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.

Shoppers pay for their merchandise at a Target store May 23, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois.
Shoppers pay for their merchandise at a Target store on May 23, 2007 in Chicago, Ill.

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Last week, I asked Slate readers to share operations success stories from their own lives. You obliged—offering up ingenious solutions on par with those of Southwest Airlines, Poland Spring, and Zara. A few of my favorites are below. But first, an inquiry:

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I used to work for an operational consulting firm. (And yes, The Goal was required reading when you joined.) We would travel a lot, and when you are waiting at airport security with a group of operations consultants, you naturally discuss how to improve the rate at which travelers pass through security. The worst offense is when the TSA has only one person checking IDs, and two or more X-ray lines running, so that the X-ray machines sometimes sit idle. This seems like a terrible staffing choice because you are bottlenecked at a step that is very inexpensive to expand. Meanwhile, you have let the most expensive step (the X-rays) sit idle, wasting the cost of the machine and of the two to three person staff. Much better to simply shift one more person to check IDs, right?

-Sam R.

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Seems like an efficiency-maximizing solution, Sam. Any TSA workers care to chime in down there in the comments section? Is there some nuance of security procedure that Sam is missing? Also: Do I need to remove my belt if it is made of webbed canvas with a plastic D-ring buckle? If no, related question: Where can I buy a belt like that? 

Now, onto your operational tips and tricks—which, as it turned out, were almost entirely about shopping.

I'm one of those people who finish Christmas shopping weeks in advance. And it's not because I like shopping, or because I start shopping in August. I keep a list of presents that family and friends have enjoyed in previous years, and modify it slightly every year so that I know they'll get something they like. It may mean that there's not much diversity in my gifts from one year to the next, but why fix what ain't broken?

-Genevieve L.

Genevieve, I wouldn’t want to be the nephew upon whom you bestow a series of nigh-indistinguishable neckties. But you’ve hit on a technique akin to something the corporate world calls “business analytics.” Put simply, you’re examining the past and using your findings to more efficiently tackle the future. Companies like IBM make their living in part by helping all sorts of clients do the very same thing. For instance: A close look at the operations of the Cincinnati Zoo revealed that ice cream sales were a significant revenue source. Yet the ice cream kiosk was shutting down a full hour before the zoo closed—even though ice cream demand remained high. Bad decision. Analytics helped the zoo realize it was making a poo-flinging monkey of itself.

The deli counter is the Achilles heel of grocery shopping. Standing there while a diligent employee cuts your three different meat selections kills your elapsed grocery time. Instead, place your deli order at the beginning of your shopping (order all of your meats at once, and be sure the employee has the items and quantities correct), and then come back and get your order after you've finished the rest of your shopping.

-Tyler S.

Classic operations analysis, Tyler. You found the bottleneck. (In this case, not the fat kid, but rather the procuring of the delicious deli meats that made him fat.) The key to all operations management is to prioritize, and then ameliorate or eliminate the bottleneck. You’ve clearly done that here by subordinating the rest of your shopping tasks to your deli order.

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