On Answering Nine Questions to Pay for Groceries

15 minute read

Last night, I went to get some groceries, as most of us do from time to time. Buying groceries seems like it should be simple: you go into the store, perhaps with a list of food items you’re running short on, go around the store picking said items from shelves or refrigerator cabinets and putting them in your basket or cart, pay for them, and leave. Yet we now have so many choices available to us at the grocery store that the simple task of picking items from the shelves has become no simple task at all. Should I buy the unmarked “normal” size, the bigger “normal” size, the “family” size, or the “giant” size box of Cheerios? What about the milk to go with my cereal? Should I get normal milk, organic milk, organic milk with Omega-3 supplement? Gallons of milk? Half-gallons of milk? Milk in cartons? Milk in plastic containers? Milk in glass bottles? Milk in plastic bottles? Whole milk? 2% milk? 1% milk? Skim milk? Or should I be getting soymilk or almond milk instead? Oh, and which brand of milk with the same identifiers should I get? And of course, asbestos-free would be preferable:

xkcd 641: free

This profusion of choices is a problem in itself, but it’s not even directly the problem I want to talk about. My beef today is with something that ought to be even simpler: the number of choices I have to make to pay for my groceries. Paying for groceries in the checkout line is a straightforward transaction: a cashier adds up the price of all the items I’ve selected, a bagger places my items in bags, I hand over money, and I leave the store with my groceries. By the time I approach the register, I’ve already decided exactly what items I want to buy, and I could even know the exact price if I took the time to add it up as I went through the aisles. I don’t discuss whether I made the right choices of groceries with the cashier. I don’t ask the cashier for help. I don’t haggle about the price of my groceries. There’s no room for creativity. I just put my groceries on the counter, have them scanned, pay, and leave with them.

Yet somehow, yesterday night I had to answer nine questions to finish paying for my groceries, viz.:

  1. Did you find everything all right?
  2. This egg has a weird crack-like mark on it. Do you want it replaced? (It wasn’t even an actual crack.)
  3. Are these jalapeños?
  4. Would you like your soap in a separate bag?
  5. Would you like your milk in a bag?
  6. Do you have a Fuel Saver? (The chain’s discount card.)
  7. Would you like to round up for the Pinky Swear Challenge? (I don’t even know what this is. I hope it’s something I agree with, because I donated 37 cents to it.)
  8. Would you like cash back?
  9. Would you like a receipt?

Let’s explore what’s wrong with these questions and with the number of questions.


Did you find everything all right?

I have never understood the point of this question. If I didn’t find everything all right and I cared about having that item right now, would I really wait until I was in line having my groceries rung up to ask? If the cashier knows where the item I can’t find is, am I supposed to run back into the aisles and make everyone behind me wait? Do they keep a sheet with little tick marks behind the register and put up extra signs if people keep saying they can’t find the Pringles? (I don’t know any grocery stores that are organized enough to accomplish anything that requires cooperation from everyone on the floor!)

Besides that, this question exhibits a fundamental failure to consider whether information should be pushed or pulled. If you’re not familiar with this distinction, consider what you do when you need to leave for an appointment in an hour. You can either look at the clock every few minutes (pull information) or set an alarm or calendar reminder for the time you need to leave (push). Each method has advantages and disadvantages, but if you pause to think about which makes the most sense in any given situation, the correct choice is obvious more often than you’d expect (and it might not be what you’ve been doing). In this case, having the store poll me every time I check out about whether I found everything is absurd, because 95% of the time shopping at my usual grocery store I will have no problem, and if I do want to alert someone that I couldn’t find something, or even ask for help finding it while I’m still shopping (fancy that), it’s hardly difficult.

I get that they’re trying to be friendly and welcoming, but if that’s the only value we’re getting out of it, maybe they could try something creative and novel like “Hi, how are you doing today?”

Do you want your eggs replaced?

I don’t know about you, but my parents taught me to look at my eggs myself and make sure they aren’t cracked – because why is it someone else’s responsibility to make sure I didn’t select damaged eggs of my own volition? I guess I appreciate that they don’t want to sell me damaged goods, but this seems far beyond the cashier’s job description (and if they do this, shouldn’t they also be inspecting my apples to make sure they’re not bruised, or checking the expiration dates to be sure I’ll have time to eat everything before it expires?). What depresses me most about this question is that the grocery store has evidently had so many customers complain about broken eggs who couldn’t be bothered to look at the eggs themselves if they were worried about it that now the store has to do it for them – and offer to swap out anything that looks vaguely like damage, including cases where the shell isn’t even broken (what a waste!).

Are these jalapeños?

My grocery store probably carries a handful of vegetables I don’t know the names of. But if I worked at that grocery store ringing up produce, I guarantee you I would take a few hours to learn the names of every vegetable sold there. More to the point, if I were a manager, I would try a little bit harder to make sure my full-time cashiers learned what the store sold. I’ve actually memorized the PLU code for shallots (4662) because people ask me what they are and then stumble to select them from the system so frequently! (One time before I memorized the code, the guy claimed shallots weren’t a choice and rang them up as green onions – which are also of the Allium genus, to be fair, but which are sold by the bundle instead of by weight and which look nothing whatsoever like shallots. I’m pretty sure it came out cheaper, so whatever.)

I suspect our food recognition capabilities have become so poor partly because we have to keep track of so many choices. And you can’t even tell some of them apart by sight: when the store sells eight varieties of apples, plus organic and conventional varieties of each fruit and vegetable, plus hybrid fruits that look rather like normal ones, you all but have to look at the label to know what to type in. Against this backdrop, asking a customer if these are jalapeños might get to seem reasonable.

Would you like your soap in a separate bag?

The soap is boxed and then tightly shrink-wrapped, so I can’t imagine any reason I would need it in a separate bag, barring a car crash on the way home that also destroyed the rest of my groceries anyway, but more importantly, why should I be responsible for deciding? Do people regularly complain about their soap not being in a separate bag? If so, then put it in a separate bag for everyone and quit bothering me. If not, then, well, probably not.

Like the eggs, though, of course this isn’t entirely on the store: more likely than not, someone complained about not having their soap in a separate bag, while someone else complained about having their soap in a separate bag. The store could stand to stop trying to make everyone happy, though – there’s an old saying about how that doesn’t work, if I recall – especially when the attempt comes at the expense of people’s sanity.

Author’s note: Of course I appreciate the irony that I’ve now managed to complain about the one option the store evidently hoped would make everyone happy. Like I said…

Would you like your milk in a bag?

This is one of the only good questions on the list. Whether people prefer their milk in a bag depends on a multitude of factors and might not even be the same for every trip (for instance, when I walk to the store I usually want my cartons in a bag so I can carry them down the street, but when I bike it just makes them harder to fit in the basket). Probably approximately even numbers of people prefer it each way. Keep asking!

Do you have a Fuel Saver?

Do I want my life to be further complicated by keeping track of another customer loyalty program? No, no I don’t. This is hard enough already!

Given that the store has a loyalty program, though, this is probably a reasonable question. If they don’t ask, people who do have one will forget. Still, having to answer no every time is annoying.

Would you like to round up for the Pinky Swear Challenge?

I detest “round up for charity” programs. If the store wants to give to charity, they can raise their prices a minuscule amount and then donate the same amount of money to charity. If I want to give to charity, I’ll pick one out and write a check. That will take less time, make a bigger impact, and skip heckling hundreds of thousands of people who are just trying to pay for their groceries. These programs also guilt people for no good reason: I guess I’m an awful person and don’t care about children with cancer if I don’t contribute my 15 cents in the checkout line, or something like that. And to me there’s something objectionably transactional about this method of giving to charity: round up your purchase and be a good person, look generous, and feel good for doing your part. Yay, you just helped save the world!

Maybe I’m being too cynical, but maybe we could also stand to try actually being generous instead of merely chipping in a couple of pennies in the checkout line to make ourselves look and feel good and pretend like we did something meaningful. Most of all, randomly donating money to charity has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with paying for my groceries, except perhaps that it involves money, so get it out of there!

Would you like cash back?

Cash back has its uses, though most of them involve avoiding silly, artificial fees charged by banks, which maybe tells you enough about this question already.

But I’m paying with a credit card. Which means that if I say “yes”, I’m not getting cash “back,” I’m getting a cash advance from the credit card company, which will immediately start charging me an exorbitant rate of interest on it. The honest question would be, “Would you like to take out a high-interest short-term loan with your groceries today?” Someone’s making money on asking this question when I put my credit card in the slot, and it isn’t me or the store.

Would you like a receipt?

Finally, another decent question. Some people want to keep their receipts and some don’t, and asking before printing the receipt saves the store receipt paper and keeps bajillions of receipts out of the landfill every year. Go for it.

But hold on: Let’s not forget the stores that print the receipt regardless and then throw it in the trash when you say no. Can we all take a moment to appreciate how this option astonishingly manages to harm the customer, the employee, the store’s bottom line, and the environment without providing any utility whatsoever? Thank you.

What we should change

So there were two good questions in there, maybe begrudgingly three if I accept that customer loyalty programs aren’t about to go away. For everything else, we need fewer choices, and more importantly we need quality choices. The number of choices I have regarding any given task or issue seems to be inversely correlated with the importance of those choices. At the grocery store, I can easily make fifty decisions about what to buy or how to save the world by rounding by the time I leave the store, but few of them are of any consequence. The worst thing I can do is forget to buy milk and have to come back, and the best thing I can do is discover some new moderately delicious product.

Meanwhile, I can’t choose to buy a smartphone that fits in my hand because nobody is making them (if you doubt this is a problem, just consider the vast array of products designed to attach to the back of our bloated modern phones so we can hold onto the dang things). I have to look long and hard to find clothes or shoes that last more than a year and weren’t produced with slave labor. My options for maintaining anything people twenty years ago would have considered privacy are becoming fewer by the day. I can choose between two companies for my Internet service, both of which are terrible (I once heard someone remark that choosing between Verizon and Comcast was “like choosing between gonorrhea and syphilis”). Still nobody is talking seriously about what choices we need to make to prevent our planet from experiencing even more disastrous climate change, or what issues with my country led to the country electing a president who thinks you need a photo ID to buy groceries and how we can begin to change that. (Tip: one of the questions I was asked last night was not “Can I see your ID?”) The stupid “choices” like whether I should give 34 cents to some cause I don’t understand are terrible distractions from the meaningful choices I have to make and disguise the fact that choices are entirely absent from some places they belong.

So this was a bit of a rant. I think we can all use a good rant now and then, but Control-Alt-Backspace is not just about how society is sometimes wrong about things but also about what you as an individual can do about it, and as I mentioned last week, I don’t like complaining about things I have control over. So what can we do? Here are some ideas to get started with.

  • Support businesses that don’t ask you millions of unnecessary questions. If you run a business, stop asking them!
  • Don’t knock yourself out, but if you ever have a chance to provide feedback, it wouldn’t hurt to mention some of the worst abuses of pointless questions to a store manager. If the pressure isn’t coming from corporate, this can make more of a difference than you’d think.
  • Try to have normal human interactions with people helping you at stores. These interactions are becoming strangely formulaic, partly because of the density of questions and sales pitches retail workers are required to include.
  • Consciously skip pointless choices when you can. Last night the small size of sour cream was on sale but the big size wasn’t, and after spending about 30 seconds to work out which one was cheaper per ounce (it was late and I was tired), I found that the one on sale was 2 cents cheaper, and then I bought the more expensive one because it’s the size I normally get and the difference was 2 cents, and then I reflected that I had just taken about 25 cents worth of time at my normal hourly rate to figure out whether I should buy something different to save 2 cents on a $1.50 item – not to mention the mental cost of making that decision. My normal rule is that if something’s on sale, I buy extra of it (as long as it won’t spoil), but otherwise I don’t go around chasing sales or buying stuff I wouldn’t buy normally anyway. I’m going to extend that to different sizes, because that was dumb and it will continue to be dumb.
  • In line with the previous suggestion, when you can, identify defaults so you can avoid making choices, and stick to them unless there’s a good reason not to.