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Grocery Shopping as Contact Sport

April 22, 2014 | by Emuna Braverman

Where human behavior is on display – at its best and, more frequently, at its worst.

The late great Erma Bombeck had a wonderful book entitled “All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room”. Having spent very little time in Loehmann’s dressing room, I cannot attest to the truth of her statement. But having spent many hours in grocery stores preparing for Passover, during Passover and restocking after Passover, I feel confident asserting that whatever Ms. Bombeck discovered about human nature in that crowded communal fitting room can also be said about the grocery store.

Human behavior is on display – at its best and, more frequently, at its worst. First there are the shoppers who just push their way to the front, using their elbows where necessary. For them grocery shopping is a contact sport and the wiser course of action for the rest of us is just to get out of their way. I accommodate them (it’s certainly not worth the fight) but I may seethe inwardly.

Then there are the shoppers who really don’t want to wait in line (isn’t that everybody?), so they place their groceries on the conveyer belt to mark their space as they continue to shop (“Just one more thing”) and then are outraged when you have the nerve to go in front of them. I don’t accommodate this customer as easily, although I still avoid a fight and continue my inner boil.

There are also the shoppers who are the shmoozers. It is certainly nice to be friendly and it is even nicer to treat the cashier as a friend and not as a servant, to recognize them as a real person. But when there is a line of people waiting behind you, it is appropriate to keep this friendly conversation to a minimum. Otherwise it is unfair to the waiting (and increasingly more frustrated) crowd.

There are also the shoppers who arrive at the cash register completely unprepared. Their order is rung up and they spend the next five minutes searching in their pocketbooks for the means to pay. I would think that all that, with all the time spent waiting in line, some of it could have been used to find their credit card!

I could go on. And I do believe that all the behaviors on display in the grocery store are indeed reflective of their personalities and attitudes. But this isn’t a behavior modification analysis. In the end, the important behavior to notice is of course my own. As noted in the examples above, I don’t always respond to these challenges with grace and good cheer. Although I rarely allow my inner turmoil to bubble over, it is still there. I have my own “animal behavior” to contend with.

And so I work on my patience. I work on being polite. I work on being understanding. I work on being friendly. I work on being empathic (who knows what stress led to this undesirable behavior?) and I work on taking advantage of this opportunity to grow. And once in a while, I work on being assertive. “Excuse me, but I think I was in front of you in line.” “I’m really sorry but you can’t keep your place in line and continue to shop.” “Would you mind ringing me up while you talk?” “If you could keep your elbow out of my face, I would really appreciate it!”

I spend a lot of my waking hours in various neighborhood markets. I want it to be a positive experience. I want to uplift my character not destroy it. (And I want to buy some really ripe fruit) So I turn shopping into a sociological study. It’s interesting, not frustrating. Maybe one day I’ll even write a book…

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