The Grocery Store Hierarchy: A Sociocultural Examination

You’ve made it. You snagged yourself the finest undergraduate psychology degree money can buy, you’ve committed your time to bettering the lives of those with scruples enough to call ambulances to bring them to hair appointments, and you’ve got a shiny, new apartment, complete with a fridge, which is woefully barren.

You’ve got a few Franklins in your pocket, and since you’ve somehow managed to survive on a diet consisting solely of ramen and peach Schnapps for the better part of four years, you can honestly say you know a thing or two about thrifty living.  That said, you’re quite interested in applying your time-tested cash-saving strategies in the real world. When your day off rolls around, you know exactly where you’re going. You’re going to the Price Rite.

Sure, they charge for bags, and people get into fistfights over carriages in the parking lot, and most of the conversations heard in the aisles are strings of profanities in foreign languages, but the unmarked chocolate-puff cereal is the crunchiest in the tri-state area, your milk hasn’t leaked into the trunk of your car in three or four weeks, and the last time someone hit-and-ran your car while you were inside was nearly six months ago, so you tough it out. You can feed yourself (and Whiskers) for forty bucks a week. Be proud.

Grocery Aisle
Grocery Aisle (Photo credit: redjar)

A few years slip by, and one day, you awake to the realization that your apartment wasn’t infested with fruit flies before you started shopping at the Price Rite, you’ve spent over $350 in bodywork, they don’t sell cold cuts, and the meager selection of meat is of questionable age and origin (Is that pork?). So, you dig in your heels and join the rank and file at the Stop & Shop. You know this is the beginning of the end, but you’re more comfortable here. You can pick out meat, fish, all the labels are in English, everything has a label, the bags are free, and you can finally showcase your culinary skills by crafting ham sandwiches with Dijon mustard on rustic boules.

It’s all smooth sailing until the store somehow ends up in cahoots with a gas retailer, and you notice that the rectangular ninety-nine cent hash browns that you (and Whiskers) love so much are suddenly $2.99, the produce feels frozen, and the cold cuts are now ten dollars a pound. If you were at all handy, you’d take up charcuterie, but you’re not, and Whiskers is kind of a pig. Your twenty-cent discount per gallon of gas is, oddly, no longer satisfying. You begin to reevaluate.

Some may regard it as a step back, but you’re moving up in the world. You’re going to Wal*Mart. Prices are so low you’re throwing boxes and bottles into your carriage with reckless abandon. One package of refrigerated cinnamon rolls? Why not three? And how’s about a dozen and a half of eggs? Can’t go wrong! You’re even careful to avoid the meat that’s been recalled. And what’s this? A bakery, too! Fancy me up a birthday cake, Helga! We’re having an office party tomorrow.

You are almost having too much fun when you realize your constitution doesn’t allow you to shop there around the first of the month, the weekend, before a holiday, during a holiday, after a holiday, or anytime during the summer. And that you don’t enjoy verbal altercations as much as you thought you did. And that your roots are just too near in color to the rest of your hair to get by undetected. Plus, you keep running into your clients in the aisles. Awkward.

Rapidly exhausting your options, you decide you’re now ready for a more elevated role, you’re going to shop localYou take up with a local chain, with adorable dinged produce, free coffee, local bakery items, meats, and cheeses, and a killer prepared foods section. You may just be in love.  Except that you’re the youngest person in there, besides the baggers, and maybe it’s your imagination, but the other patrons seem to always be sipping their free coffee down at you in disgust. Is this a cult? Were you supposed to present an invitation? Are your yoga pants too ‘dressed down’? You’re a little distraught, but recover immediately after you find you purchased breaded “veal” cutlets that were actually chicken, wrapped up in your sushi was hair, and the fifth preposterously-dressed rich hag just drove her carriage into your car and wandered away. You’re over shopping local. Completely.

You’ve no choice but to pull out the big guns. You know what I’m talking about: Whole Foods.  You’ve been slowly inching towards your fate, albeit reluctantly. You like food, you do, but this has all become too much. You wander inside for the first time and find it’s a WONDERLAND. During the week, you fantasize about prepared fruit bowls and Meyer lemons, and not tripping over Smart cars in the parking lot. You enjoy “catching” your own frozen shrimp and crab legs, and dispensing yourself bags full of raisins (Don’t they just taste fresher?).

Sure, you muse about making jokes at the stock boy’s expense (Excuse me? I, um, lost my keys. Do you mind if I check your beard?) and loudly scolding others for choosing the domestic tomatoes instead of the organic ones. Blowing past people in a huff and ‘accidentally’ running into ankles are not acceptable behaviors here. You’ve been away from Wal*Mart, but not for that long. You do learn, however, that the clerks will say hello to you (Say hello back!) and that you should give a respectable distance to the barefoot babywearer standing pensively over the avocados. You think of a million things not to say (but you really want to) in such a place, but you realize, resigned, that these are a peaceable people who have yet to give you a hard time.

You find yourself satisfied, if not completely broke, fair-trade certified, organic cane-sweetened root beer in hand, as you determine how you will prepare your organic Russian Fingerling potatoes. Things are finally good, for the most part. As long as you like your current clothing – and in-state vacations – for the foreseeable future.

And if, by chance, your new and improved lot in life makes you cry just a little, kindly do so into your receipt. It’s the responsible thing to do.

16 Comments Add yours

  1. This is hysterical….because it’s true. Loved every word of it!


  2. Ahhh, Whole Foods, Culinary nirvana. Now pardon me as I take a brief side trip to Costco to get food samples. I need the sustenance as I’m walking through those tempting Whole Foods aisles.


    1. Right?! I imagine eating straight out of the bins is frowned upon.


      1. If you dare to eat from the bins, you incur the wrath of store employees and must pay the ultimate price: a meal of saltless, flavorless food while listening to the relentless strains of Musak. (“Nooooo! Not the Musak! Have mercy!”)


  3. We shop at Aldi, it’s kinda like a Price Right, but they frequently have oddball items, like imported cheeses and deli meats. They have OK produce, but I stay away from their meat. For bulk meats and other stuffs, there is BJs. When we get fancy, we go to Wegmans. If Walmart and Whole Foods had sex, Wegmans would be their delicious love child. The place is HUGE (their cheese sections is literally the size of the entire Aldi store), they have decent prices on common name brand and store brand stuff, but it can get expensive when you go to their “specialty sections”.


    1. There’s an Aldi or two here. I haven’t tried it yet, though. My mom keeps trying to talk me into going.


  4. Hahaha! We don’t have Price Rite or Whole Foods up here in the Great White North (or at least, not yet). But we do have Wal-Mart (unfortunately) and one shopping experience there was enough to immunize me against further discount grocery purchases for the rest of my natural life. I seriously thought “people of wal-mart” was a joke. I seriously thought those images and memes were photo-shopped or something. I seriously thought the lower prices were affixed to products of the same size and weight as other stores. Hah! Anyway, and as for the grungy local shop (replete with pretension, hairy food, and flour beetles)? We have one of those, too. Never, ever, ever again. Ever.


    1. The sizes and weights, though. They’ve all gone down. And regularly, too. I hate being ripped off.


  5. Irina says:

    A great piece. I could relate to most of what you wrote. Here are my recommendations — Stop & Shop for whatever is in the circular that week; Whole Foods for breads and dairy; Aldis for chocolate; Trader Joe’s for frozen food; Wal-Mart for baked goods and boxed items (e.g., fruit snacks); Rite Aid for cereals (always on a huge sale) and CVS for Starbucks coffee (when on sale, you can get a bag for under 7 bucks, as opposed to over 10 elsewhere).


    1. I need a whole weekend for that!


      1. Irina says:

        Don’t misunderstand. I don’t shop driving from store to store. These are just my recommendations for which stores are great for which bargains. Otherwise, I think I’d have to shoot myself. ;)


      2. Oh, I gotcha. I do go all over the place. Exhausting. Maybe I should create the perfect grocery store…


  6. Lindsay says:

    This is spot on!! I am unfortunately (or not) still stuck at Price-Rite. I kinda feel like it’s where I belong. I do also venture to Trader Joe’s and Aldi’s. I love a good deal!!


    1. I have to try Aldi’s next. I haven’t been to Trader Joe’s in over a year.


  7. My professor in Soc 101 (way back when) gave many lectures on this topic. Fascinating! Your writing style is precious. Thanks so much for writing and have a great week!


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