5 Revelations From a Grocery Store Insider

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Working at a place can make a person privy to certain things that people on the outside probably don't know. I've had a lot of jobs like that over the years, and have learned a lot about other people and the hidden mechanisms of the businesses I've worked for. I've had quite a few gigs working at various types of grocery stores, and have learned a few things. Things like...

5. Complaining about things being expensive doesn't solve anything.

I hear this gripe from customers fairly often. Meat is getting so expensive. One recent customer of mine complained about the cost of our market-made, labor-intensive chicken salad because it had gone up 20 cents. She squawked about how she would no longer be able to afford it, asked for a discount and then continued to babble about a recent vacation to the Bahamas before leaving the store in her new Mercedes.

Besides the ridiculous nature of this person's argument that she was being priced out of delicious chicken salad, what do these cheapskates expect a store to do? Meat is expensive. It's not cheap to raise large animals simply so they can be killed and eaten. When you get into things like organic meat, the price goes higher and higher. Supply and demand come into play, and people like me have to make a living, too.

My point? Complaining about prices won't affect them at all. The older folks who somehow expect prices to have stayed the same since the 1960s are also hard to reason with.

4. Avoid that olive bar

I used to work in the deli of an expensive specialty grocery store in Houston. There was this huge, self-serve olive bar against a wall, which was full of expensive imported olives of all sorts. So what's wrong with that? Sounds great, huh? Yes, it would be except for the constant stream of children and even some adults who would come through running their hands through the olive trough, helping themselves to a free sample or two, or just thrusting their gross hands into the thing with abandon, for reasons I can't fathom. I used to buy olives from that bar until I witnessed that behavior. Never again. Same thing goes for any salad bar, actually.

3. If an item isn't popular, it doesn't matter how much a single customer likes it, it's going away

Sad but true. I get asked by frantic individuals, "Why don't we carry that mango hummus anymore?" They will go into a diatribe about how it's amazing and they make a special trip from out of town just to buy it from us.

The reason is simple: They're the only person who ever bought that stuff, and a manager got tired of throwing away half a case every time he or she ordered it. Shelf space is at a premium; if an item never, or only rarely, sells, very few people in the grocery business are going to continue carrying that item. Sometimes it bugs me, too. I have to discontinue carrying some really great imported or artisan cheeses because they rarely sell, but the generic cheap crap is always in demand. It's a bummer.

2. People hang out in grocery stores like they're nightclubs these days. Yes, I know a couple of the high-end (expensive) chains have made grocery shopping a several-hour social event. People wander slowly through the maze-like environment, with coffee or maybe wine in hand, taking in the sights and smells of the store, and probably checking out other shoppers. But it's odd to me to see that same behavior at much more typically set up grocery stores. The place I currently work at is not tiny but also not large, and some regular customers will spend hours in the place. The other employees and I don't get it. We don't even have a cafe built into the place. It's weird.

1. Those "Made in House" items often aren't.

I'm not talking about stuff that is obviously made at the store where you're shopping. If the meat department advertises market-made sausages, they're probably being made there. But there are lots of items that stores tend to package and promote as if they're made there but that just aren't. One place I used to work experimented with packaging our "own" shredded Parmesan in little tubs. The experiment was a grand success, as people seem to want to believe they're getting something exclusive to that store, or of a higher quality than some mainstream brand.

But we got that cheese already shredded in great big ten-pound bags, and simply shoveled it into our own packages. Oh, and we made about a 90 percent profit doing that trick. It took about ten minutes to whip up a batch, but I think some customers assumed we made the stuff at the store. Same thing goes for grocery bakeries I've worked around. Items may be baked in-house and put out for sale, but a lot of them were simply shipped already made and then baked for 30 minutes before being tossed out on the shelf with a tag suggesting they were the house brand.

The place I currently work used to put prepackaged potato salads and other items in its deli. They'd come in these creepy industrial-looking cartons, and were really basic and of average quality. There was hardly any labor involved and they were low cost to us. Lots of stores use items like that, but they don't usually advertise that the chicken salad sitting in their deli case came from a giant national company and was in a 20-pound tub until it was nicely trayed for display. I quit ordering all that crap and developed in-house recipes to replace those items. In some cases, customers complained because I had to raise the price a little, but they almost always admitted that the new recipes were much better. There's a lesson to be learned there.

So what can consumers take away from these observations? Well, while they're sipping their latte and spending six hours meandering through the store, they can take time to ask where an item really comes from, understand that quality comes with a price, and, whatever they do, they should avoid that olive bar.

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