Lessons from a Grocery Store

I didn’t learn everything that I learned while I was at college in college. I went to Marquette University and got a B.A. in English and philosophy before I looked in the classified ads to see how many listings there were for ‘Philosopher Wanted.’

Fortunately I worked at a grocery store to put myself through college, an unremarkable feat alone. It did teach me several things that the university professors or the views outside the classroom windows did. I value what I learned in the hallowed halls of Marquette, but that’s not all there is to life. What I learned in Dave Straz 501 and Marquette Hall 301 is theory, and without wedding it to the practical it is worthless. Likewise what I learned in the back rooms of stores in Milwaukee and Missouri would seem a bit too specific to be of use anywhere else. Fortunately the two have gelled into a set of lessons to pass on:

  1. Always have something to fall back on.
    The lights in the break room never seemed to all work at once, and it was dark one September evening at Gold’s Shop Rite. I had just started my freshman year at Marquette, and I was a three month veteran of the grocery industry. The new assistant manager, a portly man named Dean, convinced Mike Fredericks, store manager, to hold a meeting for the baggers. The summer short-timers had shaken out, and seated around the crumby table in front of me a small core of baggers that would last a while. Tim, a recent refuge from some other town, new to everyone in the city and somehow lonelier than all of us; Shawn, a flame-haired future high school dropout whose hobbies were heavy metal-music and piercing himself; Robert, a recently born-again Christian with energy that seemed barely contained in his small frame; Cortney, the largest of us, a high school athlete; Earl, a thin, bespectacled black young man that would follow his family into the Marine Corps as I had not; and me, a recent homecomer from Missouri with pretentions of “Poetry.”
    “Take pride in your work. You guys do a good job, and we want you to know what you do is important.” Hard to convince seven guys at minimum wage that they were in a noble undertaking.

    “It will always be something to fall back on.” Over the years, I have seen many retirees come back to the grocery industry to supplement whatever pensions and “old people” incomes they receive. I myself have returned to produce clerkdom to pull myself out of debt.

    College never afforded us that luxury. With the intensity of the new curriculums, less time is spent on the liberal arts and more is spent focussing our graduates into one field, into one narrow path through life where deviation means confusion. Much of what passes for my personal “limbo” experiences and possibly for the rest of my generation is the feeling that if we don’t get a good job in one narrow bandwidth of life we have failed.

    Like an Existentialist Jesuit told my class, “Most of life is plan B.” It helps to have a plan B, and if not specifically the grocery industry, then something to fall back on.

  2. Touch the product.
    When I first became a produce clerk, Chris stood next to me, both of us clad in our green aprons. Mine was a symbol of pride; his was a uniform. We were “culling the rack,” checking each display of fruits and vegetables for bad merchandise. “Touch them all; touch them, feel them, become them,” he said with mock Bodhisatva wisdom and baring his teeth in the peculiar Michels smile. “Only then can you cull the rack effectively.”

    Each morning I ran my fingers over all the waxy apple skins, among the tartly scented grapefruit, and over (and occasionally into) the dull tomatoes. When rotating the produce, I picked each peach and plum up individually and put them into place, insuring less damage than what a later produce manager would call the “dump and run.” When the deliveries of new product came in, I would wheel the skids-pallets-into the cooler and hand unload them, moving first the old product out of the way and then restacking them all by hand. It gave me a sense of knowing what the product was, what it looked like, and even a sense of accomplishment when it was done.

    Too often I remember other, less manual jobs where I would deal with items and people I had never seen. It was far removed from me; I think sometimes other people feel the same way.

    “Why so many?” A purchaser asked me at a later job. She gestured a lithe arm at the four oversized skids of foamboards. Our loading dock held six skids of product comfortably, with room to move carts and ourselves. I had left the other seven skids, one a double-size with four by eight foot sheets of foamboard on it, out on the concrete loading dock.

    “That’s what you ordered.” I flipped pages on the purchase order and showed her the number of sheets she ordered. “Fourteen hundred. Four bins of three hundred and fifty.”

    I’m sure it looked a lot simpler on the computer screen when she typed it in. Fourteen hundred is four keystrokes and a return. Fourteen hundred foamboards is one hundred and twenty eight cubic feet. Something she remembered for three months, until it was time to order it again. Something I and the others who sell it and move it every day take for granted.

    I am not above it. The first produce order I wrote, several years ago, was a bit large. The produce manager took a week’s vacation, and I wrote the order for a Saturday load and was in the process of moving it around when I checked the order book. It was only ones and twos in the book, with an occasional four or ten, but when it was totaled, it was a two hundred piece load. Almost twice the necessary amount for an average summer weekend. Almost too much for a green green grocer to handle. But I managed, and I remembered that little ticks in the book add up to lots of cases in the cooler, lots of cases of perishables in the cooler.

  3. Remember the people.
    William, third grade, liked to help me fill the rack whenever his mother shopped at the store. He told me in his many visits of his preference for comic books with Wolverine in them and his performance on recent math tests.

    Val, a highly educated woman with a gravelly voice always shortened my name to “Bri,” her current husband’s name. She was a discriminating produce buyer and knew the seasons better than I do.

    “Swivel-hips.” Someone in the store designated the red-haired lady that because she did not pivot at the waist. She always asked for help buying good grapes for her mother and lived her life on the sixty-seven bus line. I often saw her waiting for it going one way or the other.

    There are more faces than names, the customers in the various stores I have worked in. Every one of them have different preferences and different experiences.

    “Cut these down and put them on the floor. They’ll buy them.” One of the in absentia owners pointed at scraps of paper to be bundled and priced. I didn’t care to ask who “they” were or why “they” would want to by assortments of mismatched color papers. I doubted if he knew.

    Too often this happens in the retail industry. Someone remembers they have a target audience, and the abstraction takes over for individuals. It happens in other circumstances, too, when we stereotype individuals by their occupations or positions in life. A certain amount is inevitable, given the small amount of attention and time we can give to any one person, place, or idea these days, but it helps to keep the individual in mind. Not for some strange esoteric “we-are-all-brothers-and-sisters” forced-fraternity, but because we might miss out on some interesting and personal contact. Something too often missing in the flurry of modern existence.

    Besides, if you don’t know who “they” are, you might not know that they don’t need multi-colored trinkets.

  4. Don’t waste timing covering your arse.
    There’s a lot to be done and very little time to do it in life. It’s not so bad when you’re in a store and you know when your shift is over. You can pace yourself to get everything you want to do and need to do done. Life doesn’t afford us that luxury. We need to make the most of time. Covering yourself and hiding or obfuscating your mistakes wastes precious time.

    “Who threw all those greens out?” Number Two asked. My second produce manager blinked his expansive blue eyes at me from his low height.

    “That’s a silly question. I did.” There were two of us working in the department.


    “They were rotting in the cooler.” The smell had been driving me crazy for days. He proceeded to tell me how his gross profit margin would be affected and all the other good reasons I should not have thrown them out.

    He did give me every opportunity to avoid it, though. I could have answered that I didn’t know, I could have made lengthier explanations and excuses. Either way I would have wasted time trying to avoid the consequences of my action. I leave the excuses and the innuendo dances to the people in the front office.

    I don’t claim some sort of produce omniscience, either. I make mistakes, too. Like wetting leaf lettuces and cabbages from a water bottle where a ten percent bleach solution has replaced pure water. When I found out what happened, I pulled all the cabbage and leaf lettuce and threw them out. I rinsed the rack and filled it with fresh product. Time spent on making excuses, pleading innocence or ignorance, or bemoaning error could be better spent on fixing them or just going on. Some of us have to work for a living and live for a lifetime.

So there you have them. It’s not enough to write a snooty book prompted by the editor of Harper’s, but I got something from my years in the retail industry. Now, for only $10,000 per instance, I can come to your company and explain them.

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