5 Sep 2022

Supermarket etiquette

In centuries gone by, shopping for necessities was a personal interaction. Grocery shoppers arrived brandishing a shopping list, stood patiently in a queue, greeted the shopkeeper who stood behind the counter, and probably enjoyed an exchange of pleasantries while an assistant filled out their order, measuring out and parcelling up items such as flour, sugar, rice, butter and cheese. At no point did the shopper ever handle the goods on display.

But all this changed in 1948, when Britain’s first self-service supermarket, the London Co-operative Society, opened in Manor Park. Supermarkets had been flourishing in the US since the 1930s, but this was the first attempt in Britain to in introduce a new kind of shopping, where the customer was king, and economies of scale led to bargain basement prices. Those early shoppers were overwhelmed by the novelty of wire baskets and the accessibility of stacked shelves; they were also delighted by the opportunity to browse the goods on offer and pick out their own shopping.

Supermarkets were soon opening at an unprecedented rate and sales and profits rocketed. As more and more people began to own cars, further accommodations were made for bulk purchasers, with free car parking and out of town superstores. The era of personal shopping was long gone.

Has the advent of supermarkets inevitably led to a complete disappearance of shopping etiquette? Most of us appreciate the cheapness, choice and convenience of these huge stores, and trundling around the aisles with over-stacked trolleys, bombarded with promotions and multi-buy offers, has become a part of our everyday life. Many of us find ourselves on a kind of retail auto-pilot, performing actions and making choices that are so ingrained and routine that we never pause to think about them.

But supermarkets are full of other people – shop staff and fellow-customers – and, despite the shopping-induced daze, we need to ensure that we are aware of our surroundings and our behaviour. It will make the weekly shop a much more positive experience.

Golden Rules for Supermarket Shoppers

• Always greet staff with a friendly “good morning” or “good afternoon”. Ignoring them will make them feel like part of the wallpaper, and they will appreciate being acknowledged.

• Steer your trolley with care. Don’t absent-mindedly abandon it in the middle of the aisle while you wander off to compare prices or ask for directions – you will cause a trolley-jam and frustrate your fellow shoppers.

• Keep your eyes open for older people, who may not be able to reach items on the higher shelves, and always politely offer to help (look out for shorter people too – some supermarkets are built on a truly gigantic scale).

• If you need directions for specific items, always approach a shop assistant with a polite “Excuse me”. Don’t just barge up and bark out “Where have you put the baked beans?”. We have all been frustrated by our local supermarket’s tendency to regularly rearrange its stock, but don’t take it out on staff.

• If you have to shop with small children, try and keep them in the child seat of the trolley (plan ahead and bring a toy or book to distract them). Over-excited children hurtling down the aisles and screaming blue murder will make shopping fraught for everyone.

• When you get to the checkout, greet the sales assistant. Once you have loaded your goods on to the conveyor belt, make sure you add the divider (if available) for the next shopper. Exchange small talk pleasantries with the sales assistant if they seem amenable – chatting about the weather is an invaluable standby. Thank them politely.

• It is the height of bad manners to talk on your phone while going through the checkout procedure. Ignoring the sales assistant while you chat on the phone indicates that you are treating them as a mere functionary. Always put your phone away.

• Queues for checkouts can get long and tempers short. Tut tutting or complaining to an overworked sales assistant is really not going to improve the situation. Try and remain calm and agreeable.

• If you opt for a self-service checkout, accept that – at some point in the procedure – there may be an unexplained hitch of the “unexpected item in the bagging area” variety. Don’t vent your frustration on the poor sales assistant whose job is to intervene.

• Once you have packed your car, take the time to wheel your trolley back to the storage zone and stow it away neatly. We’ve all encountered stray abandoned trolleys taking up entire parking spaces.

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