Looking Sideways – Supermarket etiquette brightens holiday

Mark Luetke

The just-completed holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year began on what economists say is the busiest grocery shopping day of the year, Turkey Day Eve. As I fought the supermarket crowds ramping up to the holiday that day, I discovered some remarkable kindness among my fellow shoppers. Call it “Supermarket Etiquette.”

Let’s start with one of the longest checkout lines I’ve ever experienced at a local food store. The worker shortage was on full display as just one checkout employee was doing his best to take care of a long line of customers stretching halfway down the canned-goods aisle.

I’d been inching my way to the front and was three carts to the finish line when a gentleman of a certain age approached with a hand-held basket containing just milk, bread and eggs. He sighed as he surveyed the lineup of carts overloaded with items destined for Turkey-day tables. But then the lady in front of me flashed a quick wink of consensus, then invited the guy to step in ahead of us. It was a small gesture, but his face beamed with gratitude.

“I just didn’t want him to wait in the long line for a few things, and I appreciate it when people let me ahead,” said shopper Pam Cappelletty. “I always let people ahead of me when they have just a handful of items.” She admitted, however, that others let her cut in line “only once in a great while.”

Jim Sautter has presided over his family-owned market in downtown Sylvania for more than 36 years. He has seen it all in terms of customer behavior, but says that, “99.9 percent of my customers are very polite. I feel it’s because we make them feel like part of the family, get to know them, try to greet everybody when they come in.”

He added, “Most of the time, if a customer sees something that’s not appropriate—a person helping themselves to blueberries out of the carton, or taking a piece of meat and setting it on a shelf rather than back in the cooler—they come and tell me. Over the years we’ve had very few issues.”


To underscore the point, he recalled, “Recently a lady handed me ten dollars, saying she just got back from confession at St. Joe’s and told the priest that she ate a bunch of cherries when in our store a few weeks ago. When she got up front, she paid for what was left in the bag, but not the ones she had already eaten. I told her I’m glad she made me aware of it, but didn’t want to take her money; so instead, she told me to pay it forward.”

Of course, we all have witnessed some kind of bad behavior in a supermarket: not putting carts back in the parking lot return corral, walking away from an item they spilled. Still, etiquette usually wins out. For example, shoppers at the quirky Aldi stores know that they must put a quarter into a slot attached to the handle of shopping carts in order to unlock them. It gets returned when the cart is. But in a “pay it forward” spirit, many customers leave the quarter in the cart for the next person to use, or simply hand off their cart to an incoming customer as they leave the store.

Finally, a note about the unsung soldiers in the supermarket etiquette dynamic: the employees. In that regard, I want to mention a recent encounter with Mary at our local Meijer store. She has a job called “self-checkout attendant,” and her role is to keep an eye on one of the scanner-equipped checkout areas at the front of the store. Aside from confirming the legal age limit for those of us purchasing wine, these workers have the thankless job of helping technologically challenged old coots negotiate the modern computer protocol.

Some of the attendants display the temperament of my old high school dean of discipline, or the focus of a seventh-grader in the back row of English class. But the other day Mary was absolutely stellar as she helped me check my items, put coupons into the slot the right side up, and reminded me not to forget one of my selections. All with a smile and twinkly eyes. Three good deeds in one! Clearly, supermarket etiquette works both ways.

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