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Cart Courtesy: Seven Rules of Supermarket Etiquette

I have to go the grocery store tonight, and I’m already dreading it. The scene there is all too easy to envision, probably because it’s the one I encounter every time I go: aisles crowded with shopping carts and patrons standing in front of products with dazed looks on their faces; a sea of people in the express lane, half of whom obviously don’t meet the “ten items or less” requirement. This undoubtedly rings a bell with most people, since annoying behavior seems to be a necessary accompaniment to the supermarket experience. But why should this be so? If so many of us have the same complaints about grocery store decorum, or lack thereof, you’d think we might’ve solved the problem by now. I suspect the issue is that many of us are unknowing offenders, which means we could all use a refresher course on grocery store etiquette—or how not to make food shopping an aggravatingly painful experience. 

1. Don’t block the aisles and products.
Grocery store aisles are never as wide as they should be. All it takes is a couple of haphazardly placed carts to create traffic jams. The solution’s easy: when occupying aisle space, make sure your cart’s pushed as much against the shelves as possible. If you’re trying to decide between two different brands, don’t stand in the middle of the aisle or directly in front of the products while doing so. That makes it hard for people to get around you, or for people to get their product of choice. 

2. Parents, keep kids in check; non-parents, don’t judge kids for being kids.
Children running amok in a store or screaming their heads off are liable to make me throw an inner temper tantrum of my own. I understand that parents need to bring their kids places, but that doesn’t mean they’re not responsible for the kids’ behavior. I’m referring to unruly children specifically; kids who forget to use indoor voices or who act playful are just being kids, and the rest of us would do well to remember that, rather than glaring at their parents. We’re all just trying to get out of the supermarket with our dignity and sanity intact, and undermining others doesn’t help that one bit. 

3. Avoid getting handsy with produce and bulk bins.
Some people are obsessed with picking the most perfectly ripe produce. They have to touch each and every vegetable or piece of fruit, leaving a trace of germs on each one. I’m not suggesting you buy produce without inspecting it first, but you could eyeball the selection a little before choosing which ones to pick up, rather than grabbing all of them. When it comes to the bulk bins, your hands shouldn’t go anywhere near the goods. The scoopers and tongs are there to prevent that, so even if you want to sample something before you commit to an entire bagful, use one of those implements to get it out. 

4. Put unwanted products back where they belong.
As someone who worked retail, I can’t knowingly put something where it doesn’t belong without feeling guilty. I know how frustrating it is for employees to come across a box of cereal placed on top of an apple pile in the produce section. And, worse, in some instances this behavior actually ruins the product, like when someone decides against a bag of frozen veggies and leaves it to defrost in the canned-goods aisle. (I’ve seen this happen more than once—one time it was raw meat!) If you don’t want something you put in your cart, take the time to return it to its rightful home. Good grocery store karma is always something to strive for. 

5. Be a good sport at the registers.
If you have more items than the express lane allows and you sneak in, it defeats the whole purpose. People who abuse this privilege force shoppers with only a few items in their baskets to stand in the regular lines, making those even longer for the rest of us. Speaking of that, if you notice someone behind you in line with a couple of items and you have a full cart, consider letting him or her go ahead of you. It’s an easy way to make someone’s day, and how often do we get the opportunity to do that? 

6. Clean up the basket or cart before putting it away.
This seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people leave trash in carts. My college boyfriend worked at Costco and would often collect carts with empty wrappers, dirty napkins, and even the occasional dirty diaper. You’re never too busy to throw away your own garbage. If you want to be extra nice, consider giving the cart or basket a quick wipe-down with the antibacterial cloths stores provide near their entrances. But regardless of whether you use the wipes or have garbage to throw out, you should always put the basket or cart back in its proper corral—carts especially, since errant ones in parking lots can bump into cars and cause damage. 

7. Don’t be a parking-spot hog.
Supermarket etiquette doesn’t stop at the doors; it also involves getting out of a parking spot speedily if you notice someone waiting for yours. Most people think they do just that, but an article called “Territorial Defense in Parking Lots: Retaliation Against Waiting Drivers” published in a 2006 showed (via three studies) that drivers actually take more time when they know their spots are wanted. They take even longer if other drivers honk at them, but in those cases, I’d say they deserve to wait. 

It’s easy to get caught up in your own needs at the grocery store, but if we were all a little more mindful of our surroundings—namely, that we’re surrounded by people who want to get out of there just as quickly as we do—then shopping would become a much less frustrating experience. And I don’t want to make it sound like I’m not guilty of these things from time to time, too; I feel remorseful about putting products where they don’t belong, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t done it. All any of us can do is try to be on our own best behavior and cross our fingers that others will follow suit. That’s what I’m hoping for when I brave the supermarket tonight, anyway.

Updated April 1, 2011