Parental advice has been an abundant resource throughout my life. Some of it has even been solicited. From how to peel corn (twist the top, then pull), to how to pair cleaning with walking through the house (clean as you go: if you are headed to another room, pick up things you may see along the way), to how to fold a fitted sheet (four corners together first), at times my childhood seemed like an animated 700-volume instructional manual. For my parents everything was a teaching opportunity, with lectures delivered without arrogance or discretion.
One specific passion of my father’s was shopping strategy, specifically at grocery stores. While many shoppers may just find what they need and go on their way, my dad approached the store with a craftsman’s eye, always looking to maximize efficiency.
After my parents divorced, I would spend a lot of time with my dad at the store. It was a ritual of our visits to hunt and gather salty snacks and handpick dinner for that night. Throughout the trips, my dad explained his techniques. Even after those trips ended, he still shared his grocery discoveries with me, savoring his daily visits as if the Pick ‘n’ Save was a Parisian open-air market. It’s little surprise that this conditioning led to my viewing grocery shopping as a hobby, and I instinctively follow many of the habits he passed on to me.
My dad’s passing last year led to a lot of reflection about the things he taught me, especially about grocery shopping. I never questioned why I loved supermarket trips or why I shopped a certain way. I blindly followed his advice, never giving much thought to its practicality.
But were any of his techniques valuable? I analyzed a few of his most frequent go-to’s and compared them against observations from my recent shopping trips. This allowed me to see whether his advice was still market-fresh or past its due date.
My dad got his shopping done in the morning, well ahead of the lunch rush. His belief was that you’d have a better pick of what you want and less hassle if you arrived early.
This one’s a win. On Saturday mornings, I try to get all shopping done before 9 a.m. A grocery store at 7:15 in the morning is a serene place. There are fewer crowds, cleaner aisles, stocked shelves, and leisurely advice from workers, who are less preoccupied with other customers at that point. The occasional downside is fewer prepared foods out at the deli counter. More often than not this isn’t a problem, and you can find someone to help quickly if you need something prepared.
Traditional “big box” stores on the end of a strip or standing alone typically have one strip of parking spaces on the left or right side of the store, near the loading dock. Dad believed that not only were these spaces as close to the front doors as the nearest spaces after the handicapped section, but that they were also more readily open. This means less time wasted walking to your car or searching for a spot. I’ve had good luck with this strategy. The spaces are emptier, and there’s typically a cart return nearby. This usefulness of this nugget is obviously highly conditional on the store’s parking layout.
My dad claimed to receive this wisdom from one of the rack jobbers loading in the specialized bread below the deli case. There’s two layers to this. If there are good-by dates printed the bag, it’s easy to decipher which are later. (The color of the twist tie also indicates when the bread was baked, but this is hard to remember, so we usually buy bread with clearly labeled dates.) Dad believed that bread in the back of the rack has been handled less. In my experience, this has no bearing on the tastiness. The essence of the advice, however, is accurate. More often than not the bread further back in the rack will have a later expiration date. If you go through bread at a slower pace, consider this strategy.
The theory that surveying your cart and removing the large, heavy things first (and saving the fragile things for last) would somehow result in better-bagged groceries. My dad also thought this would help the baggers.
It doesn’t. My experience has shown that the order in which you unload your cart has no effect on the quality of the bagging. Things are often re-ordered on the bagger’s side—especially with the second conveyor belt that has appeared in some grocery checkout lines during the last decade or two—and I’ve never heard a bagger express thanks for helping them out. The proliferation of self-checkout further renders this advice unnecessary.
Dad’s favorite piece of advice was another relic from the stores of the past. During our trips to the recently opened SuperSaver, he would sometimes defy his “shop early” strategy. In lieu of lunch, we’d take two loops around the store, enjoying free sample after free sample. So our lunches were typically two pieces of frozen pizza, some crusty bread points, and maybe a meatball.
Times have changed. Even Costco pre-COVID couldn’t offer enough to equal an entire meal. And in hindsight, a dixie cup of tortilla chips and two meatballs probably led to an early, desperately scarfed dinner. This has evolved into a losing strategy.
Dad tried to build a rapport with workers all over the store: butchers, stockers, rack jobbers, and checkout clerks. Not only for social reasons, but also because he believed that it would cause better opportunities or coupon forgiveness to fall his way.
This worked well, to a point: the transient nature of supermarket employment often meant that any bonds he built would not last long. Nevertheless it’s a good life lesson to be nice to others and acknowledge service personnel as people.
Unfortunately, this is one area where I struggle. Perhaps it’s the fear that someone may ask what I plan to do with all that Beefaroni and Cucumber-Lime Gatorade in my cart. But if I can get over my introverted stigmas, I’m sure there will be rewards reaped from getting to know these essential workers.
Many of my subconscious habits exist because I saw my parents set the example. Fortunately, they don’t appear to all be useless. When it comes to the things my dad taught me, there are more plusses than minuses, and although some of the data is now antiquated, the good intentions still shine through.