by Kym Byrnes

Adventures in grocery shopping

I never look forward to going to the grocery store but I do find that when I am there, I tend to linger. There are, of course, times that I’m in a hurry and work very hard to keep myself on task, repeating to myself, “You’re getting dog food, whipped cream and Cheez-Its — no more, no less, in and out.” So while I tell myself I hate grocery shopping, I find it interesting that I have yet to move to any type of food shopping service. I still prefer to do my shopping in person.

I took to my social media feeds to see how other people feel about grocery shopping, and people had a lot to share. It turns out a lot of people love grocery shopping — they see it as time away from the kids, or they see it as a way to get some exercise, or a way to get new food and cooking ideas. One friend even said she loves grocery shopping because there was a time when she was too financially insecure, and now she can grocery shop for whatever she needs.

Americans spend a lot of time food shopping. The USDA reports that about 14 percent of Americans grocery shop on an average day, and spend an average of 46 minutes at the store. And while I know many men who really enjoy doing the grocery shopping and cooking, the USDA suggests that women still do slightly more grocery shopping than men.

The more I pay attention to what is happening at the grocery store, the more interesting I find it.

I have heard that there is actually grocery store music psychology. There have been studies done to figure out the best music to play to get shoppers to spend more — spend more time in the store and spend more money on food. I can attest to the fact that when I am in the outer aisles of the store, shopping for produce and dairy, I don’t really hear the music. But when I am in those inner aisles, where the candy-coated cereals, the sodas, the chips, and the boxed macaroni and cheese — that is when I find myself singing (out loud if I think I’m alone) to the awesome ’80s music they are spinning. I’m aware it’s happening, that I’m spending more time than I need to be in those inner aisles, but I just keep perusing because I want to hear the rest of the song. Well played, grocery store chain, well played.

A co-worker of mine likes to cart stalk. She pays attention to what people are putting in their cart, both for education and entertainment purposes. For example, maybe it’s someone who is in really good shape. She watches to see what kind of protein bars he gets or how many bananas he loads up. She said sometimes she uses it to try new stuff and get ideas, or she gets a laugh — the buff workout guy buys four gallons of ice cream.

Then there are the people who are destination grocery shoppers. Carroll County has dozens of grocery stores and even more if you include the amazing non-chain markets we have, but there are folks who build a day around traveling outside of Carroll County to go to Wegman’s or Trader Joe’s. I know a few people who go to Trader Joe’s just to find stuff they didn’t know they needed. Odd food products that force a raised eyebrow initially, but then apparently turn out to be “to die for.” Every Thursday I am on a Zoom call for work with a woman who spends her time on the call updating us with crazy stuff she found at Trader Joe’s and making recommendations for what we should try and what we should avoid.

In my experience, the grocery store is not a fun place for parents with small children. I feel like when I had to take my 3-year-old twins to the store, I spent the hours preceding the trip psyching myself up for it. I’d have a list, I’d have a container of snacks, I’d have wipes, I’d practice saying “no, no, no, we don’t need that, don’t touch that, get back in the cart, get back in the cart, stop touching your sister, you can’t eat those I haven’t bought them yet, get back in the cart…” And the whole time in the store, just holding my breath, hoping that we could get out of there without a temper tantrum, from them or myself. One time when I was checking out, my son got out of the race car cart and bolted for the doors. My daughter sat calmly in the race car eating her little snack packet, maybe just watching me to see how this would play out. I stood there with my wallet in hand, trying to run my credit card, pondering if I should leave my purse and wallet and daughter to chase him, or quickly finish the transaction and try to catch up with him. I honestly don’t remember what I did. I obviously repressed it, but I know we’re all still here today so whatever decision I made seems to have worked out.

A college roommate of mine said no one ever wants to go to the grocery store with her because she has every coupon and discount code and savings app she can get her hands on. She laughs at herself for it, but is sure to note exactly how much she has saved in the past year. My other college roomie said she doesn’t even go into the grocery store anymore — she makes her order at home online and swings by to pick it up. She revels in the time and money it saves her.

I think the most complaining I’ve heard about grocery shopping lately is the move to self-checkouts. Some people really don’t want to scan and bag their own stuff. I don’t mind scanning and bagging, what I find annoying is that the bagging area is generally not big enough for people with a lot of groceries. And sometimes I want to challenge the machine to a fight in the parking lot. Sometimes those machines are a little aggressive when they talk at me, and I often find myself talking back to it. At my regular grocery store, somehow after I scan the item, no matter how fast I’m moving to get it into the bag, the machine barks, “Please place your item in the bagging area, you must place your item in the bagging area.” And then it feels like a challenge, so I get the bag all open and ready and scan and practically throw my chicken-flavored rice packet into the bagging area just so I can do it before she barks at me. And then it seems when I beat her, she calls a foul and tells me to remove the last item from the bagging area, blinking light and all.

So you can imagine, after an hour of stalking people’s carts, dancing in the candy aisle and fighting with machines, grocery shopping can be exhausting. Fortunately my daughter recently got her driver’s license and is more than happy to go to the grocery store for me because she can add whatever she wants to the list while she’s there. I think it’s a win-win.

My final thought on grocery shopping is that I think grocery store workers have been very much overlooked in the past couple years as we worked through a global pandemic. They had to keep going to work, in a very public place, dealing with people who aren’t always very nice, touching surfaces and being around strangers. We needed our food stores and I have thought a thousand times over the last two years how pleasant the staff is where I regularly shop in spite of all the people they must have in there arguing with machines (me), complaining about the plastic bag ban (not me) and checking out at the credit card only machine when they are paying with cash (my daughter).