I provide here some basic tips for any sap who unwittingly finds himself going to the local grocery, with no option other than having to perform actual shopping. As our main family grocery shopper, I have been in this position hundreds of times and I know it can be a sick feeling for the uninitiated, but it’s useless to dwell on how you got to this point. The best course is to minimize the pain, and a few simple strategies will help towards that purpose.
Our nearest store is only a furlong or so away and I have gotten in the habit of going quite often. Most of the people working there nod or wave as I walk in, and I have learned to disregard that hint of pity I can see in their eyes. Anyway, they say repetition is a great teacher and I now humbly consider myself one the finest male grocery shoppers in America, not necessarily for efficiency but for overall decision making. I would do very well on The Price is Right, though it’s obvious to me Drew Carey is no Bob Barker.
Let’s get to it. A good experience begins with selecting a proper cart. I make a point to never pick a cart containing leftover trash of any kind – coupons, flyers, a half-eaten Nilla wafer, nothing. I will rifle through the entire rack to find one that is completely empty. A clean cart makes for a comfortable start, but you are not yet off the hook. You may get one with a dreaded wheel malfunction, a condition often not noticed until you are well on your way. Sometimes a wheel sticks and grinds so you are not so much pushing the cart but forcing it along against its will. Or you might get the one with a hyperactive front wheel which spins uncontrollably like an acid-fueled Tara Lipinski. In these cases, I just accept fate, stick with the cart I have, and vow not to give in.
The first stop for me is the deli, my least favorite part of the store and, like the hokey-pokey at a wedding, something to be endured. To get delicious meats at a busy deli you must at some point relinquish control to the shopping gods, because it is anybody’s guess how long it will take. The wait can be an eternity and you are either at the mercy of the worker lady in the hairnet, or the seemingly harmless old woman who can’t possibly eat that much but orders seven pounds of salami, sliced thin, and would prefer each piece of cheese individually wrapped, thank you.
The whole dynamic at the deli is one of chaos and confusion – “Wasn’t I here before that guy?” – everyone in a muddled cluster of carts, staring blankly ahead, hoping to finally get picked. My advice is to size up the situation in advance and don’t be afraid to bail out. The kids can eat Oscar Meyer bologna for a few days …they’ll live.
As you move on navigating the aisles it is almost certain you will encounter another forlorn guy in the same lonely boat as yourself, crumpled grocery list in hand, looking dazed as he searches desperately for self-rising flour. Approaching another male can be awkward, but when your eyes meet you will no doubt feel a certain bond. Words are never spoken.
For the most part, however, a grocery store is a bastion of femininity, and therefore a great place to meet women who didn’t think they would run into anybody they knew. I am a happily married man, but if I were among the unattached, the Piggly Wiggly would become a regular hangout. The fact is, women really don’t want to be there any more than you do and are usually happy to stop and talk If play your hand right you can work up a lot of sympathy, and even respect.
There are so many natural topics to serve as icebreakers:
“Brillo pads or SOS?”
“How do you know if a zucchini is ripe?”
“Is Chef Boyardee still alive?”
“Does creamed corn come in a family size ?”
And the socially-conscious deal-sealer: “I wish more products had a cage free option.”
The key takeaway is you are stuck so try to have some fun with it.
What a great feeling when you arrive at checkout, but this is no time to relax. Checkout time is an event all its own and you need to be on high alert. Picking the wrong lane can ruin the whole deal so it is better to embrace the challenge than to pull in the first lane you see. When you go as much as I do, you get to know the clerks and you understand their strengths and weaknesses, but even with that insight you still need to get lucky. Trust your instincts.
A lot depends on the shoppers in line. There may be a guy who needs three or four cartons of smokes from the employee-only tobacco zone, or a lady who sends for a different cottage cheese because she wanted large curd. These are fluke happenings and there is nothing you can do about it except stay calm and imagine you are somewhere else.
Personally, I hate to see somebody pull out a checkbook. That means instead of a quick card swipe you’ve got to deal with the check-writing process. These people usually balance their checkbooks on the spot and I love it when they do the very deliberate signature, like third grade cursive all over again. It’s not the freaking Magna Carta, just sign it!
When lines are slow and you’re feeling edgy, it may be tempting to look over toward the self- checkout machines, perhaps the most nefarious of all modern inventions. Somehow the grocery people have thought of a way for us to do the work for them, with the promise of a quicker release from what is quickly becoming a private hell. Do not make this mistake. The self-checkout machine is a Siren.
At first, she is soothing and helpful, but trust me she’ll turn on you the minute she senses weakness: “Put the item back in the bag… See attendant…Really, more Cheetos?…You missed a button.” Nobody needs that.
When the trial is over they load you up and you’re on your way. You will feel the sensation of walking, or even half-running, with that flawed but dutiful cart into the open air, where you will get in the car and head back to the couch to watch reruns of Breaking Bad. Or maybe Cake Boss.