Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Grocery Store Chronicles: Checking Out (Part 2)

Here's the second part of my list of some times you might want to avoid a certain checkout line in the grocery store. Ever run into one of these?

The Red Tape Runaround

If you get close to the checker and happen to notice that her receipt tape has a large red stripe visible, find a new line if at all possible. The red line means that the tape is almost gone, and will probably run out before or during your turn at the register. Since the checkers must replace the tape before resuming their work, you are in for a long wait.

Inevitably, the checkstand will not have an extra roll of receipt tape in its storage area, so a manager must be summoned. When he learns that there is no extra tape at the checkstand, he will scowl because he knows the difficulty of the task before him. He will disappear for a full 10 minutes as he walks to the very back of the stockroom, then climbs up a ladder to a small shed on the far corner of the roof where these elusive rolls of tape seem to be stored. He will finally reappear, a little windblown, and toss the roll to the checker as he runs off to do another errand.

This is when you will discover that, of course, your checker, despite having worked at the store for three years, has never had to switch out one of these tapes herself. After five minutes spent fumbling with the rollers inside the register, cutting her fingers in the process, the checker will give up and call again for the manager, who is busy swimming through the store’s underground swamp to the small island guarded by alligators where the extra rolls of dimes and quarters are stored.

You get my point. If you see red, move along.

The Conversationalist

How you’ll take this next advice really depends on what kind of person you are – whether you are a person of few words who wants to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly and efficiently as possible, or if you are a person who goes to the grocery store partly out of a desire to be around other people and engage in interesting conversation.

If you’re the latter type of person, this advice doesn’t apply to you. But if you’re like me and you usually want to make the grocery store experience as brief as possible (within reason), then avoid the checker who treats each customer as one of their long-lost best friends at a high school reunion.

It’s not that these checkers are bad people. In fact, most are cheery and engaging and funny, and are quite popular with customers and management alike, as evidenced by the many “Checker of the Month” and “Best Employee” badges they wear pinned to their vests. They will likely ask -- no, demand -- your name, and there’s a good chance that if you return even weeks later and once again choose their line, they’ll remember that name and call you by it. If by chance they don't remember your name, they will be sure to call you "sweetie" or "hon" or some other generic endearment.

I must repeat that the talkative checker is many times a wonderful person to be around, but if you surrender to their charms you must give up any ideas of getting out of the store before your butter pecan ice cream melts. Their work method is something like this:

1. Introduce themselves, giving a summary of their early life, then find out your vital information (5 min.)
2. Scan two grocery items (20 sec.)
3. Discuss what both of you have been doing the past few weeks (8 min.)
4. Scan a few more items (45 sec.)
5. Ask about your children and listen to response (3 min.)
6. Make sure to give a summary of their child’s recent adventures on a school field trip (5 min.)
7. Scan a few more items (25 sec.)

Well, you get the picture.

There are some people who gladly wait a long time in line just to be checked out by these happy raconteurs of retail, and it’s a highlight of their week to be able to catch up on what Checker #5 at Wal-Mart has been up to. More power to these folks. It’s nice these days to have a little humanity mixed into the grocery store experience. But if you indeed don’t want that ice cream to melt, you might choose another line.

The Government-aided Shopper

First of all, let me say I have nothing against people whose economic status compels them to use government food programs like WIC to help them get the groceries they need to feed their families. They deserve our respect and help when it comes to trying to make ends meet.

All I’m saying is, because of the crazy way these government programs seem to work when it comes to checking out at the grocery store, you might want to avoid someone using a WIC or similar type card if you’re in a hurry. These cards apparently work like a debit card that keeps track of how much the person using them has in their account. And it seems that it’s sometimes a very difficult task for customers to remember just how much they have left on the card when they do their shopping.

As a result, what often times happens if this. The customer might choose, say, $120 worth of groceries, but after they give the WIC card to the checker and he swipes it through the machine, it indicates that there’s only $80 left of available funds on the customer's card.

Sometimes the customer will dispute this fact, requiring time to resolve the matter one way or the other, but even if they accept the fact that they only have $80 left to spend, your time in line behind them will drag on. You see, they must now look at all the food they originally selected (which often has to be un-bagged) and figure out which items they can do without to knock $40 off the total. This can take a very long time, as they consider leaving one item, then another, since many times all the food items in question are essentials and not frivolities.

There’s also the danger that one or more of the items the customer has selected are not “approved” for payment through the card (beer and cigarettes are just the two most obvious), so in this case there's often another dispute, or at least a delay, while those items are weeded out and the card is re-scanned.

Again, the problem usually lies in the cards themselves instead of the people who use them. But if you want to avoid a delay at checkout, you might choose another line.

The Wide-eyed Innocent

This final one is fairly self-evident. If you can see that your checker is a brand-new trainee (possibly even being trained right then by a hovering manager), then if you’re in a hurry you might want to choose another aisle. If you hear the manager explaining what the keys on the register are for, and how those little black lines on a package magically make the machine go "beep" when passed over it, you definitely want to switch aisles.

That's it for checking out. Coming up in my next and final post in the series – “Murphy’s Law” as applied to grocery shopping.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Grocery Store Chronicles: Checking Out (Part 1)

In my last post I discussed some of the types of shoppers it might be wise to avoid in the grocery store. Now, over two posts, I’d like to offer some hard-won advice as to when you might want to avoid a certain checkout lane in the grocery store and choose another instead. Here are some common situations and types of people to avoid.

The Coupon Queen

If you notice that one of the shoppers ahead of you in line –– usually a woman –– is carrying what looks like a Pony Express mail pouch full of clipped coupons, then move immediately to another aisle. It’s a good bet that this shopper will keep you waiting at least 30 minutes while they attempt to clear the cash register.

It’s not just that scanning all of those coupons takes time. Inevitably, there will be some sort of snafu that occurs. The scanner might refuse to accept a certain coupon for apple juice, so first the bagger must dig through the piles of already packed bags to find the beverage in question, then the information on the label must be examined and checked against the coupon. When it is discovered that the apple juice the customer purchased is the 48-ounce size, and the coupon only is good for the 64-ounce size or larger, then what ensues is either a debate between customer and checker on why the coupon should be accepted nevertheless (with a possible call for the manager to referee), or the bagger is sent out to the juice aisle to swap out bottles. When he returns minutes later, the next coupon is scanned, only to discover that it requires two tubes of biscuits to be purchased for the discount, not the single tube the customer has purchased. And so it goes.

If you want to avoid a long wait, pass by the coupon queen.

The Lovers

Stay clear of any checkout line where the person doing the checking and the person doing the bagging seem to be infatuated with each other. When a young man or woman’s fancy turns to love, it’s a good bet that they’ll be so taken with the subject that they won’t notice they scanned your bag of peas twice, or absentmindely put the 20-pound bag of dog food on top of your carton of eggs in the basket.

A common example of this kind of cashier team is where the cashier is a teenaged girl, teamed with a teenaged boy bagger who is clearly infatuated with her and trying his best to win her over. He will talk almost nonstop to her, cracking jokes, making sarcastic remarks and asking questions. The girl will be forced to listen and respond (to be polite) and as a result, neither checker or bagger is even really looking at the products they are scanning and putting away. Besides slowing down the whole process, this can lead to incorrectly scanned items, improper bagging and a host of other annoyances.

In one memorable event, I once checked out at a grocery store, with a full cart of groceries, and neither the checker nor the bagger spoke once to me, or even looked at me, because they were so deeply involved in flirtatious talk. They were like robots attuned to some common frequency, just going through the motions of moving groceries down the counter out of habit. I could have been buck naked, wearing a sombrero on my head with illuminated Christmas lights wrapped around my body, and they wouldn’t have even noticed.

(If you read that last sentence just after eating a big meal, or after decorating your Christmas tree, I apologize).

The Clothes Buyer

If you are shopping in a store like a Super Target or Super Wal-Mart that sells both groceries and clothing, and someone ahead of you in line has a pile of clothing they are buying, there are even odds that you’ll avoid a long delay by moving to another line.

The problem is that, inevitably, one or more of the items of clothing the customer wants to buy has had the tag removed somehow. Since the checker can’t scan the item’s price in without a tag –- let’s say for purposes of illustration it's a woman’s dress -- this means that someone, usually a pimply teenaged bagging boy with no clue as to women’s clothing, is dispatched to the women’s department to try and find the dress with the tag, or at the very least determine the item's correct price. After 20 minutes or so, he returns and gives the checker the bad news. Either (1) he couldn’t find where those dresses were located, (2) he found where the dresses were, but the one in question is apparently the very last one, or (3) there are other dresses like this, but they don’t have tags, either.

When it comes to clothing, there is no end to the possibly delays. Sometimes the clothing item has a tag, but the shopper notices only at the checkout line that the item is ripped or stained, and then the same pimply faced boy must be sent to find a replacement.

Take my advice – find another line.

NEXT POST: We'll meet The Conversationalist and learn to avoid the "Red Tape Runaround."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Have you seen Twilight?

While I'm still putting together the next entries in my grocery store series, I thought I'd share a few excerpts of a review in The Atlantic of "Twilight," the teen vampire romance movie my two girls and seemingly every other one of their female friends has seen. No teen I've talked to thinks the movie was as good as the book, but they liked the movie anyway.

After hearing what my girls said about the movie (they don't seem to be caught up in the Twilight fever some of their friends are), and after reading this review, I'm still not sure what to think of the book or movie. Even though these quotes make the author appear to think the movie is salacious or erotic, she actually seems to say elsewhere in her review that the movie harkens back to an earlier time of clear moral choices and stances, and provides a sort of alternate scenario of teen romantic relationships as mutually committed pacts instead of just quick "hook-ups." I don't plan on seeing "Twilight" myself, so I'll rely on any of you who do to tell me if she's got it right.
Twilight is fantastic. It’s a page-turner that pops out a lurching, frightening ending I never saw coming. It’s also the first book that seemed at long last to rekindle something of the girl-reader in me. In fact, there were times when the novel—no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana—stirred something in me so long forgotten that I felt embarrassed by it. Reading the book, I sometimes experienced what I imagine long-married men must feel when they get an unexpected glimpse at pornography: slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life’s fortunes, I thought I had subdued. The Twilight series is not based on a true story, of course, but within it is the true story, the original one. Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book—and the series—so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails—even once—in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. If a novel of today were to sound these chords so explicitly but in a nonsupernatural context, it would be seen (rightly) as a book about “abstinence,” and it would be handed out with the tracts and bumper stickers at the kind of evangelical churches that advocate the practice as a reasonable solution to the age-old problem of horny young people.
From “What Girls Want” by Caitlin Flanagan, Atlantic December 2008. Go here to read the full article.