Secrets From Working In The Grocery Store

It was 2008 and I was finally able to work, having just turned 16 years old. I was excited and ready, but there was one thing standing in my way: a recession. The recession devastated my area in the Northeast, as it did most places. I remember stores closed for good, and there was an emptiness in my town and the surrounding area. Totally barren shopping plazas, nothing being built, and no “Now Hiring” signs in any store windows. What a time to be alive. I remember walking into landscaping businesses, tire shops, department stores, and fast food joints only to be told they weren’t hiring. I was crushed. My dad was working for a local defense contractor that employed a large number of people in our community and there were mass layoffs. Those people ended up getting jobs doing whatever they could do to get by. I remember getting a Dominos pizza delivered and when the door opened, the driver saw my dad’s shirt with the logo of his company and told us he was one of those laid off.

I was lucky when, after months of searching for just about anything, I landed a job bagging groceries at a large grocery store. I was ecstatic, I would finally start working. My pay was $7 per hour and gas was looking like it was going to reach $5 per gallon. However, I was so ready to start making money.

I was a socially anxious kid, so I remember being very scared on my first day. We had to wear a pressed shirt and tie, which looking back is very strange since I only wear that today when I interview for a job which is once every three years or so. I didn’t talk for the first 3 or 4 months to my coworkers, I was just a scared little boy surrounded by a bunch of people my age bagging groceries.

Eventually, I would make a ton of friends there. I would find my first long term relationship, and move around to different departments throughout the store such as bagging groceries, stocking the dairy aisle, helping in the frozen department, and then ending up in the the deli before I couldn’t take it anymore and went to work in a Japanese restaurant – which was a way more fun experience.

But in those years working there, I discovered many strange secrets of the grocery store industry that I am guessing many people don’t know about, and I am sharing them with you today.

Secret 1

Bagging Groceries Is a Science!

I read in a book once that you should fluff up the wording of your experience in these first low skill jobs you get to make yourself look better on paper. I am proud to say that I “organized consumer relations” – a great way to spice up my resume when I was a grocery store bagger. Sounds simple, huh? Well, groceries come down the conveyor belt and you put them in a plastic bag. Simple, sure.

Until it’s not. And it’s because of….people. Everybody has their own ways they want things bagged. Some people don’t want plastic, and only want paper. They lecture you about the environment, polyethylene, and how we are destroying the planet.

Some want plastic, and don’t want any paper. They say it is their God-given right to consume plastic bags, plastic straws, and throw dip spit filled plastic bottles out of their car window on the freeway.

Some want double paper. Some want a paper bag in their plastic bag. Some want a double paper bag inside of a plastic bag. Some want you to use their multiple foul-smelling tote bags. Some people want you to bag by color (yes, really). Some people freak out when you put their blueberries with their celery or their turkey cold cuts with their dairy products. Some want no bag. Of course no bag. “I can carry all of this!”

You are always the idiot for not doing it the way they want it done, and since you aren’t a mind-reader, you just have to take it. But sometimes bagging is easy, especially when a guy is just buying a pack of condoms, a fresh baguette, and a bouquet of roses.

So apparently, yes, bagging groceries is a science.

Secret 2

People won’t believe you if you say you don’t have it in stock


Let’s say there is a killer deal on Greek yogurt. Who could resist? And it’s a steal! I don’t know, let’s say it’s 10 for $10. You are the stockperson, and you stock all the flavors nice and neat. The store opens and people rip through the display to get their 10 cups. You go in the back, restock, and notice your manager didn’t order enough Black Cherry flavored yogurt.

Damn. No big deal to you, you’ll simply fill in its space with extra Vanilla flavor since that always seems to sell. Eventually, someone comes along and asks you if you have any Black Cherry.

You’ll explain that no, there is no more, and what is on the shelves is all there is. “Sorry mam, what we have is all on the shelves”. She will become irritated and ask if you are sure, like you are hiding a case for your granny. You’ll tell her it is a hot commodity item, and the flavors you have are simply the flavors you have until the next delivery. They will double down and ask you to check in the back just in case. “Just check the back!”

So what I would do is walk in the back, check emails on my phone for a minute or two, and then go back to the person to tell them that there is no more back there. This happens everyday. This is my department, I stock everything, I am meticulous about knowing exactly what we have in the back. If it is not on the shelf, and I tell you that’s all there is, just accept that answer and buy some damn Vanilla.

Secret 3

Lots of drugs are shared in the back room.


I got exposed to many drugs in grocery stores, more so than high school. I guess because there are more deadbeat adults working there feeling like this is a dead end. I believe that no matter your job, there is honor in an honest day’s work.

But here is what they are not stocking on the shelves from the back room: marijuana, Klonopin, Adderall, meth, mushrooms. Well, technically they are stocking mushrooms, but you know what I mean.

Clerks are swimming in more than that, truth be told. Oh, and throw plenty of alcohol in the mix.

There are so many boozed up people counting out your clams, packing your croissants, and slicing your roast beef.

Secret 4

All those kids up front? They are sleeping with each other.


Maybe I am biased since I started working at the store with a bunch of high schoolers while I, myself, was a high schooler.

Everyone was sleeping with each other. Cashiers sleeping with the produce guys, the bakery ladies going into the back with the fishmongers, the deli staff taking their lunch breaks with the gals working in Health and Beauty. It’s debaucherous.

And I have seen some really questionable relationships between girls just on the cusp of being of legal age dating guys in their 30’s-40’s in the meat department.

There is a lot of sex going on that you don’t even know about. Sometimes people even have sex in the store. By now you should know that there isn’t a workplace on Earth that people have not engaged in some intercourse at.

Secret 5

A stunning amount of food goes right into the dumpster.


My parents are from a former communist country and immigrated here prior to their country achieving independence from the Soviet Union. There was a particular importance placed on food. There shall be no food waste!

So I thought it was a massive culture shock to begin working in a grocery store while food was getting tossed willy-nilly out into the trash. Soda bread that didn’t sell by the sell-by date? Trash. A dozen fresh eggs and one is broken? I’ve seen colleagues dump the entire carton into the trash rather than “marry” packages. Boxes of an unpopular Cheez-It flavor that is one day past the best-by date? Trash.

Rotisserie chickens, cheeses, breads, produce – that is all stuff that I would personally have no problem eating but for some reason or another is not sellable by the store. Such a shame. And they would not let you take it home, as it is some sort of liability. Also, instead of donating it to local homeless shelters or church pantries…again, right into the trash.

Then there is the stuff that obviously shouldn’t be sold. Spoiled meat, rotten yogurts, curdled milks, moldy bread. The degree of food waste is enormous. We would take it all and cart it through the back of the store where there would be a vault door which opened to a dark chute. This was the trash compactor. The final stop.

Secret 6

The loosest cannon is the cart-pusher


Our cart collectors were people who were just lucid enough to be able to work but too intellectually impaired or damaged to do anything else. Collect a cart and bring it back, not exactly rocket science. You know what? I wanted to push carts so bad. You are outside, don’t interact with anyone, and the day just goes by very quick. Maybe I am a loose cannon?

My manager would refuse to let me push carts. I guess I didn’t understand it at the time, but here are a couple of folks who were pushing carts:

  • A guy in his 40s-50s who looked like a pretty overweight, alcoholic, bald, beat-up version of Quentin Tarantino. He always wore tank tops and reeked of body odor.
  • A guy in his late 40’s who was skinny as a rail who was pickled and wet-brained. He would drink tons of Fosters oil-can beers underneath a parked tractor trailer, eventually getting caught. He later succumbed to alcoholism.
  • A guy who would bring a briefcase to the job. The briefcase held his lunch. Inside was typically nothing else but a banana and a granola bar.

Conclusion

Sex, drugs, old food, alcoholism – it isn’t just stocking shelves and bagging groceries at the local grocery store.

While I felt tortured to an oddly full extent while I was there, in retrospect, it was a fun experience where I was working with a bunch of knucklehead high schoolers and local drug addicts. It gave me a ton of interesting stories and experiences, and I got to make friends that I still have to this day.

If you are 16 – go get a job at your local grocery store. You’ll learn all about customer service, multitasking, patience, and stocking shelves. The last of which is soothing to an OCD brain. Never take a job in the deli or servicing at a counter – if you are going to do that, just get a job at a restaurant because at least you will make tips and make out with more money, with the added benefit of developing an insane level of charisma and social confidence that can float you into a sales position.

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