On grocery stores, or why there’s room for improvement

One of my pet peeves is American grocery stores. Mind you, I love the concept of a grocery store: the bounty of fruit heaped in shiny pyramids, the Lunchables, the prepared mirepoix, the half aisle of energy bars. It speaks to reinvention, of trying on new identities: for our eating habits, and thus our selves. We are what we eat–and when I’m in the football field sized Stop and Shop, I believe I can become anyone I want to be.

And yet. The execution is so flawed. There is SO MUCH that could be improved on, and no sign of innovation. It drives me batty.

Exhibit A: the cart pusher. All American grocery stores and Targets have a staff person(s) who collect the carts scattered throughout the parking lot and return them to the front of the store. THERE IS A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS. Where I grew up, in Canada, the carts stayed neatly collected at the cart return areas. Here’s why: when you wanted to get a cart, you had to deposit a dollar coin in a gizmo at the top to unlock it. Then, when you returned the cart in an orderly fashion, you got your dollar back. It was a security deposit of sorts: you could definitely still leave your cart in the weeds, but you’d be out the dollar. It assigned laziness a price, and the end result was the carts stayed collected a ready to use. Returning abandoned carts even provided a form of pocket money to teenagers and homeless individuals, so much so that it was featured in a TV beer commercial in my youth. And the store didn’t have to pay anyone to return the carts.

Exhibit B: the self checkout line. I don’t particularly mind checking my own groceries, although non-banana produce slows me down considerably. I don’t mind at all at CVS, where I tend to only buy a couple items, and the bags are right on the checkout kiosks. But all of the self-check kiosks I have encountered at mainstream grocery stores have a fatal flaw, which is that the bags are way down at the other end, so you have to take a few minutes after you pay to collect your purchases. Meanwhile, the person behind you, who is already annoyed by the time it took you to look up rainbow chard on the touch screen, has already started sending their items merrily down the conveyor belt, where they mix with your still to-be-bagged items. WHY? Self-bag grocery stores, which I have encountered both in Europe and in discount US stores, long ago figured out a solution: the end of the conveyor belt fans out into 3 discrete areas, with a movable divider, so that after you pay, your stuff ends up in one collection area, and the next person’s in a discrete space.

It’s not like these technologies don’t exist. Moreover, in my sadly limited exposure to the world I have already seen these two not minor but GLARING inefficiencies. Has no one in the entire Stop&Shop higher ups ventured outside their own store? I understand retraining consumers is hard, but surely these are minor fixes compared to teaching us to check our own groceries? And yet, they persist. The lesson I take from this is that changing the system is hard, and that sensible solutions get ignored because that’s just the way things get done. And I continue to silently fume about the lack of progress.


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