Saturday, January 24, 2015

Grocery store observations

I am not a big fan of grocery shopping. In my town, we have a walmart supercenter; a small, locally-run place which is v. nice but is more expensive and has limited selection; and an outpost of a mostly-dead chain.

I don't shop at the mostly-dead-chain place because they've long had the reputation of not pulling expired stock. Also, I have had a couple bad experiences there the few times I tried to shop there.

I tend to go to the locally owned place if I know they will have what I need - the checkout people are nicer and smarter, it's less crowded, the people shopping there are nicer. They also seem better set up for people who live alone (or are more cognizant of the fact that lots of people do, these days) in that they don't have stuff in ginormous "family packs" where you have to either freeze 7/8 of the stuff or else have a crew of friends willing to share it.

I don't like the walmart for myriad reasons, but I shop there because they carry certain things the local place does not, things that I need.

My other options are to drive an hour's round trip (or more) for stores like Kroger's. And a Whole Foods - well, that would be at least a 2 hour round trip, if traffic was favorable.

So yeah, we're kind of stuck.

I don't like walmart for different reasons than most of the loud walmart haters don't like it:

- they have a policy of carrying a brand or item for about six weeks and then abruptly dropping it. I get that some things don't have high demand but enough people I know have complained about this that I am guessing it's something more to do with them trying to cut lowball deals with the suppliers than with "people didn't buy that particular brand."

- The people who shop there. Oh, sweet Agnes, the people who shop there. I won't go on a Friday afternoon or the weekend the checks come out (or EBT cards get refilled). Yes, that's snobby and "bougie" of me, but there are people that shop our local store that DO NOT KNOW HOW TO BEHAVE IN PUBLIC and they seem a lot more common on the first of the month. As Heroditus Huxley has noted in other language, it's not a class thing, it's a behavior thing - there are people on assistance who don't stand and block the door, or have a yelling fit at the cashier when they are told they can't buy sodas with their WIC funds....but there are also people who do that kind of thing.

The other thing I hate about shopping at busy times is that it's just a crush of people and they NEVER have enough checkout lines manned, so you're standing ten deep in a line. And of course there's the person with an order that has to be broken into three separate orders with separate payments. Or the person who has a gigantic order and who waits until it's all rung up, then digs out their checkbook and wants to write a check. Or someone who argues with the cashier because they think their stuff should be cheaper.

And there are the poorly-supervised kids. And the rude teenagers. And the people on cell phones who don't see anyone else and will run into you if you aren't careful.

And it just makes me so misanthropic to be there when it's busy, and I know that makes Jesus unhappy with me, because I'm totally not loving my "neighbors" in that moment....but I just can't.

(So I shop early Saturday mornings, when no one is there)

- They don't have enough staff. Stuff doesn't get restocked very fast so it's not unusual to need something and there just be an empty space on the shelf where it is. If you can find someone, you can ask, but often you can't find someone, or they do the "that's not my department" thing and walk away.

- The stores are huge and are often illogically laid out so you have to go all over Creation to find what you need. (And like most groceries now, the stuff you need the most is at the back of the store. I know there's a "cooler set up" reason for that but I'm sure the people running the store figure making the person who needs milk trek past ALL THE OTHER FOOD is a bonus 'cos they might buy something else).

But there are a few grocery store frustrations and things I've noticed recently, and this is probably tied to the crap economy, and businesses not feeling like they can hire more workers because it's so expensive now to have a full-time person, and part time people can only work so many hours...

But I've found a lot of stores recently aren't as good as they once were at pulling expired stock. One of the reasons I don't shop at one store in town here is that they never did this....but increasingly, I'm seeing it in other stores. And yes, it's possible to check yourself. And I always check stuff like milk and cheese and eggs....but it's annoying because sometimes the "sell by" dates are printed very small and are blurry, and I hate having to check EVERY BLAMED THING so I'm not paying full price for a can of tomatoes that was at its best in 2012 or something....but more and more, stores are doing this. Recently, I've gotten a couple of items (cheese, and a yogurt sort of thing) that I got home with and realized they were past their dates. In the case of the yogurt, it wasn't until I started eating it. (It wasn't spoiled, luckily). The cheese I just threw out because it would have cost more to drive the hour's round trip to return it than it was worth.

But ugh. So now that's something else I have to police, in addition to checking on sodium content and reading ingredients to make sure a couple food additives I'm sensitive to are not in the item.

Also, the whole issue of "not enough checkout lanes." Some places have self-check lanes but I tend to dislike those, and also, most stores say they are for a relatively small number of items, and because I like to shop only once every 10 days to 2 weeks (if I can manage to do so), I have a big order of I wait in line.

(One reason why I like the locally-owned place and shop there, even though they are slightly more expensive: if more than three people are in line, they OPEN ANOTHER ONE until all their lines are open. Usually when I go there I don't have to wait more than a minute in line)

I don't know. I know it sounds a little entitlement-minded, but I often wind up shopping when I'm tired or in a hurry to get done and get on with what I need to do, and I don't like having to do so much of the work myself: self-checkouts with self-bagging. Checking to be sure every single darn item is still sufficiently within its freshness window. I suppose the next evolution will be a giant warehouse with stuff on high pallets, and ladders everywhere, and you have to go and find what you want and get it down off its high shelf, and cut open the cardboard boxes or take off the pallet wrap when a new case needs to be opened...and yet, you will still pay increasingly high prices for groceries.

(I would not mind using the self-checkout nearly so much if they offered, say, a 2% discount to people who did. But that's not gonna happen).

This morning, when I went to the walmart, I noticed something I hadn't seen in years.

When I was a kid (this would have been the previous big recession, the one of  the late 1970s), a lot of stores featured an aisle or two of "generic" items - these were things that had no brand, you couldn't usually figure out what factory made them. They were in plain white or yellow containers with the item's name (e.g., "ROLLED OATS") printed on it in black. There was minimal other information; usually the RDA label and a list of ingredients were it. This was different from store brands, which were usually clearly made in the same factories as national brands, but because of less advertising budget, were cheaper. The generic stuff was dirt cheap compared to national brands, and at least the few things we tried, were not really comparable. Maybe for stuff like rolled oats and really basic stuff it was fine, I don't know. But the generics where I grew up were not that good, and there was definitely a stigma attached to them....

Well, generics are coming back. Walmart now has some items that are in plain blue boxes (blue, I suppose, for walmart) with the name just printed on them. Not many items; I think I saw macaroni and cheese and brownie mix and corn flakes.

And I admit, I have some other weird associations with generics. I don't know if this is some dumb thing my kid mind put together, or if I heard some offhand comment my dad made....but they always made me think of Soviet Russia. When I was a kid, it was the tail end of the Cold War. There were a few "exposé" type tv programs (or segments on something like 60 Minutes) about life in Soviet Russia of the time. And the biggest thing I remember are seeing the lines to buy food, and hearing that in some cases, people waited in line for six hours for a sack of potatoes, or something like that. And that there was almost no choice in the stores - if they had canned fish, they had ONE kind of canned fish, and you took it or went hungry. No asking "But do you have salmon?" no saying "But I don't really care for mackerel...."

I also remember hearing a story from someone at church, they hosted a person who had defected, and when they took this man to the grocery store in the US for the first time, he broke down crying - because he could not believe how much food and how much choice there was, he had thought what he had heard back home about the US had to be a fairy story.

And somehow, in my kid mind, I conflated the awful, empty, choice-less Russian shops with the generic foods....and I would always shudder a little bit walking down that aisle, wondering if that was our future.

So far, it isn't. But once in a while, you know? You hear some intellectual sort of person, often who works for the government, commenting that we have "too much choice" in our groceries. Either "too much choice" because then people make the "wrong" ones, or it's not "green" to have fifteen different varieties of canned fish on the shelves, or....I don't know what. But I get really uncomfortable with people who decide they would like, by fiat, to reduce our choices in what we can buy....because I think of those Russian people queuing up for the better part of a day (And how would people who worked for a living do it? I'd STARVE because I can't make multiple hours in a day to wait in line somewhere) and I think of those aisles at the local grocery store with their eerie, blank boxes on them.

And yeah, food is expensive and getting more so. I bought a head of cauliflower this morning (almost $4!) and the woman checking me out blinked and said, "Is that right, did I ring it up wrong?" and I kind of groaned and said, "No, cauliflower has gotten high." (Then again: I can get four meals or so out of that cauliflower, so it's still cheap compared to some things.) So maybe someday soon I will be having to revert to the blank boxes for whatever I need. (Except most of them probably are too high in sodium; those of us who have to restrict are a small enough market that most manufacturers ignore us.)

1 comment:

Kate P said...

Very true, all of what you said--here in the Philly 'burbs, I have more a choice of stores but it's still not that great. The one closest to me is understaffed and under-stocked--not to mention they have a parking lot that I'm sure was modeled on the 4th circle of hell.
I often end up at Whole Paycheck, because I know where the stuff is coming from. . . and yes, their brand actually is pretty good quality. And like you, I try to stretch things into several meals.