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EYE ON THE PIE: The soul-searing side of shopping

December 17, 2007

For me, shopping at any time, any place is an ordeal. However, from time to time, I am pressed into service by our household purchasing agent. My role is either to be a surrogate buyer or just the designated driver/hauler.

When a surrogate

I am sent out with lists of desired substances. These lists might work for a less conscientious, or more sophisticated, person. After all, five pounds of sugar or flour can mean only just that. However, I find more than one kind of sugar and more than a single type of flour on the grocery shelves. What size can of mushrooms? There are several.

A request for salad dressing, one of the most ambiguous goods available, for me is tantamount to calling the local mental health facility. Carrots? Fresh, canned or frozen? If fresh, with greens attached? Large or small? Whole or shredded?

Am I expected to make these decisions without repercussions? Or am I being set up for subsequent derision and ridicule?

Recently, I discovered that aid is available via the ever-present cell phone. If a call is made at a propitious moment, vital clarification can be had from the source herself. That has brought some relief, although I still visit my pharmacy each month to purchase anxiety-reducing tablets.

Part of the problem is the fault of the grocers. Where is the map of the store? I need one immediately upon entering, one I can carry with me. But there are generally no such maps.

Some stores have signs hanging above the aisles, but these are of limited utility. For example, only after many years of trial and error have I discovered that jams, jellies and preserves are to be found near the peanut butter. Why are the bagged onions separated by several vegetable and fruit displays from the loose onions? Where are the dried fruits? In some stores, they are kept near the baking inputs (that flour and sugar aisle). Elsewhere, they may be in with candies and snacks.

Recently, I found bagels in four different locations of a single store. How could I make the comparisons necessary for a prudent shopper? I need to know the price per ounce, in addition to the amounts of carbs, calories, sodium and fiber. The parameters of purchase keep multiplying.

Why can't we rent GPS units to guide us through these dens of consumption? At minimum, give us computer terminals at the end of each aisle, where we can type the name of the product we seek and receive a printout of how to get to it from our current location. Do the owners of today's massive stores have no mercy for the overwhelmed shopper?

I ask questions of people also wandering the aisles. Some are more lost than I. Often, I approach those who look like employees of the store, but they turn out to be people from the distributors, stocking the shelves and ignorant of this store's layout. Some women shoppers look at me as if I were a supermarket sex fiend using my alleged confusion to lure them into a deserted aisle and have my way with them in a shopping cart.

And all the while, the store's inane music is playing too loudly. Or someone is announcing a sale on some item of no interest to me or anyone else. Only at Target do I find no music, no Christmas jingles, and no distractions from the already heavy task of shopping. (I do not have any financial interest in Target, in case that skeptical thought crossed your cynical mind.)

Tomorrow, I will be sent forth again. My weakening muscles will push a cart up and down endless passages of torment and terror. Each item placed in the cart will be a test I cannot possibly pass. And at the checkout, the clerk will proclaim: "Have a nice day!" But it will be too late for this grumbling ghost.



Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.
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