For many of you, the grocery store is a home away from home.
Sometimes that home is more work than it's worth. At other times, it's a cozy place where every nook and cranny is familiar and inviting. It's necessary, exasperating and challenging. Occasionally, even fun.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a column about how I shop and invited readers to tell me about their strategies. More than 100 of you offered your battle plans, right down to sending standardized computer shopping lists and one hand-drawn diagram of shopping patterns. (See accompanying diagram from Jeff Corydon of Tampa.) There were plenty of peccadillos among the aisles and at the checkout. You hate it when your store reorganizes.
Please don't worry about my purse anymore. I wrote that I left it in the child seat, watched only by my often wandering eye. Rena K. Myles of Hudson was one of many people who gently admonished me for that.
"If your purse has handles, just slip the child safety belt through one of them. Easy and safe," wrote Rena.
Done. I've belted in my bag every time I've shopped since I wrote the column. Though I do have to remember to zip the purse so my wallet isn't exposed. (Maybe it's me, and not the purse, that needs a keeper.)
Lucy Fuchs of Brandon is a woman after my own heart. When she gets the ice cream home, she pops the top and takes a few bites of the softened sweetness. "I always think that it is best then. In fact, I call it 'virgin ice cream,' much to the amusement of my family and friends."
Lucy, I often skim the spoon over the melted-at-the-edges ice cream, too. I learned that from my mother.
Your letters have given me ideas for upcoming stories. I am especially intrigued by couples who shop together, and think it might be worthwhile to go through grocery bagging training. The grocery chains should take heed of the number of you who complained about having a tough time lifting overstuffed cloth bags. No one wants to save the planet at the risk of throwing their back out.
Cheers to Kathy and Rocco Capabianco of Palm Harbor who take pleasure in using their Trader Joe's recycle bags when they shop at Tampa Bay stores. They want to raise the profile of the popular specialty store in hopes that the chain may someday open an outlet in Florida. I am in awe of those of you who bring insulated bags to keep cold and frozen items in good shape.
Patrick Bentley of Lecanto should get a trophy inscribed "World's Most Considerate Shopper." He spends much of his time in the store trying to stay out of the way of other customers. Besides making room for people at the deli, bakery and seafood counters by stowing his cart away from traffic, he keeps to one side of the aisles so others can pass easily. He also rolls empty carts into the store to help employees. What a nice guy, wouldn't you agree?
Today, I am hitting the highlights of your missives. In general, you are listmakers and coupon users who know the layout of your regular store. Many of you are menu planners, too.
And, oh, how you love the buy-one-get-one-free deals. On the top of your favorites lists: mayonnaise, chips, olive oil, ice cream and pasta, pasta, pasta. Many of you wrote that you only buy BOGOs that you actually use. Nobody volunteered that he or she was a candidate for a hoarding reality show.
About those lists
Experts shop with lists. Some veer from the plan when a good deal arises, but many of you stick to your guns no matter the come-hither prices on the Velveeta. Diana Bloom of Tampa has a Word document list but never leaves home without her Weight Watchers points calculator in case something catches her eye.
Here are some of the ways you handle your shopping list:
• "I strike through items on the list as I get them and I try not to add anything not on the list. I also have started using hash marks from each dollar in the cart (rounding, of course) and bundle hashes in $5 increments to track my spending." — Pat Smoot, St. Petersburg
• "Every week I read the ads and cut out coupons and make a list. Most of the time I forget the list but it seems to help that I wrote it down. Sometimes, I stand in the middle of the aisle saying 'breakfast, lunch, dinner, cleaning supplies' and it all comes back." — Frances Sampey Deak, St. Petersburg
• "My daughter has a great system for her list: She folds a letter-sized blank paper in quadrants. Then she groups her grocery items in four lists — frozen, fresh produce, meat-dairy, and canned/non-refrigerated items plus household." — Roberta Nelson, Bradenton
• "We created a customized grocery list for Publix, where we usually shop. The list was created using Excel on my computer, so now I just have to print up copies and keep them on top of refrigerator. Then one is always on the front of the fridge with a magnet holding it there. . . . The list goes in order of the store: bakery, deli, produce, etc." — Mary Pascoe, Tarpon Springs
• "My husband and I do almost all our grocery shopping together, and he was particularly bothered by the randomness of my grocery list. So, for our anniversary a couple of years ago, he bought me a SmartShopper electronic grocery list. It has a magnet so it attaches to the refrigerator and we speak into it during the week to add items to our grocery list. When it comes time to visit the store, I press print and out prints a grocery list grouped by department." — Gwen Johnston, Holiday winter resident from Canada
Negotiating the aisles
Some of you have battle plans that would have shamed Gen. Patton. You shared intricate numbering/marking systems on your lists that let you know what aisles you need to negotiate. You have time management systems based on the line at the deli. Four people ahead of you? That's enough time to pick up bakery items and some produce nearby, all the while keeping an ear out for your number. Eight people ahead of you? You'll come back later.
Here are some ways you tackle the aisles:
• "I typically go in the store with a list of items categorized by aisle, even listed in order by the route I take down the aisle. For example, yogurt and Gatorade, if needed, are likely to be the first items on the list." — LaSonja Smith, Tampa
• "If I can't find something, I'll ask a store worker. Why waste time wandering up and down aisles?" — Pam Farnsworth, South Pasadena
• "My husband will randomly wander around the store going in circles looking for ideas on his 'mental list.' It's obvious who does the majority of the shopping in our house. It drives me so crazy that I vow to only go to the store together in an absolute emergency (like we're out of beer or something)." — Michelle Boone, Valrico
• "My store was renovated a few years ago. When the layout was changed, I took a notepad and made my own list of what was on each aisle that I tended to buy. Now, when I'm creating my weekly shopping list, I use that numbered list to put the purchases I need in order, noting the aisle number on each week's list. It saves me from having to go up and down every aisle and/or be tempted to buy things I don't really need. A great time saver!" — Sue Moore, Clearwater
• "I always go to the aisle farthest to the right and begin there. If I am at the Publix closest to my home (Tri-City Plaza), that means I begin with dairy. If I'm at the Publix closest to my daughter's school (Highland and Belleair), that means I begin with the deli." — Tara Barbieri, Largo
• "My wife and I have a unique way of grocery shopping. We hate to go shop for groceries so much we now split the store in half and take two carts. She takes one cart toward the produce and works her way toward the middle. I start with the meat in the deli area first (I know, it's on the same side of the store but meat's more my thing, I guess) and then hit the bread area, the dairy, then frozen foods and then work my way inward. We usually meet in the middle at the cereal and coffee aisle." — Ben M. Fry, Dunedin, who gets the shopping done with wife Diana Drake-Fry in about 45 minutes
I've just touched the tip of our obsession with the grocery store. Look for more stories in the coming months. And in the meantime, I am game to hear more about how you shop. I'd love to hear from store employees, too.
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or share your tales by mail at Janet K. Keeler, Taste, St. Petersburg Times, 490 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.