What I Learned At The Supermarket

I have to confess; I kind of enjoy going to the supermarket.

I don’t know why exactly, but I think it began back when our three kids were little and I was just looking for a spouse-sanctioned excuse to get the hell out of the house for a couple of hours.

Whatever the reason, and since my wife Linda doesn’t particularly care for it, the weekly run to the market is on my list of to do’s.

This past weekend, I noticed a new innovation in place at my local store.

Instead of simply “paper or plastic,” there were now two different kinds of plastic bags. The regular brown kind, and a bright, new, blue version.

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And so I said to the kid doing the bagging, “Is there a difference between the blue bags and the brown bags?”

His deadpan response? “Probably.” And then he just kept on bagging.

Not, “Yes, here’s how they are different…” Or, “I don’t know, but I can find out…”

Just a very disinterested, “Probably.”

Think about that. The entire world of the supermarket bagger consists of just one thing: Put the stuff in a bag.

And yet, while he appears to have some inkling that there’s change afoot in the bagging universe, he’s so incurious about his job, that it hasn’t occurred to him to go find the answer.

Now I’m not blaming this kid in particular. After all, it’s just some part-time, after school job.

But – and here’s the key point – this orientation of, “Just tell me what to do and give me my paycheck when the day is done,” is not exclusive to 16-year-old high school kids.

There are plenty of fully grown adults of all ages, doing things that are way more complicated than bagging, who start and end every day in the same way.

And you know what? That’s really good news for you and me, the owners of small and solo businesses.

We don’t have to worry about “motivating the front line.” We are the front line.

We don’t have to wait a week to run an idea by a dozen people at next Tuesday’s staff meeting, dealing with inane “what if’s” and that guy Jim who never fails to “play devil’s advocate.”

Instead, you and I can get an idea at breakfast (how’d you get in my house?) and have it in place by lunchtime.

That’s powerful.

It’s also why competing against large organizations can represent such a spectacular opportunity.

They’re not stupid over there at BigCompany.com. It’s just that with so many people and so many policies and so many systems and so much politics … it’s really, really hard to get anything done.

So here’s my challenge to you: Look at your business and find ways to do things that your larger competitors can’t.

Handwritten notes; humans picking up the phone; flexible policies; jargon-free content; minimal legalese; rampant experimentation to see what might work.

You’ll never out-big the big guys. They have more money, more staff, more brand presence … maybe even more brain power than we do.

But if it doesn’t scale, there’s a pretty good chance they can’t do it.

The only question then, is whether or not you will.

P.S. Special note to those who participated in this week’s Storytelling webinar. Notice how today’s newsletter follows that same “simple story formula” we talked about. Obvious and easy once you know how it works!

P.P.S. If you missed the Storytelling webinar or didn’t register in time before it filled up, and you want to be notified the next time we run it live, send an email to belinda@bluepenguindevelopment.com we’ll put you on the VIP wait list.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think a “VIP wait list” is any different than a regular wait list? Me neither.
  1. Were you surprised that I said “hell” in the beginning of the story? Do you think we should avoid words that might bother other people, even if they reflect the way we actually talk?
  1. Is there a supermarket policy that requires crushing the defenseless bananas with the milk every week?

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25 thoughts on “What I Learned At The Supermarket

  1. Diana Eastty

    I have also often wondered about that supermarket policy requiring crushing the bananas, or bread, with the milk! It seems universal, especially among 16 year-old part-time baggers. I think it’s a secret conspiracy triggered when someone asks why there are 2 different color bags this week. LOL! Great insights shared in this week’s e-newsletter as always Michael. Thank you.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hello Diana!
      Yes, the crushing of banana (and bread) is a source of perpetual amazement. Interestingly, they always make a point of telling you which bag the eggs are in, even though you could probably drive over those cartons with no damage.
      But you’re right, maybe I shouldn’t ask so many questions!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I did actually got an answer the next week. The blue bags are supposed to signify cold items. They’re not any more insulated or anything, they’re just supposed to alert you of where the cold stuff is when you get home. Of course, that assumes the kid doing the bagging knows the system. And given how lax it all is, you’re just as likely to find a carton of ice cream in a brown bag, so I’m not sure it helps!

  2. Kathie Gow

    Michael, great post and so true. And thanks for making me laugh several times — not a lot of businesses do that. (yes, I was slightly surprised you said “hell” but that’s one of the things that made me laugh!)

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Making you (and your son) laugh is one of my key goals in life, so I’m glad to hear that.
      Hellishly yours,

  3. Celine Portet

    Hi Michael,
    1. Me neither. VIP = BS – pardon my French…
    2. Hell No! – pardon my French again…
    3. I do not buy milk – just booze and bananas (I guess after a drink I am ok with crushed bananas)… I am French this way…

    Ok – you got it …I am French and the funny thing is… we do NOT have baggers in France. You have to bag your own groceries!!!

    Seriously and as always, you made some excellent points: thought-provoking, meaningful and powerful.

    Thank you!


    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hello Celine,
      I didn’t realize how much French I already knew!
      Sorry to hear you must self-bag. We are too busy watching reality TV to bother with that.

  4. Bob McCarty

    VIP Wait Lists are for those (fools) who willingly paid to get on the list…it’s a fact of being human…see a line, must get in the line…

    But more importantly, what’s the difference between the brown and blue bags?

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Bob! Scroll up to my response to Wendy’s comment for the latest answers in bagging technology.

  5. Scott Elliott

    Hi Michael,
    Good story and valid points! However I have two comments:

    1. Plastic bags (brown, blue, transparent, or any other color) are horrible for the environment, usually ending up in a big vortex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean killing the sea life. They have been banned where I live (San Francisco). Please always choose the paper.

    2. “Is there a difference between the blue bags and the brown bags?” is a closed-form question to which the answer is an obvious “yes!” (At least they are different colors). The open question you should have asked is: “What are the differences between the blue and brown bags?” This may seem to be trivial, but it is an important distinction for anyone seeking a real answer (like a consultant, doctor or lawyer.) Of course, the bagger kid probably would have just shrugged anyhow, or possibly answered “the color.”

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      It was a three-part question though. I hope you’re not going to leave us hanging on where you stand re crushed bananas and milk containers.

  6. Charles Alexander

    1. Of course there i……oh, no, me neither.

    2. A little. Only if you actually talk like Jordan Belfort (Wolf of Wall Street.)

    3. That’s weird. Our policy in Nashville is bread smashing. Whoever heard of banana crushing?

  7. Harold Waisel

    I was hoping the blue bags were more biodegradable, although I guess it’s nice that the supermarket knows how inept I am in determining if something is cold or not. I’m sure nobody has ever unbagged their groceries and said “I’m glad we left the ice cream for last”.

    As for your question about words and appropriateness, I look at it two ways – familiarity with my audience, and business vs. personal speech. Generally, I’ll be more conservative. But now that I feel that I know you, you can do whatever the hell you want.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I like that distinction about which words to use when. Reminds me too that more casual language – inappropriate or not – helps people feel like they know us. Which is an important step on the road to trust.
      I also feel compelled now to sign off to you by upping the ante on the inappropriate language, but instead I better just go home!

  8. Barbara

    Hi Michael

    Great points, well made and enjoyable to read. 1) If I’m on a VIP wait list, I can’t be that important so no difference, 2) A bit surprised but then your kids are older now 🙂 and the supermarket policy stands as is…. Recently at the checkout at my local supermarket the manager repeatedly told the young male who was bagging my groceries (in my insulated carryall) to make sure all the cold items were placed in there correctly. He then told me “these kids don’t listen” which made me feel bad for the kid. And wouldn’t ya know…when I got home, my cold items were in wrong bag and only a couple items were placed correctly. Wow, I had been feeling sorry for the young man being scolded by his manager…(although I would add that scolding him in front of customers obviously isn’t working to improve matters). Thanks again for a great article!

  9. Brian Gifford

    1. VIP lines? Our store does not distinguish among customers; we are all one big family – and are given plenty of time to spend together in line. There is an option for self-service check-out – presumably for loner geeks who like pressing buttons and answering “credit or debit” three times. (Another feature of big companies: programmers who are more interested in getting customer information (repeatedly) for various databases, than with providing a simple/easy/quick process for customers.
    2. I thought that”get the hell out of the house” referred to some kind of exorcism.
    3. Not sure about our store’s policy, but it may be related to another management practice: Do the really good baggers get to look forward to a long career bagging groceries, while those who do not have the gift end up being transferred to other work?

  10. Jeff Soufal

    Discussion Question Answers …

    1. What’s a VIP wait list?

    2. I didn’t even notice you said “hell” until I read this question, then went back and found it. I think “soft” swear words like “hell” are okay in more informal types of writing. But we definitely shouldn’t use four-letter words, even if that’s how we actually talk. (Wait a minute … “hell” is a four-letter word …).

    3. I don’t buy milk so I can’t comment. But I’m disappointed in your bagger. When asked “Is there a difference between the blue bags and the brown bags,” he should have responded, “Yeah. One’s blue and the other one’s brown.” That’s what I would have said.

  11. Diane

    Hi Michael—
    1.Yes there’s a difference: VIP waiting list, designed to make you feel more important…even though you STILL did not make the cut.
    2. totally don’t care about the use of the word “hell” because I was totally overwhelmed at the use of the new word “incurious.” This is now my word of the week!
    3. in New Jersey, the bananas are either green or already brown…so the milk thing can’t really hurt them. Plus since we bag our OWN groceries (since we DON’T pump our own gas….fair is fair) we only have ourselves to blame for the damage.


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