Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio

My first foray into competitive bagging came at the age of 19, when the grocery store where I worked held a contest. I was a vision of speed, grace, and—dare I say—beauty, as I deftly filled two paper bags with an assortment of cans, dried goods, and perishable items. My first-place finish qualified me for a far loftier competition: the Southeast Iowa Regional Bagging Contest.

The regional bag-off was in the stockroom of a Hy-Vee grocery store. Bathed in the antiseptic glow of fluorescent lighting, the air thick with the musky smell of cardboard boxes, it was far from glamorous. It wasn’t the locale that made my heart sink—it was the competition. Some baggers were twice my age, and they had muscles in all the right places—strong, beefy hands with long, nimble fingers that could handle a two-liter soda bottle with the same ease they would a 12-ounce can. Their arms were thick as nautical ropes, or so they appeared to a scrawny teenager. I was a few years removed from high school, working my way through college by stocking shelves, bagging groceries, and loading cars. Sure, I sat through my store’s mandatory 30-minute instructional video on bagging, but my skills were mostly self-taught. My small stature gave me an edge: My nimbleness made me fast on the draw. By leaps and bounds, I was the quickest bagger in my store. But in the larger competitive bagging community I was still a neophyte up against experienced professionals.

As the Southeast Iowa Regional Bagging Contest was about to begin, I discovered something that caused me to panic. It became clear most of my competitors had been “listing.” Their store managers had given them lists detailing the exact groceries we would be bagging that day so they could practice ahead of time. (It’s like knowing the order of the next 50 Tetris pieces coming down the pike.) I was provided no such list.

Unfortunately, this story doesn’t end with a Rudy-style heroic comeback. I did not win the Southeast Iowa Regional Bagging Contest. Still, without the competitive advantage of listing, I finished third, enough to earn me praise from the store manager and several slices of free pizza from the deli. Still, my journey up the lower rungs of the upper Midwest bagging world ladder earned me a measure of street cred in grocery circles.

Photo: Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star/Getty Images

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So when I rang up 2017 National Bagging Champion Brady Long to talk shop about competitive bagging, I felt an immediate bond. We joked about the lameness of plastic bags, lamented the trend toward self-checkout lanes, and shared a mutual admiration for a perfectly constructed bag of groceries.

“You go to all these different stores, and most places, they don’t even have baggers anymore,” said Long, a 23-year-old University Of Akron student. “You see cashiers throwing groceries into plastic bags. It’s awful. You almost want to tell them to stop and say, ‘I’ll do it myself,’ but you can’t. You have to be nice to them.”

But if Long could stop them, if he could intervene, what would he say? How would he instruct them to bag their groceries? There are some simple rules.

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Like almost anything in life, there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way. A messy bag denotes a messy mind. In the 13-page 2017 National Grocers Association’s Official Best Bagger Contest training manual, explicit instructions are given on how to build a winning bag of groceries:

  • Cans and jars go on the bottom because, well, they’re heavy. As anyone who’s ever played rock-paper-scissors knows, heavy things crush lighter things.
  • No two bottles should touch each other, because glass on glass is a recipe for breakage (or, at the very least, annoying clanking).
  • No can should be stacked atop another can. Even with beveled bottoms, stacked cans tend to topple.
  • Use cereal boxes along the sides of the bag to construct walls. In between, place smaller items like garlic bulbs, Slim Jims, Tic Tacs, and bags of dried legumes.
  • On top, gently place fragile items like chips, bread, tomatoes, and eggs.

But that’s just the basics, or as Long puts it, “the common sense stuff.” In reality, next-level bagging requires deep thought.

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“When customers do their own [bagging], they just kind of plop the groceries in,” Long said. “You have to have a plan for where you’re going.”

To truly bag like a pro, here are a few more tips to consider:

  • Raw meat does not mix with other groceries, and if it does, you wrap it so it doesn’t leak. No one likes salmonella.
  • Frozen foods should stick together, as should “toxic” items such as toilet bowl cleaner, laundry detergent, and all other cleaning supplies.
  • Refrigerated items should share a common bag as well, if for no other reason than to make your groceries easier to unload when you get home.
  • Distribute the groceries’ weight evenly across all bags, to make schlepping them easier.

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And whenever possible, avoid plastic bags. Besides being an environmental abomination, they absolutely suck for groceries. Try building your cereal box wall in a flimsy plastic bag. A corner of the box will rip right through. Even if they stay intact, plastic bags are incredibly inefficient. Some are so thin that they break if packed with too many cans or jars. As my former bagging mentor back in Iowa, Matt Palmer, recently told me, “The kids these days do it all wrong. They use way too many bags. How many times have you gone to the store for a few items and come home with 30 bags?”

For proper bagging, always choose paper over plastic, or better yet, bring your own reusable cloth bags. Although the reusable bags sometimes fall over as you fill them, they do have advantages. They’re sturdy enough not to rip on a box corner, they often have flat bottoms you can line with cans, and they can handle a lot of weight. “I like them,” Long said. “You can fit more stuff in them. You can pack a really good bag.”

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And that, after all, is the goal. My days as a competitive bagger are long over, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I “listed” like the rest of the baggers in the room. Perhaps I would’ve been catapulted to fame and fortune, my future irrevocably changed as Southeast Iowa Regional Bagging Champion. If only. Back then, the national champion earned an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. Letterman, of course, is gone now, like so many bagging professionals. But don’t call it a dying art form. The 2017 national championship included the winners from 23 state contests. The event, held at The Mirage in Las Vegas, drew a crowd of about 300 spectators, said Laura Strange, spokeswoman for the National Grocers Association. “It’s still going strong,” she said. The competition is now in its 34th year. “I think a good bagger will always be appreciated.”

Long certainly is. For his championship, he won $10,000, and was featured on NBC’s The Today Show. Throughout his journey, he abided by his golden rule of bagging: “You just have to think, ‘What would you want the bags to look like when you get home?’” Long said. “You wouldn’t want the bags all sloppily put together. You have to think about the customer.” Especially if the customer is you.