“Attention grocery shoppers!”

“We have a special going on in our natural foods aisle, right now!  You can get your specialty questions answered by our very own over-educated scientist-grocery stocker!  That’s right, weekends and evenings only, over in our natural foods aisle!  And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Oh, boy.

It’s one thing to be helping someone find the curious location where the grocery manager decided to stock the barley.  No, not with the rice and beans — that’d be too easy; it’s with the bouillon.

And it’s another thing — but I get ahead of myself.  (Alas, when I do that I’m likely to trip over my own feet and sprain an ankle, but that’s hypermobility for you).

One evening, every other row of fluorescent lights was off, as was the canned music.  Apparently they were filming a commercial or some advertising stills. Whatever, we had a couple hours of bliss.  Why can’t the store be so calm and pleasant all the time?  Because the people who study customer behavior say that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe the grocery industry just thinks that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe old research suggested such.  Or maybe stores are following some historical misinterpretation of behavioral research. Hell if I know.  As for me, the canned music just adds unnecessary background noise, aggravating my Auditory Processing Disorder.  Did someone just page Manager to the Customer Service Desk or Andrea to the Customer Service Desk?  Did my boss just page me to dial 14 or aisle 14?  “Oops, sorry, mis-heard you with all the background noise,” I apologise to an older gentleman, as I lead him away from the [recycled paper] brown plates to the bran flakes.

Sometimes a customer will ask for something not on the shelf, so I helpfully zip down to the back room to see if there’s any in backstock. Usually, there isn’t, because by definition, backstock is the overflow that won’t fit on the shelves.  Alas, if I’m in a distracted mood, I will forget to make a mental note of what the customer is wearing, and upon my return, will have that panicked second when I realise that they have moved onto another aisle, and I am supposed to find them.  Oh, the perils of being faceblind: I can’t remember people!  Were they alone, or with another adult, or children?  Did they have a large or small cart?  Do I have any idea of whether they were male, female, or some overbundled or indeterminately-coiffed gender?  Were they were pink- or brown-skinned?  Hat? Fancy purse?  Team jacket?  Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?

My other problem of course, is that I actually answer the questions about the things we sell.  Some day, someone is going to get annoyed.

Once in a while I stock groceries over in the natural foods section.  It’s pretty much like stocking groceries over in the unnatural foods section, except that omitting artificial coloring makes food more expensive.  That and the aisles are narrower, so I have to park the flatbed down at the ends of the aisles and lug more cases.  One day I forgot my knee pads, and realised with a heavy note of irony that stocking all the arthritis treatments was making my knees ache.

“Um, where do you sell the sugar?”

“The sugar?” I repeat, buying a moment’s time while I re-engage my customer-conversation scripts, and activate my mental map of the store.

“Yes, I want the sugar without any chemicals.”

Omigod.  Aside from bottled water, the bags of sugar are probably one of the purest chemical resources in the entire store.

“But sugar is just sucrose; it doesn’t have any added chemicals,”  I manage to shut my mouth before going onto explain that sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose.  Nobody cares … “Here are our organically-grown sugars on this shelf.  And we also have sucanat and turbinado, if you’d like.”  (These latter two are less-processed forms of cane sugar; they have varying amounts of tasty molasses impurities that also make them brown.)

Honestly, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.    You already know what H2O is.  Sucrose is C12H22O11 – there are 12 Carbon molecules, 22 Hydrogen molecules and 11 Oxygen molecules.  Of course, just knowing how many atoms of each element isn’t enough – other sugars such as lactose and maltose also have the same formula.  The differences are in how those atoms are arranged.

And if you’re shopping for plant fertilizer, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate, and they’re all NO3-. The plant doesn’t care where the molecules came from, nor can it tell the difference if the nitrate came from an organic (naturally-derived) source or an artificially-manufactured source.  That said, organic fertilizers are more expensive and less concentrated, but are less likely to result in a build-up of salts atop the potting soil.

But please, don’t ask me for anything “chemical-free”; the only thing that is “chemical free” is an absolute vacuum.

I retrieve random things left on the shelves, where someone has left a box of Big Name mac & cheese amongst the organic mac & cheese, a shopping list, a wee sample cup given out by the guy flogging new flavors of hummus, and a box of Airborne.

“What does that do?” asks the other grocery stocker, gesturing at the colorful box that proclaimed, “Created by a school teacher!”

“Nothing.  There’s no research evidence to support it at all.  A grade-school teacher is not the same thing as a compounding pharmacologist.”  Were I in charge of ordering, we wouldn’t waste shelf space for nonsense like that, or for things like Bragg vinegar that is supposed to “help remove body sludge toxins”.  Body sludge toxins, what nonsense!  (I suppose it’d help the lime buildup in my sink drain.)

“Excuse me, where are your all-natural gummy candies?”

Because you know, gummy candies are so natural. Wow, I’d love to have a shrub that produced gummies, especially the cherry and liquorice sorts.  Does the soil have to be aerated by gummy worms?  I hope it’s not thorny …  “They’re over here, on the top shelf.  Is there anything else for which you’re looking?”

“Attention grocery shoppers!  Are you looking for holiday candy and merchandise?  You can find it all over in aisle 14, where we have a wide selection of holiday candies in Fun Sizes, all your same favorites as the last holiday, but wrapped in this holiday’s color themes!  Don’t forget to get some holiday-themed merchandise for your loved ones, and holiday-themed party goods as well. And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”


  1. 14 September 2014 at 13:25

    […] Attention Grocery Shoppers! […]

  2. 26 August 2012 at 16:51

    […] Attention Grocery Shoppers! […]

  3. Mados said,

    11 February 2012 at 10:16

    (It should say ‘know’ in above comment right before ‘precisely’)

  4. Mados said,

    11 February 2012 at 10:14

    I don’t precisely why you as a scientist work in a grocery store but I love to read these hilarious pieces of grocery store consumer behaviour analysis. Fun and insightful and thorough!

    • andrea said,

      11 February 2012 at 16:54

      I work as a high school special education para, stock groceries, sometimes teach college classes, and if I weren’t working so many 12-13 hour days I would surely be spending more time looking for a better job. It’s teh economy — and a bunch of other, domestic factors.

      But my jobs are rarely dull!

      • Mados said,

        12 February 2012 at 8:23

        That is an impressive amount of work! Even without any kind of disabilities.

        Anyway… I know it is not the point, but it is great that there are these fine ‘sociological snapshots’ coming out of it! I don’t think many scientist work in grocery stores and blog about it!

  5. Penny said,

    2 February 2010 at 4:34

    The chemical-free sugar is right next to those expensive natural medications with absolutely no side effects. ;)

  6. 1 February 2010 at 3:38

    […] 1 February 2010 at 3:26 (Critical Thinking, Pain, Science) This is a continuation on my previous post, “Attention, grocery shoppers!” […]

  7. Rosie said,

    30 January 2010 at 3:44


    Just found your blog and love it! I believe I have APD too. Haven’t been tested yet because I am long out of school and would have to pay for it myself. I am also a chemist and the whole “chemical free” and “natural” thing drives me crazy as well. As one of my chemistry professors put it “syphilis is natural, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

  8. kathleen said,

    30 January 2010 at 3:39

    I like candy. I do not understand what is so “fun” about “funsize” candy. If you know the answer I would be much obliged. Perhaps I just need to find the “hilareous size” snickers bars…

    • andrea said,

      31 January 2010 at 20:45

      ROFL Kathleen, I too would love some “hilarious size” Snickers bars! What’s so “fun” about “fun” size candies? I suppose it’s related to the idea that getting lots of little candies at Halloween is fun. That and the fact that “dinky” size wouldn’t sell so well…

  9. YZ1 said,

    28 January 2010 at 21:11

    “Natural is sometimes cheaper”

    I thought of Andrea today. I was grocery shopping and picked up 4 pounds of sugar for $2.35, just regular generic granulated white sugar.

    A few aisles later I was in the “ethnic” section and found a 4 pound bag of mexican “cane” sugar for $2.19. Non bleached, granulated cane sugar.. The bag stated “Produced from the crystallization of unrefined fresh cane juice”. (Zulka)

    That’s right, less processed and cheaper… And, guess what….

    I would not have even noticed if it were’nt for the 5 bags of regular sugar left abandoned on the shelf next to them. Well, when I left the aisle, there were 6……..

  10. Justthisguy said,

    25 January 2010 at 0:06

    P.s. I gave up (mostly) putting sugar in my coffee years and years ago. When I am tempted, and the coffee shop has it, I always go for the turbinado. Who knows, it might still have some of the micro-nutrients in it.

    Looks like Dewey and Gramsci have completed the dumbing-down of the populace of our once-great country, whose people loved learning and thought for themselves. There is hope of a backlash and recovery in the Massachusetts Senate election, though.

  11. Justthisguy said,

    24 January 2010 at 23:59

    “Chemical-Free Sugar”? What that doodah said causes me brain pain; that is, cognitive dissonance. All I can do is (just by myself, nobody else here but my kitty) yell in my best Eric Cartman voice: “Hippihs!”

    • Peter B said,

      25 January 2010 at 0:04

      It was CARBON free sugar. I.e. good for (or not bad for) global warming.

  12. andrea said,

    24 January 2010 at 20:37


    What is ‘surface dyslexia’ ?


    • David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. said,

      24 January 2010 at 22:38

      It’s a type of dyslexia that is linked to the ability to gain access to meanings of textual material… rather than a phonological type of dyslexia (which is linked to difficulties in auditory processing). Essentially, then, a marked difficulty in reading for meaning – either at the word level or at the sentence level and higher.

  13. andrea said,

    24 January 2010 at 20:36

    Anna & Peter:

    My next post will be on the various meanings of ‘organic’, ‘natural’ and so on. The former is vary contextual.


  14. lookingformyself said,

    24 January 2010 at 19:27

    Last night an employee in a book store walked up to me and said, “The 2009 version is not in stock.” What 2009 version?? I looked at the employee and couldn’t find anything in the way of a marker of someone I’d seen before. I stepped back to take a breath and try to figure out why this woman was looking right at me. The woman she was looking for was sitting on the floor with a little boy a few feet from me. Apparently the employee and I shared the same problem. If I hadn’t been so startled I might have spoken to her about it.

  15. Peter B said,

    24 January 2010 at 17:24

    I’ve been looking for it again but I swear I saw “Zero Carbon Sugar” at my local Big Chain Supermarket.

    I have a degree in chemistry. Every time I see organic equals natural I cringe. How can a product which is over 90% water be organic? Organic celery gimmy a break! Any day now I expect to see organic water.

    Next thing you know other words will be redefined. Prevailing: what exists or is encountered generally at a particular time. As in “prevailing wage.”

  16. 24 January 2010 at 14:54

    If I ask someone to check the back for me (which I only do if it’s really important and I think there might be a chance) I stay in my exact same location until they come back!

    I laughed several times at what some people ask.

    We just found out that my older son (the non-autistic one) has Auditory Processing Disorder along with Surface Dyslexia. It’s been the start of an interesting journey for him. Your insight is helpful.

  17. Anna said,

    24 January 2010 at 6:23

    “Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?”


    And while the idea of a gummi bush made be LOL IRL, there IS a real difference between gummi brands. Kosher ones are vegetarian (sea weed) & others use animal gelatin. I dunno what the “natural” one is. Probably just branding.

    Actually, you should write a post on the natural versus chemical branding nonsense we have going on. You touched on it (duh) but a dissection of advertisement and general science knowledge would be fantastic.

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