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Grocery Store Confidential

I’ve decided grocery stores are the perfect place for observing human nature. There’s a lot going on in the psychological undercurrent of your local grocery store that I think is noteworthy. Or maybe I just need to get more of a life.  But nonetheless I’ve being noticing some interesting things about myself and my fellow cart pushers.

Speaking of carts, my tendency is to stash mine in as much of an out-of-the-way spot as possible and head unencumbered down an aisle to grab, say, applesauce and olives. I’m convinced it will be more efficient than having to maneuver my cart through the maze of others shoppers trying to likewise maneuver their carts. (Can you say, “Bumper Cars?”)

Of course, on my way to gather my applesauce and olives, I spy the imported vanilla from Madagascar that I read about in some magazine, and lo and behold, it’s right next to a jar of artichoke Meyer lemon tapanade (that sounds far better than it tastes), and I realize how much happier my family will be if we have these items in our pantry. And before I know it, I’m shuffling down the aisle with cans of mandarins underneath my chin, packages of pasta under my armpits, and I don’t even remember what … nor can I look down to check … between my knees.

But the fun really begins when my now overflowing cart and I go looking for the shortest checkout line. If I’m on top of my game I’ve brought at least one of my kids with me. I’ve spent years training my kids how to strategically position themselves in other lines and communicate with first-base-coach-like signals when they think we should all converge into their superior checkout lane.

The very best thing that can happen to me on any given day, short of winning the lotto or my kid scoring a 100 percent on a math test, is correctly predicting which new cashier stand is going to open up while I’m at the end of a very long line. It takes a high level of concentration, which can be difficult to maintain in the over-stimulating environment of your typical grocery store, but on a few very special … dare I say magical(?) ... days, I’ve known the joy of catching the eye of the fresh cashier as he/she is just flicking on his/her lane light. I deftly pull out from the rear of the pack and, carefully avoiding eye contact with any of my fellow shoppers, make a beeline for the newly opened station. Ah, victory.


And what about “ten items or less?” One of the most important questions of our time is this: If the ten item express lane is empty, AND there’s a cashier in place, AND all the normal lanes are at least three deep with carts filled with a month’s supply of food for their families and pets, AND I only have items for tonight’s dinner, AND those items total a mere twelve, is it socially acceptable to use that express lane? Logic says “yes,” but inevitably, as soon as I’ve unloaded my twelve items onto the grocery belt, someone with only a gallon of milk steps up behind me and I can feel the knives shooting from their eyes into my spine.

Do stores put you on a list if you’ve gone through the express lane with over the allotted number? Is my photo posted on the hidden side of the cash register? Will a second infraction result in the destruction of my frequent shopper rewards card?

Recently I was witness to another serious issue at my favorite grocery store, Trader Joes. (Trader Joe’s rules!) In the lane next to my own there was a cart filled about half way, but with no human attached to said cart. Behind it was another cart, this one with human attached, which had apparently just pulled into line. The shopper currently checking out was getting dangerously close to paying her bill and having her groceries loaded into her eco-friendly canvas bags.

The woman behind the human-less cart was looking around to see if anyone was coming to claim it. Seeing no one she begin to go around the unattended cart, but just as she did the absentee shopper arrived with several last minute items and took her “rightful” place at the checkout counter. Oh, boy, you could cut the tension with a cheese knife. Insincere apologies were exchanged; evil eyes were given, accompanied by not-so-subtle heavy sighs and not-so-quiet mutterings under the breath.

Now, I do sympathize. I’ve been known on certain occasions (okay, weekly) to stake my place in line and go grab one or maybe two more things. Often times I leave my kids with the cart and give them the solemn duty of pushing it forward. It’s risky, I know. But at this point in my life I know how long it takes me to get from the checkout line to the dried fruit and nuts and back again, with plenty of time to spare. But sometimes you’re waylaid by a neighbor, or you’re barred from your goal by a gridlock of shoppers who didn’t think to stash their carts in an out-of-the-way spot and head unencumbered down the aisle, and the whole system breaks down. In the distance you hear your kids’ voices rising above the market din, calling out in panic, wondering aloud how they’re going to pay for the groceries, and like a tiger protecting her cubs you abandon your quest and leap to their defense.

Priorities.

But I really wanted those pistachios.

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