Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Supermarket Voyeurism

My local supermarket is becoming more and more voyeuristic about my purchases…

The checkout fellow scans my Gardenburgers, wheat buns, cheese and mustard and opines; “Burgers for dinner?”

‘Yeah, no shit, mate’, I think… “Yes!” I smile broadly.

On another day, the checkout chick eyes my grapes, bananas, apples and blueberries and says, “Are you making a fruit salad, Ms Stollznow?” (Yeah, they even store my details on their ‘benefit’ cards.)

‘Mind your own bloody business’, I think… “Yes!” I smile broadly.

Okay, their work is mundane, they’re being friendly, and since they’re handling my groceries I can’t expect them to close their eyes to what my purchases reveal about me…

But, oh my, what are these people thinking when I buy pimple cream? Or prunes? Or eye-drops for red eyes?!

Although, I’d love it if one of them had the nerve to look me in the eyes when I buy condoms and say, “Have a nice fuck tonight, Ms Stollznow!”

What are some personal, embarrassing or rude comments you’ve heard from supermarket staff about your purchases?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

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75 Comments

  1. Just answer that it is for erotic purposes…

    That reminds me of that night at Wall-Mart where I stopped to buy a case of beer and a pack of condoms.
    The cashier check me out and, out of habit, wishes me a good night.
    I grinned and answered that it was, indeed, in the work. She blushed.

  2. I agree it seems the checkout clerks are just being friendly and are making small talk.

    It’s also true there is considerable operational intelligence to be gained by knowing what we consume individually. And, I doubt there is any oversight on what is being done with that information.

    Have fun with those condoms, though.

  3. So I’m buying a gallon of orange juice, a can of almonds, toilet paper and some paper plates and the check out guy says “so, having a party huh?”

    Are my parties so lame that even the supermarket guy thinks this is all I need for a party? What? I just looked blankly at him…

    Once I had just done a HUGE purchase and my credit card will not work. There is a big line and I”m “oh GREAT”. I feel the entire store is looking at me and going “fiscally irresponsible”. The check out person is saying “it’s ok, we all make mistakes…”. I finally call the stupid credit card company and they say “oh, well someone made a purchase in Germany so we stopped the card”. I pointed out that my husband travels an works in Europe. They say “well but he’s never charged in Germany before, just Beligium, Spain,France, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden, and the UK and Ireland”.

    They fix it right away, and the groceries are quickly rechecked (all in minutes) but the check out person that assured me I shouldn’t feel badly was gone. To this day, she thinks I’m a jerk, and probably should not have been buying expensive steak when I’m way way way over my credit limit.

  4. On a slightly serious note, a recent would-be suicide bomber in the UK turned out to have bought all his bomb supplies from Boots Chemists and no one there batted an eyelid (he was only caught because his Mosque turned him in)

    “Two gallons of hydrogen peroxide, a toothbrush and a gallon acetone. Have you got your Boots card for the points?”

  5. once when at the grocer buying my food, the lady at the checkout scanned the pecan pie we were buying and said something along the lines of, “it looks like something I threw up when I had my gallbladder removed”. Blink blink, what the hell does one say to that in response….

  6. Never had anyone make much of a comment when buying condoms or tampons, but buying some exercise equipment (couple handweights and a balance ball) did elicit a look-over by the lady in front of me and the casheir along with the comment of “going to do some yoga?” and “I always use 2lb weights!” which I said “yeah…ok” to and smiled awkwardly.

  7. I think it is called “sharing the moment” to enhance your customer experience.

    Usually, they should find common ground with you, for instance, if I was a checker and had to do such things, I would. . . “you know, I like burgers too, but mine are made out of cows”

    You would go “really, fascinating”

    Thus a moment was shared.

    That’s why I use the self-checkout whenever possible.

  8. I used to wonder what kind of demographic Tesco put me in when I bought 10 Marlboro Light, a packet of rizla and a frozen pizza. They probably target the same people as shark attack documentaries on cable.

  9. I once bought a knee brace, paint thinner, tampons and strawberries. The cashier said “Looks like you are in for an interesting night.” I really didn’t know how to take that.

    I bought a pregnancy test a few weeks ago and the cashier congratulated me. I answered back “We’ll see.” I think that is possibly the worst thing a cashier can comment on. For all he knew I could have been really hoping I wasn’t pregnant or planning on an abortion. Turns out I am pregnant and I’m happy about it but still. I haven’t been back to that store since…

  10. My grocery has installed several of the computer self-check out counters, so I don’t have to endure the comments of checkers. But one day I had a guy talking loudly on his cell about how rude it was for me to be going through the line with a full basket of food. After I had finished, I reached into my pocket and took out a quarter, walked over to the oaf, and handed it to him saying, “That’s for the minute of your phone time you wasted talking about me.”

  11. When I worked in a supermarket (Homebase in England), we were told to make the kind of banal, insipid conversation you mention. It’s really all we knew about the strangers.

    Eventually I just gave up attempting to start conversations and just left it to the customer. Pretty soon, I became so disillusioned, I’d even stop saying hello.

  12. I suppose it was a little embarrassing, I had purchased flour, chicken, oil, corn meal, and mustard greens. The black women behind the counter stated; “MMMMmm your going to have some soul food tonight! Fried chicken, corn bread, and some southern greens. That’s good eaten right there.” She then went on a step by step instruction on how to prepare each dish. I was too polite to stop her and tell here the flour and cornmeal were for baking bread, chicken gets grilled, the greens were for my guinea pig, and the oil was because I was out of oil. Also didn’t have the heart to tell her I thought soul food was only so-so, and that it is far to unhealthy for me to ever really make.

  13. The local supermarket had a big sale on tampons last years. My wife decided to stock up and bought a years supply. I asked her to let me buy them and we put all the other groceries in another cart. At checkout the clerk was very friendly at first as I pulled my cart up and started to unload. 20 boxes of tampons later, she just called out the total without looking at me.

  14. I can’t remember any embarrassing comments made by check-out people in many decades of supermarket shopping. But then again I usually have a don’t-fuck-with-me expression on my face when shopping in general.

    However, the most delightfully absurd comment made to me ever in my entire life was made by a fellow shopper who was with his boyfriend. He was was completely entranced by the Brussel sprouts in my basket . He stared and stared and stared at them with such intensity that I was becoming frightened. My heart beat faster as he stepped closer to converse.

    He asked me to identify the tiny cabbages. After being told that they were Brussel sprouts, he went quiet for a while and with a troubled facial expression then asked if more than one Brussel sprout could be eaten in the same sitting. I said very calmly, yes, they can.

    He then painstakingly and slowly explained how they are individual small cabbages and no one could be expected to eat more than one cabbage in one meal. And the truly scary part, was that his odd grasp of reality made sense to me. I assured him (and myself) that the tiny size of each sprout prevented them to be the culinary equivalent of real cabbages.

  15. I don’t think I’ve ever had a clerk say anything noteably inappropriate.

    In most places, especially in the chains, the poor shits are mandated by management to make pleasant conversation so as to, and I’m quoting from the Chapters bookstore chain’s hiring quiz: “Ensure a pleasant, satisfactory, and rewarding customer engagement experience that will ensure an enjoyable return visit.”

    Whenever clerks try to make pleasant conversation with me, I usually try to go a wee bit out of my way to be polite and conversant right back at them.

    After all, their jobs are somewhat soul destroying, they get pretty lousy pay, and in several places can lose that shitty job if their managers deem them not friendly enough, and not successful enough on making light and trite converse with customers.

  16. I once had a checkout girl say to me, “I bet you’re single and you live alone.”

    “Because of what I’m buying?” I asked.

    She said, “No, because you’re short and bald.”

    (Okay, that didn’t really happen. But it makes for a good story…)

    Banal conversation avoidance and the ability to pack my own bag is a major reason that I use self-checkout.

  17. Oh, and another side-story,

    My friend worked at a local drugstore a while back. My girlfriend at the time and I walked in to buy condoms.

    When you buy condoms, you don’t JUST buy condoms, you also want to throw in some pop, some deodorant, a magazine, shampoo….anything to distract from the obvious (isn’t that curios?).

    Anyway , my friend (who had helped set us up in the first place), was scanning the items, and I just KNOW she waited to scan the condoms last.

    She grabbed the box (there was also a lineup behind me, did I mention that?), and scanned it multiple times, saying, “I think you’ll need a few more! Want to go grab some extras while I wait?

    “…….” I said

    “Just kidding” she replied. “But the Large, eh? Hot! Lucky you!” she said pointing to my horrified partner.

    When we left the store, for some reason, we decided to RUN to my car, as if the embarrassment were chasing us.

  18. Oh! I have another one!

    This time, from the pharmacist (or to my British friends, the chemist).

    At the time, I was recovering from a broken hip, and when you’re 24, and taking all kinds of meds to deal with the pain and recovery, (and a 1st year of University), that can REALLY mess you up.

    I would get the different meds staggered about over the month, but this one time, which I will call “The Perfect Storm”, I had to get : pain killers, anti-coagulants, anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants, sleep-aids, muscle-relaxant, and an asthma inhaler.

    “Wow!” Said Pharmacist-Phillip. “You’re in TERRIBLE shape”

    I showed him the crutches I had staggered in on, and said “Well…..yeah” But inside, I was screaming FAAAAACCCCKKK YOOOOO!”

    FYI, I’m no longer on all those meds except for one…..I won’t tell you which one, because everyone likes a mystery.

  19. I bought a coffee at Second Cup ( a Canadian Starbucks clone) and asked for it to be put in my travel mug. The cashier turned to her coworker and said, “One large coffee, in this Starbucks cup.”

    It was really snarky and rude. Excuse ME for getting a Starbucks cup for Christmas and having the nerve to use it elsewhere.

    This was about five years ago and it still makes me angry. It was shitty coffee, too.

  20. This new trend is highly disturbing, and here’s why. I believe in polite social fictions, and one very important social fiction comes into play when you buy a personal item at a retail store, drugstore or supermarket.

    You are supposed to act cool about what you’re buying, and in return, the cashier is supposed to act as if there is not a single thing odd about you purchasing a toilet plunger and five packages of Twinkies at eleven p.m. on a Tuesday evening.

    When they start commenting on your purchases, it upsets the balance, forcing you to worry about what the rest of the world thinks about what you’re buying. When I worked in retail at a bookseller, maintaining this social fiction was very important to me. If you wanted to come up and purchase the latest Oprah’s Book Club recommendation alongside some hardcore porno magazines, that was your right, and I was not going to giggle at you. Now supermarket cashiers are not only observing what you buy, but drawing conclusions from it and sharing them with you? This must be stopped!

  21. @Tim3P0: Oh gods, that was awful. You’re right – what can you say? I would have probably been snarky, if I wasn’t too taken aback. “Thanks for the visual, we will think of you and your gallbladder this evening when we eat it.”

  22. I feel socially awkward towards anyone behind a register, unless I know them personally, so I usually keep conversation to a minimum. However there have been times when a cashier is visibly tired or depressed and I’ll make some facetious comment about the establishment, like “I’m sure this is what you love to do with your Saturday afternoon!” They’ll usually laugh and sarcastically agree, “Oh totally, I dream about this place.”

    It eases the tension, and reminds the cashier that at least some of the people they’re serving sympathize.

  23. What about the stores that keep track of your purchases? To be able to purchase items at sale price where I grocery shop you need to use their store card by which they track all your purchases.

  24. @JOHNEA13: There was a SETI podcast about that. The podcast said that stores are starting to track your purchases so they can then target sales and coupons to you, also they can tell if your a profitable customer who buys items with high markups (processed foods, name brand items) or the low profitable customer type who buys raw ingredients and store brand. The high profit type customers they make sure are happy, have lots of coupons and may even get promotional items. While with the low profit types they really don’t care about.

  25. Good for you, MathMike! Some people don’t realize that the world is not their phone booth…

    I do make a point of thanking service people when they are helping me on holidays. I tell them that I’ve worked many holidays in my career and I know how hard it is. I’ve made a few friends that way.

    @skepticalhippie: I second that COTW!

    When I still worked for United Express (as a regional airline slave for United Airlines), we were not only told to “make conversation,” which is hard for may people to do, but they wanted us to use people’s first names.

    I flatly refused and got written up for it. I was raised in a generation where no one used a first name in a service context unless the person had given us their permission. I thought that taking that liberty with a stranger was extremely rude and still do.

    I’m of two minds about tracking my purchases. I get some good coupon deals that way, but I want to know who else they are allowing to access my data. It does bother me that bookstores (as one example) are doing this, as it brings some civil liberties questions to mind. Especially since the Bush era “Total Information Awareness” bullshit came out.

  26. When I worked at Walgreens in the photo lab, I’d frequently get guys coming to me to buy their condoms, probably because they’d rather buy them from a 20-something guy with a semi-technical job than from one of the teenagers or seniors at the front checkout.

    I’d just bag them and try not to smile.

  27. I worked at grocery stores all through high school. I know what a shit job it is so I cut the boor bastards a lot of slack.

    When I buy pads for my daughter the female cashregister jockies always make a point of telling me what a great dad I am.

    They also tell me how much the love my deep voice and how it gives them the “shivers”. That one makes me a little uncomfertable. At least they don’t say it makes them wet.

  28. I once did a midnight run to Walmart for condoms, tampons, clothes hangers, and chocolate. Really I just needed the tampons, but I randomly remembered I needed the other things. Boy I got a weird look at check out. No ma’am, I promise I’m not about to go give myself an abortion.

  29. My first job was in a supermarket. One day, a man came in and bought, I shit you not, something like 10 – 15 enema kits. I said Not. A. Word… until I was on break with my co-workers! We all thought “what the hell could THAT be about?” And the guy had the most sheepish look on his face. Poor guy… maybe?

  30. Anyone else remember the Bloom Country comic where Opus is being mercilessly harangued by the guy at the checkout counter? He comments on the mouthwash, Odor eaters, and finally…. “Hey Gelbart! How much for the jumbo size Preparation H?” Then the punchline: Steve Dallas sent poor Opus in to buy a few things for him.

  31. Mine is both embarrassing and rude, but it was very funny, and it was the drunk guy behind me who said it instead of the cashier..

    For reasons too boring to explain, I had to buy two huge packs of toilet paper. Standing in line with nothing but that on the belt, the drunk guy behind me looks at it for a second and then says (quite loudly), “Dude, you must have to take one serious shit!”

  32. About a month ago I had just made this amazing avocado and blue cheese dip (Nigella Lawson’s Roquamole if anyone is interested). It didn’t go well with the chips I had bought, but I wagered it would go AWESOME with some carrots.

    At the store, I picked up a 2kg bag of carrots, and then remembering that I was out, some lube.

    I didn’t figure out why the cashier had such a big grin on his face until a couple of hours after I got home.

    He’s been grinning at me ever since.

  33. I am horrified by some of the stories being told here. And someone said the check-out clerks in some establishments are encouraged to make these kinds of small talk? Colour me double horrified. Polite small talk at the check-out counter should be restricted to the weather. If I ever caught my cashiers making the kinds of inappropriate comments I’ve read about here I’d be having a long serious talk with them about it.

  34. @Pinkbunny:

    Similarly, one night I went into Walgreens, bought the largest pack of the heaviest absorbency pads they had and a pregnancy test. The check out lady then was offering me discounts on nail polish and some kinds of other offers.

    Not that I normally expect cashiers to pay much attention to my purchases, but those are generally two items NOT purchased at the same time… and cannot be purchased at the same time for any reason that would inspire one to also buy impulse nail polish… or discuss the weather. I just wanted to go home, get there as quickly as humanly (fuck legally) possible and make sure that while I was gushing blood out of lady hole by the pint, I wasn’t also pregnant. The price of Cadbury Cream Eggs was really not of any concern to me.

  35. I worked third shift and did most of my grocery shopping right as the store opened at 7am. I was purchasing a bottle of Gentleman’s Jack and some random groceries for my roommate (Bacon and Eggs). The cashier look at the Bacon, the Eggs, The Whiskey and then looked at me and asked, “Early start?”.
    I just stared back and proudly stated “Breakfast of Champions!”. Those were the only words I muttered the entire time.
    He didn’t need to know the details, so I gave him something to chew on.

  36. One night I went out for beer after the kids were in bed. I decided to get a tube of cookie dough as well because, well, it’s yummy. Damned if the checker didn’t have us pegged…..he looked at my purchase of cookie dough and beer, then looked at the time and said “You’d better hurry up. Otherwise you’ll miss the start of Dr. Who.”

  37. I was on the way home from work, swung into the local Walgreens (7 area locations to choose from, I chose the one a tenth of mile from me as opposed to the one a quarter mile away). I was picking up a weight loss product. On the package, clear as day, it says LOSE WEIGHT. The clerk scans the product and follows by saying, “Would you like a Hershey Bar? They are 3 for a $1!”

  38. I can’t actually recall anything said to me by the cashier that made me want to say “no shit” to them.

    However, having been on the other side of the counter, I’d give customers hell at the gas station I was working at, especially if they came in regularly. Occasionally we’d get a customer who wasn’t shy of buying condoms and I’d usually just joke “something for the weekend?” And for certain customers that I personally knew for when they’d buy porn “so that’s what you’re doing at home, eh? Well, we’ve been keeping a record here at the store and I must say, you have strange tastes.”

  39. One time when I was working behind the counter at the return counter at the supermarket, a woman came up to return some sort of vaginal cream. The woman who was doing the transaction was rather nice to the woman until she left and my co-worker started freaking out and showed the rest of us that the box was opened and some of the product was used. She pushed it into the garbage as fast as she could and told any of the employees that came by for the rest of the day.

    From the other side, the only thing that comes close is when I was stocking up our candy drawer and the woman at the store said something to the effect of “Going on a candy binge, huh?” I was rather offended that she thought I would buy five large bags of candy for a binge.

  40. The only time that springs to mind is when I was buying my textbooks for the first semester of third year. Among them: the Symposium, Nichomachean Ethics, Meditations on First Philosophy, the Monadology, On Utilitarianism, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and a compilation called Ethics and the Environment.
    The clerk said, “Are you in philosophy?”
    Apart from being a “no shit, Sherlock” moment, every bloody student at the university was buying texts that week – was he planning on asking every single one of them about their major?

  41. Has anyone tried the poor white trash game? That’s where you’re buying a trolley full of alcohol for a party and you throw some nappies on top. At the checkout, when you’re told the price, think about it and then give the nappies back. Can’t do it here, we’re not enlightened enough to sell alcohol in supermarkets.

  42. I don’t recall any cashiers ever making that kind of comments to us at checkout…. though we’re friends with one of the cashiers at the grocery store and tend to pick his lane if possible and talk to him, and a lot of the baggers are kids I went to school with.

  43. Hey, as a cashier, I get some great recipes by asking people about what they’re buying.

    And, there are a lot of people who will actually engage in real conversation, if you start it with a cheesy question like that. You can get some really good discussions, or invited to parties. I’ve been hit on a few times, even.

  44. The local supermarket has some rather obvious anti-theft sensors at each exit. So far the only items I have found that are actually tagged are the condoms. Of course the cashiers never deactivate the tags so every time the alarm goes off no one ever races to catch the “thief” – they just look up and smile!

  45. I love the small talk that occurs at the check out line. I am in customer service and if I go into a store and the clerk just looks at me and makes no attempt to even ask me how I am or what I am shopping for I most likely will not return to that store.

    As a customer service associate I have seen where the small talk can go really, really wrong!

    I work in the men’s department and there is an older lady who works in our suit department. A man and his wife were in my store shopping for a suit (I believe for a funeral) he realized that he needed new underwear as well. So he ran over and picked up a package of bikini briefs and the sales associate realizes that they have no fly. As she is ringing them up she looks at the package and looks at him and says, “How in the world do you go to the bathroom? These have no fly!”

    The customers wife and I looked at each other in shock mortified by the question just posed. The customer apparently took it in stride and gave us a play by play of how he accomplishes the task.

  46. About a year ago, I went to the store to buy supplies for the elaborate brownies we were serving as dessert that evening.

    While I was there, I realized that the aquarium really needed to be cleaned before people came over and I was out of rubber gloves.

    It wasn’t until I got to the register and saw the look on the cashier’s face that I realized what my basket contained: rubber gloves, whipped cream and 12 cans of chocolate sauce.

  47. I shave my head to conceal the fact that I’m bald. On more than one occasion I have been asked if I was a cancer survivor. I don’t get that one.

    I also fix Macs professionally and frequently I have an Apple logo t-shirt or hat on when working. I went into a Subway recently and the sandwich guy said “I hate Apple.” After glowering for a second, just to let him know the depth of my contempt for people who try to pick that fight I said “I don’t care. Make my sandwich.”

  48. I returned 9 toasters to Walmart once. (Wedding party joke run amok.) They thought it was hysterical. At one point they called the manager over. I thought I was violating store policy in some obscure way, but it turns out they just wanted to show her the stack-o-toasters.

    Generally I’m the one saying the weird things. My stand-by reply to the “Stamps or ice” question is “I can’t think of anyone I want to mail ice to.”

    About a month ago I was buying garlic, Parmesan cheese, Vaseline and a few other things. The checker held up the bag of garlic to count. I said “It’s 6 heads. I’m making a sauce.” He nodded and then scanned the Vaseline. I added, “The hard part is to keep the Vaseline from separating.” That earned me a smile.

  49. I really dislike the nosy/idle chit chat made by store clerks. I overcome my annoyance by playing the “Match the Enthusiasm” game. A super perky clerk gets the super perky treatment. If the grocer is gloomy and tried, your mirror the attitude right back at them.

  50. I don’t mind it when cashiers comment about my purchases. They’re always friendly about it and I think it’s nice. I remember when I was a teenager and bought condoms for the first time. I used to be so embarrassed by it. The cashier at the pharmacy was an old lady, and I was expecting a stern glare. I guess she sensed my discomfort, and she just smiled politely and treated it like any other product. She even told me to have a nice day and just didn’t make a big deal of it.

    Now I buy condoms at Costco, along with applesauce, canned soup, and shampoo. I’m not longer embarrassed by it, and I buy them in bulk for the same reason I buy anything else in bulk – I like to have a big supply so I just don’t have to worry about running out. So far, I’ve never even had any weird looks about it though.

    The only time I get comments is when I’m buying cat food or litter. Cashiers always want to know about my cat. Maybe I should start carrying a picture.

  51. I once had a cashier in a bookshop be very cheery and friendly with me until she got to the book at the bottom of the pile of three books I was buying – “God Is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens – at which point her whole demeanour changed, and she couldn’t even be bothered telling me how much I had to pay and just pointed to the display on the register. Despite me holding my hand out for my change, she slammed it down on the counter.

    Fortunately the manager saw this and apologised to me on my way out, giving me a £10 gift voucher. The woman still works at the shop though.

  52. Daughter reminded me about a 2am run to the 24 hour Wal Mart. Husband was sick and needed medicine and heck the daughter was so that we could both get killed in the parking lot so late at night.

    The person in front of us was a very young man buying 6 SpoungeBobSquarepants ties, and 10 packs of Altoids.

    No one said a thing.

    After he left the check out person said “if I were you two I’d wait a bit before going out to the parking lot”. She even offered to have security escort us.

    I can see cold medicine at 2am. But…

  53. Hi there!

    I used to work in a video store where they sold some pretty raunchy hardcore x-rated videos, in addition to standard Hollywood fare and children’s movies. After working there for a few weeks, I really stopped paying attention to what people were buying. (as long as they were over the age required to make that purchase)

    We had one couple that would come into the store regularly, an adorable, clean-cut, sweet young couple who looked like they’d walked off of a Norman Rockwell print. They’d walk in, holding hands and smiling sweetly to each other as they’d sashay right into the Adult Room and rent a few truly hardcore porno films.

    I never noticed how automatic my casual: “Have a good night” had become until they both grinned at me cheerfully and said: “We WILL!” before bouncing out of the store hand-in-hand.

  54. I haven’t had anyone ever say anything rude to me, but it was pretty fun when I was going home with two friends and we bought condoms, lube and whipped cream. The clerk seemed impressed.
    I work in a gaming store, and by and large our clientele are relaxed and easygoing. I make small talk sometimes (our debit machine is -really- slow), but if the customer doesn’t seem interested, I drop it. Other times I have long, involved and interesting conversations. I usually talk about the game they’re buying, or something related. I try not to be rude, I hope I haven’t offended anyone.

  55. I used to work as a checker in Walmart and the most interesting thing anyone ever purchased was 10 tins of cat food and a box of condoms. Any purchase can be livened up with a box of condoms.

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