Those Sneaky Grocers.

By Russell Neyman.

All of us have been annoyed by the fact that hot dog buns come in packs of eight, but the dogs themselves come in tens. This is a marketing scheme, of course, to trick you into buying more of whatever you have left in your refrigerator; two extra buns is cause to buy more meat and vice versa. Theoretically, this should cycle through to a total of 40 hot dogs and about ten trips to the store, which would probably be good for the grocer but use up a lot of gas and waste tons of time.

The teachery runs much deeper and I’ve experienced it firsthand. Let me fill you in.

Those damn grocers know perfectly well that placing a collection of toys down low on the shelves is where the small children will be so that they’ll spot it and ask Mommy to buy something. It’s no accident that those things aren’t up high. And the so-called Toy Section is always placed somewhere that you can’t avoid – near the spices or toilet paper – so that if you are forced to drag your kid with you when you need to re-stock the refrigerator, he’ll spot those goodies and beg for you to get him something.

(This is the perfect place for me to interject a quick note about parenting because I see it all the time: A two-year-old asks for a rubber ball during one of these visits down the housewares aisle, and the young mother says, “No, not today,” which will set off a temper tantrum that will last throughout the frozens, produce, and meat sections, driving her and all other patrons nuts. Finally, as she has had enough of the embarrassing episode and reaches the checkout line, she relents, grabs a candy, and hands it to her unhappy child. “Here, take this,” she says, figuring it would placate the whining extortionist. The kid thinks, I wanted the ball, didn’t get it, but all that yelling and screaming earned me this neat piece of candy; I should do this more often. My advice to all of you parents is that, when your child throws a conniption fit simply to get something, never give in. Look your Terrible-Two Tyke right in the eye and say, “Sweetie, as long as you throw a fit trying to get your way I can’t give you anything – not a toy, or a candy, or even a hug – because if I do you’ll throw a temper tantrum again and again.” Trust me, they’ll understand every word of what you’re saying, even if they’re only two.)

I was mopping my kitchen floors this morning, and noticed that the complicated folding/squeezing sponge apparatus on the end is worn out. Now, that part of the mop is fully removable and, theoretically, I can buy a replacement. But I know full well that if I take it to the supermarket that particular mop will no longer be stocked and that no replacement sponge will be on the shelf. That will, of course, force me to purchase a new mop. It happens every time without fail. Yeah, sometimes I buy a replacement the first time around, but a year later I’m right back.

There should be a law requiring all mops to follow the same design, with universal sponge replacements.

Am I the only one who is astounded that the grandest aisle in the store is dedicated to pet supplies? How did that come to pass? Are there really that many options for cat/dog/bird/fish food and is Fluffy really that particular about what she eats? Do we really need twenty varieties of kitty litter? It is, after all, just poop.  One has to wonder what percentage of our gross national product goes to caring for our pets. If the ratio of supplies in the market is any measure, I’d say that it’s well over ten percent.

Why don’t shopping carts have some sort of mechanism in their wheels to keep them from careening across the lot and denting my car? Perhaps one of those levers that keep it from moving unless you pull it closed (like some lawnmowers have) would prevent carts from rolling loose. My skepticism about grocers leads me to think that they all have a deal going with the local auto body shop, because it happens too often. If they really wanted to fix it so cars couldn’t get dented in this way, they would.

I gotta admit, I am impressed that every checker, restocking clerk, and box boy seems to know where every single item is located, and I figure there must be half a million different items in a typical store. I often wonder if they send these people to grocery store college where they strap them into chairs and make them watch hundreds of hours of videos of the shelves, flashing the aisle number every few seconds, like they supposedly did back in the early days of movie theatres with pictures of popcorn.

(If you haven’t heard about that bit of skullduggery, you should check it out on the Internet; the theatre companies brainwashed moviegoers with pictures of snacks just before intermission so that they got the idea to buy something buttery and salty, and apparently it worked, even though the image appeared for something like a 16th of a second. It doesn’t matter, though, because there aren’t movies with intermissions any more; come to think of it, no one goes to the movie theatre, either. You rent your movies through a Redbox vending machine at the grocery store, of course.)

That method of triggering taste buds was made illegal many years ago, but these sneaky bastards still have ways to get around it. They bake bread and cookies right there in the back of the supermarket, pumping the aroma of the fresh goods out into the aisles where I can smell it. Sometimes they’ll even have someone behind a small table with samples of the food on toothpicks for you to taste. I fall for that every time, buying a large loaf of French bread that never tastes as good when I get home as I thought it would.

I have a question for you mothers and wives about the flowers sold in the super markets. Does it really “touch your heart” that your man remembered to bring you a small cellophane-wrapped bouquet (complete with packet of flower-prolonging additive) given the fact that you asked him to stop by there anyway to pick up a half gallon of milk? Seems to me that this is a shortcut and that he barely rembered to be thoughtful at all. If I were on the receiving end of flowers, I’d insist that they be hand-picked or come from an expensive florist.

And what’s this absurd game we play with the “preferred customer” discount card? The checker says, “You saved $14.57 today, Mr. Neyman,” when we all know that every single person who goes through the line gets the same discount. If you don’t have a card for that particular market or if you forgot yours, the checker will simply pull out a generic one and give you the discount anyway.

My theory on these cards is that they simply want to track your buying patterns. A guy who buys a certain brand of hot dogs (packaged in tens, of course) will also buy a certain brand of buns (eight to a package) and people who like a certain shampoo will also buy a specific brand of toothpaste. We are all creatures of habit, and these grocery store marketers know it.

They want us to come back and repeat these buying patterns, so when you give them the preferred customer card to purchase a particular product, they’ll automatically print a coupon for it and hand it to you at the check out counter, hoping you’ll stick it on your refrigerator and glance at it every time you reach for a glass of milk. Having the ad right there under the magnet photo of your grandchild is pretty smart advertising, you must admit.

Right now, Albertson’s has one of those games going on where you get stickers that you’re supposed to stick on to a game board. I refuse to play because I know what they’re up to. They have printed up all of the stickers en masse except one, and they’ll string us along for months on end, just one sticker short of a new car. In the end, they just want us to stare at the advertisements and handle the small pieces of paper that say Wheaties or Tide or Best Foods Mayonnaise; they really don’t want us to drive that new car at all.

I wonder: If I threw a fit and complained enough, like the kid who wanted the rubber ball, do you suppose they’d give me something anyway? It doesn’t have to be the new car; a jet ski would be nice.

As I get older, I get a little grouchy about the small things the store people say, even though I know that they’d get in trouble if they didn’t say it.  Maybe I’m a bit paranoid, but it seems that they’re singling me out because of my advancing years. “Did you find everything?” the checker always asks. “I won’t know until I get home and see the shopping list that I forgot to bring,” I mutter to myself.

Then the bright-eyed teenager who arranges my stuff into floppy thin plastic bags that are good for the environment but spill things all over my front seat really gets my blood boiling with “Do you need help taking these to your car…?” I might be old enough to be that kid’s grandfather, but I’m not that old. I hope they ask every customer that same question, because if they don’t, I might sue for old age discrimination.

Our country’s stores are some of the best in the world, I guess. My brother moved to Saudi Arabia many years ago, and told me that his first visit to the local store was an eye-opener. The goods were loaded onto shelves with no rhyme or reason; Kotex placed right along side Saltine Crackers and jars of olives positioned next to toothpaste. When it came time to buy some meat he asked the guy behind the counter if it was possible to purchase some fresh chicken, and they guy went into the back room and lopped the head off of a live hen, bringing it to my brother in a bag, still flopping around. That’s what I’d call fresh meat.

I suppose I should be thankful that we have such well organized grocery stores and that they’re so well stocked with food I can trust. I just wish they would leave out all the sneaky stuff.

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