How To Be a Better Grocery Shopper

How businesses get things done.
June 26 2012 6:15 AM

The Secrets of Super-Efficient Grocery Shopping

Hint: The deli counter is your enemy.

(Continued from Page 1)

I lay grocery items out for the cashier to bag them according to where they’ll be put away at my house. Pantry items in one bag, refrigerator items in one bag, and so forth. Yup, I know I'm a grocery nerd.

-Megan A.

Megan, if optimizing is nerdy I don’t want to be cool. Your tactic is nearly identical to one used by UPS, the package delivery service. Packages are positioned in the back of delivery vans based on the order they’re to be delivered. The first package on the route is placed immediately to the right upon entering the back of the van, with subsequent deliveries proceeding counter-clockwise around the van’s shelves. This saves a few seconds of searching every time the driver heads back there to retrieve a package. Over millions of deliveries (or grocery trips), those seconds add up.

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I am that a-hole who leaves her cart at the end of the aisle, and then walks down the aisle to get the items I need. This means I don’t have to maneuver the cart down the busy aisle and try to turn it back around, or potentially walk the whole aisle unnecessarily just because I don't feel like turning it around. 

-Kate P.

You may be an a-hole, Kate, but you’re an a-hole who gets out of the grocery store quicker. (Possibly to the detriment of fellow shoppers. But this column is about operations, not utilitarian ethics.) And in fact you’re replicating another package delivery trick. TNT Express—a Dutch delivery service that won this year’s Edelman Award for achievement in operations management—similarly abandons its bulky vehicles when they encounter crowded pathways. When a TNT driver approaches downtown Berlin, for example, he parks his truck at a special base station where TNT houses a fleet of delivery tricycles. The streets in the congested city center are then navigated by trike instead of by truck—saving time and fuel, and reducing carbon emissions along the way.

I bring a large, wheeled plastic storage box from home and place it in the shopping cart when I get to the grocery store. I ask the checkout clerk to put the groceries in the box instead of in bags. Then I can wheel the box to the car, lift the groceries all at once to put them in the trunk, and make one trip wheeling the box into the house—instead of four or five trips back and forth from the car to the kitchen. It's also eco-friendly, as I don't use any shopping bags. (Note that this only works if you are strong enough to lift the box or if you can find someone who is strong enough.)

-Hayden B.

Nice tip, Hayden. You’ve eliminated a bottleneck—schlepping grocery bags from point A to point B—by employing a technological solution. You’re like a factory manager who excises an outdated machine from the assembly line, installing a replacement machine with far more capacity.

I don’t bring my husband or my kids when I go grocery shopping. I put in my earbuds (sometimes I even turn on the iPod) and I don’t make eye contact. I’m not there to socialize. I’m there to forage.

-Martha D.

So in this case the bottleneck was Martha’s humanity. Just kidding, Martha! I’m sure you’re a very warm, engaging person when you’re not in the frozen foods aisle! But this raises an interesting point. As anyone who’s read The Goal knows, the, um, goal is not mere efficiency for efficiency’s sake. Depending on your broader mission, some kinds of efficiency might well be irrelevant. Or even counterproductive. So, for instance, if your mission is to lead a life that allows for occasional moments of serendipity (like, say, a pleasant chat with a neighbor you’ve randomly run into at the grocery store), it might not be vital to plan and optimize every little thing you do. Only you can decide. I’ll let Jason B. have the last word on this.

These concepts you are writing about are what I work on all day. I call it "process improvement" instead of the fancier "operations management." In its essence, it is the art doing more of what you want and less of what you don't. So it’s important to ask, "How does this streamlining help the bigger process?" It’s great that you can peel bananas faster, but what did you get with that extra time? Were you able to make banana splits? Or did you just end up with more peeled bananas than you really need?

-Jason B.

Potassium-rich food for thought. Oh, and I lied. I’m giving myself the last word. Because, as longtime Slate readers know: There really is a better way to peel a banana!

Note: Reader emails have been edited for clarity and concision.

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