Dear Helena,
I was grocery shopping the other day during peak hours after work. The store was crowded, and I observed people shoving others’ carts out of their way, shoving each other, and generally acting uncivil. What are your thoughts on grocery store etiquette?
—Manners Aren’t Just for Dinner Parties

Dear Manners Aren’t Just for Dinner Parties,

Grocery stores do seem to bring out the worst in people. Tracy Morales (not her real name), a cashier at a large health-food store in California, says customers regularly help themselves to handfuls of granola, trail mix, and chocolates out of the bulk bins, or engage in what she calls “number-switching”: labeling bags that contain one bulk item with the SKUs of cheaper items. For instance, one woman recently bought eight pounds of raw almonds but wrote down the SKU of the pasteurized variety—a price difference of $30. (Morales knew the raw kind look darker, so she called the customer on it.) Morales recalls, “She went to refill her bag with the cheaper kind, and while she was gone, I told her one-year-old, ‘Your mother is a thief.’”

Customers justify their behavior with the Robin Hood excuse, says Anna Castellani, managing partner of Foragers Market in Brooklyn: “They’re convinced you’re making money hand over fist.” But sometimes they’re just acting irrationally because they’re hungry, says Patrick Mills, assistant manager of San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market. “People come in with their blood sugar through the floor and their eyes bulging out.”

Though it’s not theft, it’s bad manners to eat an item in the store that you intend to buy later. You might create a mess with crumbs or juice, drop the wrapper, or cause the store workers to stare suspiciously at you as if you’re stealing.

It’s also basic courtesy not to hold up a line for no good reason, yet people frequently do so because they forgot an item on their list, they want to get rid of some pennies that the cashier then has to count out, or they’re reading US Weekly.

Lack of awareness is surely the explanation for those who block the aisle with their carts, talk on their cell phones while checking out and ignore the cashier, and let animals and children run amok in the aisles. Mills says, “Someone brought a child on a scooter into Bi-Rite. How is that OK?”

Then there’s the issue of bagging. This is a wildly contentious topic among Chowhounds. Some believe bagging is included in the price of groceries. Others think lending a hand to help bag your own is fine. Whatever your preference, don’t act as if the store should be able to read your mind.

If you prefer doing it yourself, opt for self-checkout or just tell the bagger politely. Jon Sandell has worked as a bagger at Chris’s Food Center in Minnesota for 38 years, and also took second place in the 2007 National Best Bagger Championship. He says he wouldn’t take offense.

Nor would the cashiers at Bi-Rite, Mills says. People have very particular ideas about how they prefer their groceries to be bagged, the same way many have their own rules about how to load a dishwasher. Mills explains: “The first guest might be walking home two miles and want everything double-bagged, the next might be really concerned about paper and want a single bag, and the next might be really concerned about their meat touching the vegetables.” So even a master bagger like Sandell can’t always anticipate your needs.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.

See more articles