Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Grocery Store Chronicles: Shoppers

When you commandeer a metal shopping cart (with a wobbly right front wheel, no doubt) and head into your local grocery store, you join many of your friends and neighbors who are also trying to get in and out with the least possible trouble. Most of these shoppers will be like you -- calm. collected and considerate, aware of their goals and trying to get their shopping done quickly and efficiently, but not so fast that they endanger the lives or sanity of those around them.

And then, of course, there are the other people. Here's a short list of some of the notable types of grocery buyers I have observed that make shopping hazardous -- or at least more interesting.


Most of us come to the grocery store with at least one or two items we're not sure about. Maybe it's some new cereal our kids have begged us to get, and we have to really search the shelves to find it because we've never seen the name or the packaging before. Maybe a recipe calls for some exotic type of fruit or vegetable that we've never once used, or even eaten, and we're not exactly sure which section of the produce department it's located in.

As I said, it's normal to have a few items on the list that require us to do a little more searching than usual. But for some grocery shoppers, the ones I call "the professors," even the simplest purchases require a lengthy session of on-site research.

You might meet a professor in front of the yogurt case. As you patiently wait for him to move aside to allow you access, you notice that he is involved in an intense lab experiment regarding the visual forms and scientific qualities of cultured milkfat products. He will methodically pick up each and every carton of yogurt, examining the calories, fat and sugar content, checking for the presence of preservatives, detecting if the milk used came from cows not fed growth hormone, and making sure the company has listed a 1-800 number on the carton in case of complaints.

After each carton of yogurt has been individually inspected (phase one of the research), then the comparison phase begins. The professor will grab two different cartons of yogurt, turn them so their product information panels are showing, and then compare each to the other to determine which of the two has an overall higher rating of nutritional acceptability. Yogurt A has lower overall calories, but Yogurt B has fewer grams of sugar. Hmmmm. Let's set both aside and then compare C and D.

And on and on and on it goes. By the time the professor has decided on his two cartons of yogurt, he has examined all 256 varieties in the case, and probably has enough information to write a short article (with footnotes) for Dairy Product Research Journal.

Of course, if the professor stands in front of the yogurt so that you can't get to your four cartons of Yoplait vanilla, you will either have to come back in half an hour, or say "excuse me" as you lunge past him to grab your goods. Go ahead and do this, because he's used to it. Researchers call this "encountering variables in the field."


On the opposite pole from over-involved shoppers are those who don't have the first idea what they're doing. One can usually spot a member of "The Clueless" by their glazed expression and seeming total lack of comprehension when they enter the four walls of a supermarket.

Who are the clueless? In most cases, from what I have seen, they are men. I suppose these are guys who visit the inside of a grocery store about as often as they enter the Oval Office to chat with the President. Some of them are older men who probably last entered a grocery store back when produce was sold from barrels and the manager wore a pinstriped apron and handed out penny candy to little girls in pinafores.

Undoubtedly, some great disturbance in the Force, or some temporal rift in the cosmos of his existence, has forced Mr. Clueless out of his comfort zone and to the store. Maybe his wife just got hit by a truck and is laid up in bed with a dozen broken bones, preventing her from performing her wifely duty of slogging to the supermarket. Or maybe his wife finally left for good weeks ago, and after doggedly eating through all the old cans of Spaghetti Os and the wormy packages of Ramen noodles at the back of the pantry, he is forced to find new nourishment or starve to death. Maybe he drew the short straw at the Friday night poker game and is forced to make the grocery run alone. There are lots of possible scenarios.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Clueless can be spotted easily by his wide eyes, gaping mouth and slow, almost shuffling gait. The last time this guy went grocery shopping the store had three aisles and two checkout stands. Now, he is entering a space the size of an aircraft hangar that has 36 aisles, 15 checkout lanes and seven separate departments, and is as busy as a big city commuter train station at rush hour.

When he starts trying to find the items his wife has written down on his list, he discovers how American wealth and ingenuity have made shopping insanely complex these days. For example, the list Mr. Clueless holds instructs him to return home with "Grape jelly." After wandering around the store for awhile he (by some miracle) finds himself in front of the jelly section. But when he goes to find grape jelly, what does he discover? That there are at least 30 different jars that might fill the bill. There are 20 different brands of grape jelly, and 10 brands of something called "grape jam," which looks like grape jelly but isn't, somehow. Even if he sticks to grape jelly, should he get the "regular" kind, the "low sugar" kind, the "organic" kind, the "organic low sugar" kind, or the "fruit only" kind? Should he even bother with a name brand at all, or just get the store brand -- or a plain label generic? And what size jar should he get? Is the 5 ounce size too small? Is the 24 ounce size too large?

This maddening variety confronts poor Mr. Clueless at every turn. His wife has written down, "1 doz. eggs." He visits the egg case to find, again, an incredible array of choices. Should he get medium, large, extra large or jumbo size eggs? Should they be white, or brown? Does he want "regular" eggs, or "cage free," or "free range?" Should he get the ones with something called "Omega 3" added?

If Mr. Clueless remembered to bring a cell phone, you will often find him in continuous contact with the Mother Ship as he picks up each product possibility and reads the pertinent information off. You'll then hear him rattle off a disjointed string of responses like, "No, there isn't a blue colored label, it's a purple one." "No, I don't see one that says 'with bleach.' There's 'extra strength' and 'lemon scented,' but none 'with bleach.'" "No, they don't have vanilla flavor in the 24 ounce box, just in the 16 ounce. Yes, I looked in the back of the shelf." And so on and so on, shelf after shelf, aisle after aisle.

When I see Mr. Clueless looking up in open-mouthed panic at a wall of breakfast cereals stretching half a city block, I am tempted to give the guy a reassuring pat on the shoulder and say, "I know what you're feeling. Let me help you." But I usually don't have time, and besides, in some cities this is probably considered a pickup line.


You all have seen this next grocery shopper many times, I am sure. As you head down the narrow aisle of condiments, sauces and marinades, you notice that your way is blocked by two carts, going in opposite directions, which have been brought to a halt together near the French's mustard. The owners of each cart (usually women this time, but not always) have temporarily abandoned their shopping and are standing close together in the middle of the aisle, talking. And talking. And talking.

The first trait that defines the social butterfly shopper is an affinity for gossip (which they will call something less negative, such as "catching up"). These people come to the supermarket, in part, to hear and be heard. They know at least half of the customers at any one time, or so it seems, and they are loath to pass up the chance to chat up any of them if it means they might hear some previously unknown news.

The second trait that defines the social butterfly shopper is obliviousness. While they are talking with a friend in the aisle, or chatting on a cell phone as they stand in front of the dairy case, they are totally focused on the conversation at hand. They do not see you and the 12 other shoppers lined up on either side of them, waiting to get by. They do not notice that if they moved just a foot or two to the left or the right, they would allow you and others to reach the items on the shelf behind them. They are not aware that their unsupervised children are running down the aisles, removing groceries from the shelves and making a general nuisance of themselves. They are totally focused on talking, and if you are so rude as to try to move their cart a bit to one side or the other, or to reach past them to get an item, they will often shoot you a glance as if you deserved to have slivers of bamboo inserted under your toenails for your cheeky presumption.

Sometimes the social butterfly shopper is a friend of yours, and this makes it a challenge when they stop you on your way to the checkout (with lots of cold items slowly melting in your cart) and begin conducting a thorough interrogation about you, your family and mutual friends, as well as providing you with a detailed accounting of their own life. If you have time to spare, this might be an enjoyable encounter. If you're in a hurry, you might want to duck down the housewares aisle if you see the social butterfly shopper approaching in your direction.

That's a little about three types of interesting shoppers you might find in the grocery. Next post, we'll look at what to avoid when choosing a checkout aisle.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Grocery Store Chronicles: Introduction

I'm a bit of an aberration, I suppose, in that I am a married, heterosexual male who enjoys grocery shopping -- or, who at least does not despise it as much as most men nowadays seem to.

I started grocery shopping when I was a carefree bachelor buying cheap canned meats and snack foods in college. I kept it up during my single days as a member of the workforce, then after I married I continued grocery shopping because, well, my wife wasn't all that thrilled with the task, and I seemed not to mind it. So, as a gift to her, I offered to roam the aisles each week.

One reason I don't usually mind grocery shopping is that I like to cook, and I enjoy trying new recipes (even if they are simply new "recipes" that have to be heated up or mixed up from a can or box). I spend at least a part of each grocery trip browsing the shelves to see what new, ingenious items have been introduced. You can get burned out on a dish pretty quickly, so it pays to find new things that seem promising to the palate.

Of course, now that the huge superstores I buy food in also sell things like books and DVDs, I spend some of my time in the store browsing among the new titles.

In my more than 25 years as a grocery shopper I have learned a lot about the practice, and about the different types of people -- customers and employees -- that can be found in the modern supermarket. In the next few days I plan to present a series of posts relating some of my hard-fought grocery wisdom. I hope you enjoy them.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Remembering Book Row

No comparable substitute has developed [to New York City’s Book Row], no, not even in cyberspace or those overpopulated Internet burbs. Thanks to the broadband interests and proud diversity of the booksellers there, on Book Row there wasn't just a book for every need, mood or taste. Often there was a whole section of applicable books or even an entire bookstore for every taste, mood, need. The variety, independence and heterogeneity of the dealers and their books made Book Row a haven for reading and collecting diversity where Vive la difference meant three cheers for nonconformity. In their place have come drearily homogenized chain stores, a global electronic whirlpool erratically accessible mainly to persistent onliners with superhuman patience for slogging through vast swamps of World Wide Web distractions, and a wistfully few widely scattered individual bookshop survivors.
From Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador (2003).

The only survivor of the many used bookstores that once populated Book Row in New York City appears to be the Strand Bookstore.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Case of Divine Intervention

Don't worry, this is not about yesterday's election. God is still in control of things, but my party didn't win, so I'm glum.

No, this is about a true story of divine intervention -- the kind of miraculous event that the unbelieving world chalks up to random chance or "luck," but Christians know is instead an instance of God moving in the lives of His people. The events described happened this past Sunday to a guy I work with who lives in a suburb of Waco.

This man has two kids in the high school band that was leaving Sunday afternoon for state marching contest the next day in Austin. There are approximately 150 kids in the band, which required chartering three buses to transport them down (about 50 kids per bus).

The buses were about ready to go when a local pastor happened to be driving by and noticed something funny about one of the buses. The hydraulic lift system that lowers the entrance steps to let people get in, and then raises the steps back up for travel, hadn't apparently raised back up all the way. The driver tried to get it to raise back into position, but it wouldn't budge.

A Department of Public Safety inspector had to be called out, and after an inspection and driving test he ruled that the problem didn't affect the safety of the bus and that they could get underway. This was good news, since the charter company didn't have another bus available. However, waiting for the clearance had put the band more than an hour behind schedule.

The kids and sponsors boarded the buses, then the first bus in the convoy pulled out of the school parking lot. However, my friend noticed as he was walking to get into his car that the second bus -- the one with his two kids aboard -- wasn't moving. A few seconds later, he heard his wife call from near the bus that there was something wrong with the driver.

My friend got to the bus and looked at the driver, a very large man. He was sitting in the driver's seat, looking out into space, and he was absolutely covered in sweat. The parents told him, "Look, come on out, you need help," but he appeared to shake off whatever had caused him to hesitate and said, "That's alright. I'm fine. Let's go."

The driver closed the door and started to move the bus ahead. A parent was standing next to him at the front of the bus, trying to get a DVD playing in the bus's onboard video player.

Suddenly, this woman at the front of the bus watched in horror as the driver slumped forward in his seat, passed out cold. She grabbed the extremely large steering wheel and somehow managed to keep the bus from going off into the ditch. At the same time, she was hitting the driver's shoulder and yelling "Wake up! Put on the brake! Wake up!"

Eventually, the driver was roused from his sleep enough to apply the brakes, coming within inches of hitting a power pole and a parked car. As soon as the bus came to a stop, he again passed out.

It turns out that the driver was a diabetic who hadn't taken his insulin, and he had gone into diabetic shock.

The bus company was able to supply a substitute driver who arrived quickly, and finally, after the long delay of about 90 minutes, all three buses were finally on the road to Austin.

My friend thought about this later and realized how fortunate that unwelcome mechanical trouble had proved to be. If the first bus hadn't had a problem with its hydraulics -- or if the pastor hadn't passed by and just happened to notice the problem -- or if he hadn't decided to flag the driver and stop the bus -- then all three buses would have left on time. And 90 minutes later, when the driver of Bus #2 (the one carrying my friend's kids) had his episode of diabetic shock, he would have passed out at the wheel not in a school parking lot, but doing 65 miles an hour on Interstate 35 somewhere near Georgetown. And it's highly likely that the bus would have been involved in an accident that would have resulted in many, many deaths.

There are some people who would chalk all this up to fortunate chance. But I know better.