Keeping Our Souls at the Supermarket

I was at the local supermarket—a part of a large chain–this morning. I would prefer to shop at a small “Mom and Pop store” but I don’t feel I have a choice in my small city devastated by rustbelt pull out of major industry as well as by the Wal-Mart effect and sprawl. So, I comfort myself with things like:

• At least the workers are union and paid a fair wage
• At least it’s not the Wal-Mart Supercenter
• At least I know the manager personally
• And besides, I carry my canvas bags with me.

I finished my shopping feeling stress that wasn’t there when I left home. These stresses were not the result of a crowded store. It wasn’t. These stresses were not the result of high prices or not finding what I wanted. The prices were fair and I got the items on my list. No, the stresses I felt today are the result of a conflict between my personal values of creative individuality and stewardship of our planet and corporate values of conformity and efficiency.

Specifically, my frustrations today were:

I tried to use a “Loyal Customer” coupon I was sent. If I spend $60, I am given $6 off my order. When my order was complete, I handed the clerk my coupon. She attempted to scan it and told me that my order was not enough for the coupon. She must have seen the confusion on my face and clarified that the $60 minimum order only includes food items. (Never mind that the only non-food item in my $61.42 order was a fifty cent newspaper. I’m sure there is some bit of fine print that covers this.) Not to be deterred, I ran back for several more pears.

I keep canvas bags in my trunk and carry them into stores to avoid polluting our world with more plastic sacks. I shop at this grocery at least a couple of times a week. And, yet, every single time I come to the store the clerks and baggers attempt to put something in a plastic sack as if there is some secret rule that they must give away at least one sack to every customer. Today, after I ran back for the pears, she placed them in a plastic sack; God forbid she should use one of the many canvas bags I had provided. I said nothing. I didn’t have it in me today and I had already delayed the customer behind me. As I took my cart and headed to the parking lot, I noticed that my newspaper had been placed by itself in a plastic sack. In one last act of defiance I removed my newspaper from the sack and placed it on top of the store’s sack supply.

As I reflect on this event I am reminded of how many of these little things we each encounter each day. Our world, even in my small community, becomes increasingly impersonal. The computerized cash register tells the clerk whether my coupon is good or not regardless of logic. The result is that instead of feeling like a “loyal customer” I feel like I am doing battle. My clerk today probably cringes when she delivers bad news because she never knows when a disgruntled customer will take frustrations out on her. The clerks and baggers find it hard to accommodate my canvas bags because it is not as efficient as the plastic or paper sacks the corporation provides and they don’t know me as a person. So, again I get to the checkout and prepare for battle. The clerk and bagger undoubtedly feel pressured and unhappy about my choice of bags. (On a previous shopping trip, I actually had one bagger say to another bagger: “I hate it when people bring these!”)

So, how can I deal with these little frustrations of life? I could conform (and I do at times) but I don’t want to lose my soul. I could get cranky with the clerks (and I have at times) but I don’t want to destroy their souls. Today, I thanked the clerk for her patience so as not to diminish her and I silently placed the plastic sack from the newspaper back on top of the supply so I didn’t diminish myself.

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