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.


Stephanie said...

I have definitely encountered ALL these types at the store! My own personal type is "mother who brings a small stash of groceries into the store with her so that she can bribe her child to stay in the cart."

Although my husband never worries about what kind of peanut butter to get at the store (all natural) or which brand of (dolphin safe) tuna fish we eat, he usually discovers when he gets home that it ISN'T what I usually get. It's not me who informs him; it's Sydney. I'm not that picky since I'm always just grateful for someone else to do the shopping for me :)

Mrs. Sinta said...

I have been a shopping butterfly a time or two when I have run into an old and dear friend. A friend who will interrupt her shopping agenda in order to find out how you truly are is a friend in deed. I despise people who block the aisles with their carts. It is not a necessary attribute of butterflies.

sarahgrace said...

I have to admit, I'm a bit of a "Professor" mixed with "stressed out mom, trying to control her kids". However...I'm not as bad as my grandmother who will literally take two hours to buy ten items!

Muley said...

Stephanie -- I had not heard of the tactic of keeping food items on hand as a way to get kids to behave. I just used to borrow a loaf of french bread and whack them over the head with it if they acted up in the cart.

Mrs. Sinta -- I am guilty of using the store to socialize, and see nothing wrong with it. I guess it's just the people who are so involved in it that they make it hard for others around them that gets me. I feel the same way about people who don't notice that they've almost run me off the road because they're talking on their cell phones.

Sarah -- Love the new photo! I can be a professor at times, too, especially when I'm trying out a new product. I can see you being careful to get all the facts before buying, but hopefully the stress part is only occasional.

Any interesting "shopping with grandma" stories you'd like to share?