33 Things You Only Know if You've Worked in a Grocery Store

There are three unavoidable things in life: death, taxes, and groceries. And since even immortals and tax cheats need to buy toilet paper, it's nearly impossible to dodge regular trips to the supermarket.

To fill America's insatiable need for frozen pizza and peanut butter (which we taste-tested here and here), supermarkets employ an army of scanning soldiers ranging from the youngest able-bodied tweens to the oldest cataract-stricken seniors. If you've never bagged produce on the professional level, there are certain things you'd just never realize about life in the checkout lane, from webs of acronyms to dumpsters full of food. That's why we asked a group of industry veterans to spill their grocery store knowledge. Cleanup, aisle five!


Most produce codes are universal

Whether you call it a Dole banana or a yellow hot dog, scanners at most grocery stores just call it 4011. That's because the little stickers on your produce are the same pretty much everywhere, giving cashiers a fighting chance of sweeping Jeopardy! if "Produce Codes" is every a category.

Stores track cashier speed

IPMs -- or items scanned per minute -- are a big deal. It's the main metric for judging cashier performance and a source of great pride for employees without much else to take pride in. But hey, scan fast enough and you might earn a bonus 10-minute soda break!

Cashiers have no power

Your complaints are their complaints too.

Freezer items are harder to scan

Barcodes and frost just don't get along.

Flickr/U.S. Department Agriculture

Produce is the worst

Today, most stores have barcode printers to tag produce for easy scanning, but historically cashiers were forced to memorize each fruit's multi-digit code. Not knowing something obtuse like Japanese eggplant would require consulting a paper binder of codes, thus tanking those IPMs and robbing the cashier of valuable soda-drinking time.

Bulk items are the second worst

Just write down the damn code. There's a pen right next to it!

The waste is insane

Sometimes up to 25% of produce is refused based on looks alone, but most government regulations keep it from being donated to people too hungry to be shallow about tomato pigment.

There's no giant room in the back full of exactly what you're looking for

The stocking area is not a bounty of your favorite brand of locally made hummus. If it's not on the shelf, it's sold out.

Flickr/Anthony Albright

The most frequently stolen items are meat and beer

Meat always goes down the pants, beer is somehow always the cheapest domestic.

Shoplifting is hard to prosecute

Laws vary by state, but often a shoplifting charge requires up to $50 of merchandise to stick. Instead, stores will try to pin low-rent thieves with criminal trespassing charges to keep them from returning.

Without a cop, it's impossible to detain people

In the movies you see some punk sitting with their head down in the manager's office. In real life they just sprint out the door.

Theft is called “shrink”

In one of the most passive-aggressive word-twists of all time, “shrink” is the term used to describe the discrepancy between potential and actual sales. This is another metric that chains use to judge the performance of individual stores and reward extra soda breaks.


White-collar crime is huge

A surprising number of businessmen steal candy bars.

No sweethearting allowed

Low-level employees generally aren't allowed to scan each other out for fear of shrink. Technology has made it easy to track a cashier's every move, so good luck mooching that employee discount. Some scams still exist, like deli workers barcoding king salmon ($14.99/lb) as if it were broccoli ($3.99/lb!), but an elaborate system of checks and balances ensures that these bad apples don't last.

You have regulars

And they will become way too comfortable asking you about your life.

Homeless people know how to game the weighable foods

If you've only got a pocketful of change, you quickly learn how to piece together a meal from a handful of granola, one piece of ham, a slice of cheddar, and five almonds.

Flickr/Kent Wang

Paper bags are way more expensive than plastic

Many stores actually preach asking “plastic or paper” instead of the traditional “paper or plastic” in order to save a few pennies.

People don't really need bags

You have two perfectly good bags on the ends of your arms. They're called hands, and they are evolutionarily suited to carry things.

Proper bagging is an art form

Use boxy items to build walls inside the perimeter of the bag, next comes the heavy stuff, then top it off with lighter items. It's like Tetris. But with Doritos and butter.

Some people aren't capable of loading grocery bags into their car...

... but most just want someone to talk to, which is why they ask for help.

Wrangling shopping carts is actually great

Even in the summer heat, it beats asking people if they've found everything alright for the millionth time. Also, you can totally nap in your car.

Flickr/Dan Hochman

Small dents in cans don't matter

Bacteria's only an issue if the can breaks, so a small dimple won't hurt anyone.

You should really wipe the lip of that can of beer

It has probably touched the bottom of someone's boot.

There's plenty of trouble to be had

You haven't truly lived until you've thrown a perfect spiral with a box of cereal over three aisles to a deli guy who just broke through the tackle of an end cap of potato chips.

Christmas starts the day after Thanksgiving

A month of "Jingle Bells" will turn anyone into a Grinch.

You see every type of neurosis

Despite the elaborate supply chains, some customers will freak out if you dare touch one of their groceries with your recently sanitized hands.

Flickr/Roger H. Goun

Some people spend more on cat food than people food

Usually elderly women. Or your ex.

People still write checks

Usually they're the same people who send checks on your birthday, which is to say, your grandmother.

Older men think you're trying to rip them off

Somehow a 27-year-old whippersnapper has devised a scheme to profit off overcharging for Japanese eggplant.

Helping blind people shop is a delightful experience

Sometimes they arrive alone in a cab and need someone to help them tell if their eggs are cracked, and you will never feel like a better person in your life.

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Some stores let you sample basically anything

Whole Foods is one of them (more WF hacks here!).

Friendliness is the best deterrent against shoplifters

Nothing breeds paranoia quite like a smile from a stranger.

You can't ever say “that's not my job”

You have to say, “let me check on that.”

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He worked at a grocery store between the ages of 17 and 20. Follow him to perfectly bagged groceries at @Dannosphere.