!!!Things That REALLY Piss Me Off
THE SUPERMARKET
(…where the simple act of being rude and inconsiderate to others is still alive and well)
I’m a member of the ever growing ranks of men who actually enjoy going to the supermarket, and that’s particularly so with upscale markets like Wegman’s, Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods or, as my daughter Jodi likes to call it, Whole Paycheck. (And no, I’m not gay, although I will admit that neatly arranged produce does turn me on a bit and, on occasion, I do sometimes use facial tissue.) These and other select grocery chains really go out of their way and spend a ton of time and money on all sorts of gimmicks and deceptions designed specifically to make it easier for folks like you and me to willingly part with our hard earned money as we wander through their meticulously planned aisles and displays.

The lighting, casework, construction materials, colors, music, circulation paths, elaborate rest rooms (nicer than some homes I’ve been in!) and even synthesized aromas are all tools supermarkets skillfully employ to suck us in and make us unwittingly open both or hearts and wallets. Some of the other tools they enlist include the exploitation of basic personality flaws such as greed, the need to have more than our neighbors, simple culinary curiosity and the desire to try new things and to boldly go where you normally don’t go. And let’s not forget what quite possibly might be their biggest ace in the hole and what I refer to as The Disney Effect, the creation of a fictional state of mind where you think you really need (and, worse yet, think you can afford to buy!) whatever they’re selling at any given moment or turn in the aisle. It’s deception and illusion at its very best! I guess you could call the marketing people from these stores the “imagineers” of food sales.

You got a few minutes? Let’s take a walk down a typical supermarket produce aisle. Ah, there you go….check out the sign….Lemons 10 for $10. Wow! What a deal! But wait a minute…. I don’t need ten lemons. In fact, I don’t need five lemons, or even four. What I really need is just two lousy lemons, but how much is it going to cost me for just those two lemons? The sign says 10 for $10, and if you do the math that comes out to a buck a piece. But does it? I mean, do I get that same unit price of a buck a piece if I only buy two lemons and not ten as noted on the sign? And, if not, what’s the price for just those two lemons?

Most of the time if you ask someone who works in the store, they’ll tell you that the lemons are a dollar a piece. Of course I can’t hold myself back from asking, “Then why not just say one $1 each?” Anything other than 1 lemon for $1 is arbitrary, and worse, knowingly deceitful! I mean why not say 3 lemons for $3.00 or 58 lemons for $58.00 (or maybe even half a lemon for fifty cents!)? Is that any less arbitrary? They’re obviously hoping that we’ll assume that we need to buy all ten lemons in order to get the “bargain” unit price of one dollar a piece. I’d be willing to bet the farm (if I owned one) that a whole lot of people go for the ten lemons even though they don’t need them because they think it’s the only way to get the buck a piece price. (And if you go through the garbage of those people in a few weeks, you’ll almost certainly find seven or eight shriveled up up lemons that had to be tossed!) Deceitful pricing practices like this are so widespread that when they do offer a genuine quantity discount deal, like 10 for $10 instead of the single lemon price of $1.25, it’s often impossible to recognize it without checking with a store employee to see if there really is a quantity discount. 

There’s another similar pricing scam that’s recently become popular for many supermarket chains. It’s what you could call the “twofer”. One of the great proponents of the “twofer” is Publix which has “twofer” signs up and down almost every aisle. A “twofer” is simply buying one at the “regular” price (and god only knows what the ‘regular’ price is!) and getting a second of the same item at no additional cost or at least at a discount. Sounds good right? And some of the time it may be….or maybe not. It’s not that I don’t trust Publix or any other supermarket to give me the best deal (Alright, I admit it. I don’t trust them!), but is it too much to ask what the “regular” price is for one item? Without that information it’s impossible for me to tell if I’m getting a great deal or a great screwing! (Not that there’s anything wrong with a great deal OR a great screwing!) 

When it comes to displaying prices for products, Publix looks like it’s playing “I’ve Got Secret” because so many of their items have no price tags or signs. The one thing I will not do (even at gun point!) is buy without a price. I call it Lou’s law which stated simply is, no price, no purchase. I thought there was a law passed five or ten years ago that required grocery stores to clearly mark the price of all merchandise. I also thought, and incorrectly so, that peanuts were an effective stool softener, so it’s quite conceivable that I may have gotten the pricing thing wrong as well!   

So let’s say for a moment that I was wrong and pricing on all items is not a requirement of law. Have you ever noticed how many fairly big ticket items in supermarkets are displayed (and I guess sold) without any indication of price? Some time ago at Wegman’s I saw an electric crock pot with no price. (For some reason I thought it might be a good idea to have a counter top appliance that cooks crocks!) Anyway, I looked it over for a few minutes and read the information on the now empty box it had come in, but when I looked for a price tag I could find nothing on the crock pot itself, the box or the display shelf. When I finally found a clerk who worked in that department, she knew less than I did, so she retreated to some unknown cave located deep in the bowels of the store from which she returned several minutes later with the news that the cost of the crock pot was $29.95, or something like that. They could have avoided wasting at least ten minutes of the clerk’s time (not to mention the customer’s time (that’s me!) by just putting a price on the item instead of making it a big mystery. Besides, do you think there’s anyone on the entire planet who’d blindly buy an appliance like that without first knowing how much it cost? Oops…I may be grossly underestimating the stupidity of some customers and, as I’m fond of saying to people who aren’t sure if it’s a compliment or a slam, “You know, you’re not as stupid as people give you credit for.” Well, in this case maybe they are

So now that I’m on a roll about things that piss me off in supermarkets, let’s switch from the subject of pricing to another of my favorite supermarket gripes….store brands. The whole concept of store brands really gets my attention (like a camel shooting pool!) and probably even more so than pricing practices. While most supermarket chains have a smattering of so called “store brands” on their shelves, very few mainstream chains that I’m familiar with come even close to the amount of shelf space dedicated to their own store brand products as does Wegman’s. In fact, it seems as if every time I visit one of their stores I see an increase in the amount of shelf space given over to “Wegman’s” brand products. That trend is truly infectious, and not in the good sense of the word such as can be the case with a special piece of music or a person’s enthusiasm, but rather infectious like a nasty foot fungus that’s slowly spreading and taking over first your toes and toenails, then your entire foot, and then…oh, never mind. I think you get my point! And, as is often the case with foot fungus, there really isn’t a whole lot you as a customer can do to stem the tide of ever expanding store brands.

I doubt that I’m the only one in the world who over time and through continual use has become emotionally attached to a particular brand product and its taste or functional characteristics. And here is where we get to the crux of the issue and what makes store brands so annoying. It would be one thing if they simply added their store brand products to the shelves without touching anything else, but that’s not how it works. Supermarket shelves are finite in their capacity (sort of like your bladder), and as you know from firsthand experience, if you drink too much then you have to get rid of some bodily fluids to make room for what you just drank. Well, it’s the same thing with supermarket shelves which are also finite in their capacity. Shelf space in supermarkets is actively and very competitively sought after by any number of processors, manufacturers, vendors and distributors of food and household products who very aggressively compete for shelf space for their products. So when shelf space is needed for store brand products, they are added at the expense of some brand name product(s) which must be removed from the shelves in order to make the necessary space available. 

Probably the best example of this would be the cereal aisle at Wegman’s. I don’t mean to pick on Wegman’s, but as I already mentioned, they are one of the most aggressive purveyors of store brand products that I’ve come across. You know right away that cereal must be a very big seller (and source of profit) because at Wegman’s hot and cold cereals take up almost an entire aisle (both sides), and the Wegman’s brand cereals eat up about one third of all the space allocated to cereals. If you could take a leisurely stroll down the cereal aisle four or five years ago you would have seen brand after brand of seemingly endless cereal products from well known and established names like Kellogg, Post, General Mills and Quaker, all very familiar brands to those who eat cereal. But if you take that same walk today, the products of all of those brands take up considerably less space now than they commanded only a few short years ago. The reason for this shrinkage relates directly to the increase of Wegman’s brand cereal products and the need to secure shelf space to accommodate them. As a result, the availability of space for national brands has shrunk, and that shrinkage has resulted in several cereals disappearing completely from Wegman’s shelves, and that includes a few of my long time favorites. I don’t want a bland looking box with the name “Wegman’s” on it that calls my cereal “Oat Cereal”. Are you kidding me? It’s not….repeat….NOT “Oat Cereal”. It’s “Cheerios” which, thankfully, trademark laws prohibit them from using. And this is how it’s going all up and down Wegman’s cereal aisles. In place of many of the old time standard brand names is now a broad assortment of Wegman’s brand cereals which have slowly but surely (just like the foot fungus!) taken over a major portion of the cereal aisle.

Cereals are probably the aisle where this change is most evident at Wegman’s, but it can also be seen in other areas such as the mustard and ketchup section where Wegman’s brand mustards were recently introduced. (Cereal is bad enough, but who would stoop so low as to fuck around with something as sacred as mustard?) One day I was in the store and there were all sorts of mustards; yellow, brown, brown spicy, with honey, with horseradish, Dijon, and most of them in a variety of containers and sizes from brands such as French’s, Goulden’s and Nance’s. A week later more than half of the display was dedicated to a whole array of Wegman’s mustards, and during that particular visit Gulden’s was totally absent from the shelves, although a week or two later a few token bottles of Gulden’s did reappear stacked in one single almost invisible row on the bottom shelf. I’m guessing that I was not the only one to cry “foul!” and register a complaint.

One last example of this unwelcome phenomenon would be prepared sugar free Jell-O brand pudding in little plastic cups which are sold in six packs in the refrigerated section. This is one of the better tasting sugar free products and, as a diabetic, I’m constantly on the lookout for any sugar free product that delivers as much flavor as Jell-O’s sugar free pudding. So you can probably imagine that I wasn’t all too happy when I discovered on a routine shopping trip to Wegman’s that my sugar free Jell-O pudding had been removed and replaced with Wegman’s own name brand product. My next thought was that since they had provided an alternate sugar free pudding option, I might as well give it a shot. So I did, and what I found was that the Wegman’s store brand would gag a maggot. It was terrible and a very poor, tasteless imitation of the Jell-O product I had enjoyed so much. In fact, after only two or three spoons full of the Wegman’s pudding, I dumped the remainder into the garbage. It was so bad I’m surprised the garbage didn’t throw it back out at me! 

After many years of unhappiness watching Wegman’s store brands slowly take over the store like a pandemic, over the space of a few months I wrote two separate e-mails to Wegman’s protesting the ouster of way too many of my favorite national brand products. In the second e-mail I also told them that we were doing more and more of our grocery shopping at one of their competitors who, as a matter of course, stocked the brand names I could no longer find at Wegman’s. That was about two or three years ago, and I’m sure I’ll be receiving a response any day now. In fact, I think I better check my mailbox now. I’ll bet it’s there!

(I just came back from a quick visit to my mailbox and, would you believe it, the letter wasn’t there! Maybe tomorrow.)

So here’s the bottom line. It all comes down to dollars and, more specifically, those dollars called “profit”. Wegman’s obviously has a wider profit margin on their own brands than they do on national name brands, and in the end it’s always the dollar that dictates the outcome. Although I don’t pretend to know nearly enough about the supermarket business to make such a drastic prediction, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that in the next five years or so one third or more of the all the products on Wegman’s shelves will have the Wegman’s name on the label. In the meantime, I will continue with my personal, though probably meaningless, protest of refusing to buy Wegman’s brand products even if they are often a few cents cheaper than the corresponding national brand. It’s just my little way of saying “Hell, no!” and drawing my line in the sand. You can just say “No” too by refusing to buy store brand products and shopping less at those markets that push too hard to get you to buy their store brands. I’ve been trying to come up with a catchy phrase that could be our battle cry. You know, something like, “Fuck store brands”, but maybe something just a bit more subtle.

And with that little tirade complete we’re almost, but not quit, done with Wegman’s. There is yet one other thing at Wegman’s (at least one, and probably more!) that royally pisses me off. Oddly enough, it has little to do with Wegman’s business practices but rather a certain group of people who shop all over and who can really push my frustration buttons. That group is seniors, or to be really blunt and to the point, old people! Okay, so before you get all bent out of shape about my lack of sensitivity and political correctness, I’m seventy five years old myself, and a lot of the people I’m talking about here are in the same age decade as me. That means you can’t yell at me because I’m actually a member of the group I’m about to dump on. Or to put it another way, I’ve got immunity so you can’t throw me off the island!

Here’s the main issue with seniors (just one of several) that pisses me off. When you get into your sixties or seventies, is there some yet undiscovered mechanism in the human brain that turns off those brain cells that control common courtesy and geo-positioning? (We’ll get to geo-positioning in a minute.) This phenomenon seems to be almost universal among seniors, but if you’d really like to see it in action drop by a Wegman’s any Tuesday. Why Tuesday you ask? Because Tuesdays are senior discount days at Wegman’s, and anyone over sixty gets five percent off their entire order. You’d swear it was a sixty percent discount because it attracts more old people than free bingo! It’s like an infestation of locusts, and every Tuesday they descend on all Wegman’s stores, regardless of location, like mold on old cheese. So by now you’re wondering why a bunch of old people taking advantage of a bargain day would piss me off. I’m all for them (excuse me….us!) getting their (I mean our) discount, but it’s the way they go about it that’s the problem and where the issues of common courtesy and GPA (geo-positioning awareness) come into play. GPA is that sixth sense that makes you aware of where you are and what’s going on around you at any given moment. It’s what alerts you to a full bladder and helps you locate the nearest bathroom when you have to pee within the next eight seconds and what controls the reflex to hold your breath and move out of the way when you or someone near you farts

On a typical Tuesday almost every aisle in Wegman’s stores is blocked at some point by a senior with his (or her) shopping cart positioned so that you can’t get by them without their cart being moved. It’s like they’ve received very specialized training that enables them to place their carts as inconveniently as physics and mathematics would allow to hamper the circulation of other shoppers. And when you say, “Excuse me,” on the odd times when they actually hear you, they look at you like you’re from another planet. But much worse is when two of them are engaged in conversation. I guess they just sort of bump into each other while wandering the aisles, and where they meet is where they and their shopping carts stop dead in their tracks (please forgive my use of the word” “dead” indescribing anything having to do with seniors!) and begin talking without any care, consideration or awareness of their position in the aisle. (For all intents and purposes, their GPA is gonzo!) 

Your GPA “sense” tells you where you are at any given moment in time. Okay, maybe it can’t give you your exact latitude and longitude, but it does help make you aware of where you are and what’s going on around you. Here’s another example of GPA at work. You wouldn’t just walk right out into the middle of a busy street without first looking both ways, right? Of course not, and that’s because your GPA system is hard at work, even when you’re not. I’m not a doctor, but my guess is that GPA must be a bit like memory which begins to shut down as we grow older. This is what it’s like when you encounter a senior with deficient GPA in a supermarket with their shopping cart planted firmly in the middle of the aisle. 

“Excuse me. May I get through, please?” I’m always very courteous…well, at least the first time.

Nothing….not even a glimmer of auditory recognition. I wonder, I don’t see it, but could he (or she) be wearing noise cancelling headphones? So I try again.

“Excuse me,” I say, this time a bit louder. “May I get through, please?”

But again, nothing.   

“Yo!” I yell. “How ’bout gettin’ the fuck out of my way!” And, of course now their suddenly all ears and heard part of what I just said ….the part you most don’t want them to hear! 

“Huh?” is the most common response, and that’s almost always accompanied by a bewildered facial expression. Then, taking a moment to survey the situation, they usually display some partial recognition of my request in the form of, “Oh”.    

Sometimes that’s followed by them moving their shopping cart a few inches, though not nearly enough for me to get though without cart contact. Another unusual phenomenon of some of these episodes is what I refer to as the “instant freeze stop” in which, regardless of cruising speed, they’re pushing their cart down an aisle when, as suddenly as a bug crashing into your windshield, they come to an immediate stop and cease all movement. Although I don’t pretend to understand the physiology of these instant freeze stops, they’re very much like someone yanking out the power plug from a blender while in frappe mode. The result is immediate. All motion and noise cease as quickly as if someone hit the stop button on a video. I’m thinking it may be due to a temporary halt in brain activity or blood flow because a few seconds later they resume their normal activity and movement like someone plugged them back in again and the momentary power outage never happened. 

When your GPA is working properly, you know without even thinking about it if you’re blocking the aisle or doing something similarly inconsiderate which is inconveniencing other folks. No one has to lean over your shoulder and shout into your ear, “Hey, asshole! You’re blocking the aisle!” But the older we get the less effectively our GPA systems seem to work, and at some point it just completely shuts down and becomes totally useless (just like out genatilia in our senior years!). And that’s when seniors really become a pain in the ass! 

Somewhere around first grade we all get an important lesson during which we’re taught not to suck on sharp knives. It’s a very useful lesson, and if you pay close attention you won’t have to learn its teachings the hard way. So I got to thinking, maybe they could just expand that lesson a bit and add some helpful hints about shopping cart etiquette. Nothing complicated….just something along the lines of what you’re taught in drivers’ ed (in every state except New York and New Jersey!) about keeping to the right except to pass. And maybe in the same lesson they could mention just in passing that it probably isn’t a good idea to just come to a sudden dead stop in the middle of the aisle. I mean even seniors wouldn’t do that on a highway. Can you imagine what would happen if you straddled the dotted passing line in the middle of Philadelphia’s famed Schuylkill Expressway (the tailgating capital of the world!) and then just brought your car to a screeching halt? For those of you that may not have a good imagination, I’ll tell you what would happen. In only slightly more time than you could yell, “Oh, shit!” no less than ten cars would be making their way up your tailpipe.  

All I’m asking from our senior friends here is that they have a least a little sense of awareness when they’re on an outing from the nursing home. Keep right to pass, and if you want to stop, just pull over. Is that so much to ask? The whole world may be their oyster, but there are a lot of us sharing the same shell! So give us a break….the supermarket aisles belong to us all! 

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