You might not realize it, but you probably spend quite a bit of time shopping for food.
In the United States, consumers make an average of 1.5 trips to the grocery store every week. For most of those people, it’s a pretty simple process: Grab your cart, walk down the aisles, check out, and ride your grocery cart back to your car while quietly saying “Whee!” under your breath. What could be easier?
However, there’s actually quite a bit going on behind the scenes. We spoke with a former grocery store worker and researched some of the closely guarded (and not so closely guarded) secrets of the supermarket.
For instance, we had no idea that…
1. Bread ties are color coded.
Those little twist ties (or tabs, depending on the brand) tell grocery store restockers when a particular loaf was made.
Here’s the code that’s been floating around the internet for the past few years:
- Monday = Blue
- Tuesday = Green
- Thursday = Red
- Friday = White
- Saturday = Yellow
How is anyone supposed to remember that? Well, astute readers will notice that the colors go in alphabetical order. Keep that in mind, and you’ll never get an old loaf of bread again.
Then again, you probably don’t have to worry in the first place. As Snopes reports, grocery stores cycle out old loaves every day, so you don’t really need to memorize any color codes unless you’re looking to get the absolute freshest breads possible. Even if you do take the time to commit that list to memory, you might be disappointed, as there’s no industry-wide standard—some bread manufacturers use completely different methods to note freshness. The best way to find the real code is to ask the brands themselves.
2. Customers make all sorts of annoying mistakes when checking out.
First of all, the good news: Nobody’s judging your purchases. Well, not really.
“We’d see some older customers trying to hide embarrassing items—fungal treatments, things like that—under other items,” says one former supermarket worker, who worked primarily as a bagger and stocker for four years (he asked to remain anonymous to avoid disparaging his former employer).
“We don’t care what you’re buying. Everyone buys embarrassing stuff,” he says. “However, we do care when you’re holding up the line.”
In many stores, managers time transactions, and cashiers with long transaction times might face unpleasant repercussions. You can help by doing some quick organization and by having your money ready when the cashier asks for it.
Try to keep similar items together to help the cashier and bagger move as quickly as possible. If you have coupons, let them know right away.
Oh, and make sure that your fruits and vegetables have visible code stickers, because…
3. Those produce codes aren’t random, and they sometimes contain some useful info.
They’re called Produce Lookup Codes, and they’re the bane of every grocery store worker’s existence. The little stickers come off easily, and cashiers need them in order to accurately price your fruits and vegetables.
“I learned codes for gala apples, russet potatoes, and a few other items, but that was it,” our source says. “There’s too many of them, and our selection changed constantly. It was annoying when customers got impatient when we had to look up the codes, like they expected us to have them all memorized.”
“I wanted to say, ‘Lady, there’s hundreds of these things. Don’t get mad at me because you didn’t pick out a starfruit with a sticker on it.'”
PLU codes are typically four or five digits long, and generally speaking, a five-digit code starting with the number nine means that the product was organically farmed. PLU codes in the range of 3000-4999 are reserved for “conventionally grown” produce.
With that said, the codes change regularly, so don’t depend on that little sticker if you’re looking to buy organic. Instead, research the farm or ask someone in your grocer’s produce department.
4. On a related note, be sure to bag your meats.
Most grocery stores provide disposable bags near their meat, poultry, and seafood sections, but if your store doesn’t offer them, consider bringing your own bags from home. Meat juices can seep out of the packaging and into your shopping cart, contaminating items and causing a mess.
Even if you’ve never noticed liquids seeping out of those packages, your local grocery store’s staff certainly has.
“We had to constantly wipe down the conveyor belt because [customers’] steaks would leave fluid all over them,” our source says. “I’m as eco-friendly as the next guy, but use those little bags. We’ll appreciate the effort.”
If you decide not to buy a meat product, give it to the cashier. They’ll happily put it back for you. However, some customers aren’t so considerate. If you find something perishable in the middle of the store, don’t try to put it back.
“You might think you’re doing a good deed,” our source explains, “but unless you know exactly how long that item has been sitting there, let us handle it. It’s a food safety issue.”
5. Know the store’s busiest hours.
Nobody loves waiting for half an hour to pay for a peach. Grocery store workers hate overloaded checkout lines, too, but they can’t really do anything when customers start pouring in.
“One of my biggest pet peeves was when a customer would tell us to ‘just open another checkout line,'” our source says. “Believe me, we would if we could. At peak times, we’re going to be busy, and we can’t simply call in more people every time there’s a rush.”
There is, of course, something that you can do: Shop during non-peak hours. While traffic varies by location, most stores see big jumps in traffic on weekends. Sundays can be especially brutal.
“Holidays and big sporting events were the worst,” our source says. “Don’t go shopping on Superbowl Sunday, especially if your town’s team is in the big game. If you are shopping at a busy store, please try to be patient, and certainly don’t take out your frustrations on the workers.”
To avoid the crowd, try shopping early (before 8:00 a.m.) or late (after 8:00 p.m.) on a weekday. If you’re particularly averse to crowds, you can also ask the staff to tell you the best times of the week for a quick, painless shopping trip.
6. Likewise, if you love seafood, make friends with the people in the department.
Every store’s policy is different, but most stores receive deliveries on a particular day of the week. Ask someone who works in the seafood department when those deliveries come in, and you’ll know when to arrive to get the freshest possible fish.
By the way, “fresh” is a relative term. Food often arrives frozen, and some farmed or frozen fish might not be explicitly labeled as such. If you’re familiar with the workers in the seafood department, you can find better deals on better-tasting products. Some stores will even season and fry your fish for you, which can be awesome if you’re in a rush.
We’d recommend sticking with local fish species, if possible; according to organizations like the One Fish Foundation, that’s the best way to make a tasty, eco-friendly purchase.
7. The store is set up to make you buy more than you need.
As we mentioned earlier, the grocery industry is big business. It’s also insanely competitive, and stores need to sell as many products as possible to stay profitable.
The most eye-opening thing I learned was that I’d been wasting so much money by not planning my trips more effectively.
To that end, they engage in some clever tricks to get their customers fill up their carts. Stores might keep their shoppers in a good mood by putting bakeries and florists near their entrances (the memorable smells make for a better shopping experience). If that fails, they’ll simply pipe in the scents with a professional aroma machine. They play specially curated playlists to keep shoppers happy, and every inch of your local store’s layout is carefully planned to keep you buying.
Don’t be surprised if you end up at the checkout counter with more than you need—and don’t be surprised when most of that food ends up in your trash can. According to a study from the National Resource Defense Council, the average American wastes about 33 pounds of food per month.
Store workers notice when shoppers have poor spending habits, but of course, they can’t tell their customers to put back the extra bag of chips.
“The most eye-opening thing I learned was that I’d been wasting so much money by not planning my trips more effectively,” our source says. “These days, I’m more careful. I don’t really clip coupons or anything, but I make sure to eat a good meal before I go to the store. I make a list and watch for specials, and I avoid impulse purchases.”
“It’s easy to waste money, but it’s also pretty easy to stay within your budget.”