I’ve long been the family food shopper (a task not nearly as onerous as when men once set out for the hunt).  I’m not great at it (paying scant attention to sales or clipping coupons), but I do manage to fill the cart and keep everyone reasonably well-fed.  My goal when shopping is simple:  do it quickly and minimize mistakes, i.e., don’t overlook what’s on my list and avoid buying what no one will eat.  Tracking down needed items and avoiding fruitless searches is not much different than a treasure hunt.

I’m most comfortable at a store of medium size, not a mega emporium with vast distances, bewildering labyrinths and endless aisles.  I’d better have a shopping list with me, along with a pen to check off what’s been located and provide visual proof of progress.  But such efficiency is misleading; there are obstacles all along the way.  If, for example, I spot an acquaintance from a distance I’ll generally initiate evasive action, such as ducking into a nearby aisle.  A lengthy conversation would be an unwanted distraction.  The deli counter can also be a challenge.  Here nothing is prepackaged; there is no self-service.  Employees must dispense everything by hand.  Numbered slips are often made available to customers, the numerical sequence determining the order of service.  Without it those waiting would be obliged to jockey uncomfortably for position in front of the counter, often a competition of Darwinian intensity.  There are problems here, however.  (Numbers are not always used – which creates confusion, not everyone takes a number, and some who do  occasionally leave and return after it’s been called.)  Then there are those ahead of you bearing lists that are agonizingly long.  I can do nothing but wait impatiently and observe as cheese, bologna, ham, roast beef, etc., are sliced, weighed and packaged.

Most challenging are those aisles devoted nearly entirely to a particular item (a monumental tribute to the choices and variety that distinguishes the American Marketplace).  I arrive, let’s say, in the cereal, frozen food, chip or cheese section in search of a certain product.  Good luck finding it (though not if I’ve bought it many times before – an explanation perhaps of why the American diet at home doesn’t much vary).  Back and forth I roam, scanning up and down, shuttling back and forth, a bizarre version of hide and seek.  Most perversely the item simply refuses to reveal itself.  In the end I may discover it, and there are few happier and more rewarding moments than these – but more often, it continues to prove elusive.  Desperate now and on the verge of giving up, I may seek out a stock boy to reveal the secret “hiding place.”  (These folks are remarkably adept, able instantly to direct me, even to the most obscure items, let’s say, toothpicks – by aisle number and shelf level!)

The fresh fruit and vegetable section can also prove challenging.  Take packaged blueberries or strawberries or boxed clementines for instance.  Beyond the top layer that is visible, it’s difficult to determine the condition of the remaining portion.  Bananas require strategic planning.  If all in the bunch are yellow, they’ll be close to mush in a day or two.  If too green, they’ll go uneaten for days.  Ideally you’re hoping for a range of coloration leading to serial ripening over several days.  Furthermore, I’m not especially adept at determining a given cantaloupe’s ripeness.  Some people are (or claim to be) and I will, on occasion, consult with others diligently picking over the pile.  If I guess correctly I can expect lavish praise back home.  For a hard and tasteless specimen I’ll surely be taken to task.

Locating the items is but part of my job.  They must all pass muster upon my return.   I have, over the years, cut down on errors, but my performance rarely is flawless.  My wife, for reasons obscure, abhors paper towels bearing a design.  But there will be times, whether in haste or the fact that they’re on sale, that the forbidden prints will end up in my shopping cart.  They will not be used, except in emergencies.  On other occasions I’ll forget to check expiration dates having simply assumed the store had removed the offending stock.  Returning them is a drag, but I’m given little leeway here.  Instructed to buy the non-fat version, let’s say of milk, cheese or yogurt, I slip up and grab the standard product.  It won’t be sent back, but my inattention will be noted and warnings issued next time out.  What may on occasion be returned are store-brand products, after I’m reprimanded, accused of being cheap and all too willing to settle for an item of uncertain quality.

The last decision I need make comes when I head toward the long row of check-out counters.  An error here, the wrong choice, could be costly in terms of time wasted.  It’s critical before committing to one to assess the situation.  A shorter line may not necessarily move faster, especially if the waiting carts are overflowing and customers are clutching fists full of coupons.  Knowing the store and its personnel is of considerable value.  Past  visits should enable you to identify the most experienced and agile of the check-out people.

Still, it may not yet be clear sailing.  Panic can set in when upon reviewing my list I discover an item not yet checked off.  The challenge now is to leave my cart on the line, dash off to retrieve the missing product and hurry back before my cart has been pushed off to the side.  What relief when I return and discover that circumstances have not changed.

Once the bar codes have had their say – I’m good to go.

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