Monday, December 19, 2005

express lane psychoanalysis

There's a lot you can learn about people by the way they grocery shop, and not just what kinds of foods they like to eat. Do you choose a cart, or a basket, or start with the basket until it gets too heavy and then resort to the cart? Do you come with a carefully compiled list, or grab items from the shelves on impulse? Are you captive to the siren-song of the weekly specials, or will you buy the same stuff no matter what's on sale? How exacting are you with your produce - are you a sniffer, fondler, gentle shaker, or will you squeeze until it bruises and remove all doubt? We haven't even approached paper or plastic yet.

my pleasurable Publix: bring your id, and your ID Posted by Picasa

I went grocery shopping recently with a friend, who happens to be vegan, and was fascinated to see how our shopping styles diverged. I dithered in the canned goods, while his most lengthy deliberations were in the cereal aisle. If the grocery store is also a test of one's qualities as a friend, I suppose I failed that test - whereas he patiently watched me calculate the economics of my chickpea options, I was off somewhere in the frozen foods by the time he chose his honey bunches of whatever. We reconnected at the check-out line, though, showing that even though our styles are different, our overall grocery-shopping tempos coincide.

My mom and my step-dad, Barry, actually went to a grocery store on their first date. This is not as strange as it might sound, since they live in Las Vegas, where the grocery store is one of the few neutral, smoke-free, air-conditioned places, where you are somewhat less likely to bump into any slot machines or cocktail waitresses. And apparently they hit it off well, which is a great comfort to me, since the grocery store seems to bring out all of my mother's most bizarre and compulsive bargain-hunting proclivities. The fact that he can tolerate and even enjoy her grocery habits suggests that they'll have a long, happy life together.

I think it would be entirely possible for some computationally-gifted psychoanalyst to write an algorithm that would print out a comprehensive personality profile along with your grocery receipt. It would take into account all your grocery decisions, as well as the time it took you to make them, and maybe also your smutty tabloid periodical of choice. Of course, this is very possibly what they've been doing all along, with those 'preferred shopper' discount cards, and just keeping all the information they discover to themselves.

I'm thankful that neither of my grocery stores here in Miami have those cards, since they always seemed to bring out my wackiest paranoid tendencies. I used to wonder how carefully the store was tracking my purchases, whether they realized I hadn't bought any toilet paper in four months and were now going to raise all the prices in my hour of desperation. My common sense told me this was ridiculous, but my corporate distrust was never quite so sure.

So I would try and get friends or random strangers to switch cards with me, often while waiting in the check-out line, which would prompt their incredulous stares and sometimes they'd switch to another line. Which was okay, since then I'd get to the front that much quicker. Where I'd answer the inevitable "Paper or plastic?" with, "Neither, thanks, I brought my own bags." Others might diagnose this as obsessive eco-narcissism; I always saw it as a sign of admirable self-sufficiency.


Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

Great post. I smile when I picture an earnest Matt Heller asking to swap buyer cards with fellow shoppers, and getting more than a few raised eyebrows!

Matt Heller said...

I may have only asked to 'borrow' a stranger's card, never take one outright. I do recall reading an article by some privacy advocate who suggested regularly trading them. It's sort of like identity theft, only harmless, and pathetic.