
The store plans to keep the slow lane to just one check-out counter for now, though MacLachlan says it's unclear how the lane will work when things gets busy during the holidays.
For Rutledge, every conservation is one that's good for the soul. He says he's not sure why the customers come to him.
"But I do know, for me, I come here for them."