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Super Market Shopping: The Aisles of Exploration

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to invent distractions to spice up some of the boring, repetitive activities of life. Usually, the diversion involves coming up with a contest of some sort because basically I’m a competitive guy, the sort, years ago, who elbowed (gently, of course) his six-year old son on the basketball court. Dumb as many of my latter-day strategies may seem, they keep me alert when I’d prefer not to be.

For example, on the notably unbeautiful daily drive home from school, when I felt particularly tired, I concentrated attention by setting a goal: without doing anything illegal or reckless, I aspired that, at journey’s end, at least 70% of traffic lights I encountered along the way would have been green. Considering complications of city driving, that was never a slam dunk. When I came up short, I was more hopeful the next day because I wanted to avoid beginning a losing streak, the bane of competitors. Unimaginative as it was, the tactic worked.

That contest depended strictly on luck. What evolved as my favorite contest depended primarily on skill and its unlikely arena was any supermarket where I shopped. Many years ago, I scrupulously (actually, unscrupulously] avoided such places. I’d drive Elaine and our kids Gill and Alan to one of these humongous caverns, bid them happy hunting, then slouch, open my book of the moment, and watch as they disappeared into the crowd. When, eventually, they emerged weary from their duties, I greeted them cheerfully and drove home, satisfied at having played a key role in our collective task.

Having delegated such a debilitating activity to others was manifestly unfair, but, in my formative years, having spent much time playing aggressive games in West Philadelphia schoolyards, fairness rarely factored into calculations. Finally, though, I realized I was exploiting my family to do what I didn’t want to do. So, prodded by awakened conscience, I began my own trips, albeit Gill and Alan-less, to avoid urgent pleas to get anything diet-shatteringly sweet.

At first, it was grunt work, done with a distinct feeling of self-sacrifice. Somewhere along the line, though, I recognized the contest-worthiness of these excursions. I began to commit myself to purchasing what we needed in its most nutritious form and at its most reasonable price. There was no skimping or compromising on quality. I simply resisted supermarket strategies to lighten my wallet by shrewdly seducing appetites always ready to be tempted. My unscrupulous adversaries employed alluring aromas wafting around deli and bakery areas and beautifully arranged displays of vegetables at the peak of their freshness.

What previously had been a boring expenditure of time transformed into a game-me against the smooth blandishments of my rival, the establishment. With experience, I became extremely proficient. I comparison shopped, checking ingredients and prices of national brands with those of less expensive store brands. In many instances, the lesser-knowns were preferable. Sometimes, probably because of overstocks, there were one-day sales my sensors were alert to.

My skills became so sharp that if an all-star team of shrewd cart pushers had existed, I’d have been a unanimous selection for first team. That’s fact, not bragging. I sympathized with those fellow shoppers programmed to purchase quickly, therefore heedlessly.

Ironically, when Elaine offered to accompany me on these expeditions, I felt uneasy. She had acquired, in my mind, the dreaded label of “impulse buyer.” In theatrical terms, I memorized my lines: she preferred improvisation. As Shakespeare might have put it, “Such shoppers are dangerous.”

Then, Covid suspended my aisle explorations for two years. I chafed at my exile and invented excuses for returning, but good sense prevailed, and I adapted reluctantly to Insta-Cart.

Early this month, I cautiously reentered the game. I have no idea what the future holds. While the competitive juices haven’t dried up a bit, I’m finding that absence has dulled my skills somewhat. In a way, I’m similar to a quarterback away from the huddle too long. My instinctive responses to good opportunities are slower, more tentative, and require more deliberation. Always impatient, the whip-cracker within demands fast recovery of the old expertise. Still, I’m resolved to be patient as I re-hone my once-wonderous skills.

A particular challenge has been adjusting to price trends. In the past, weekly cost differences were seasonal and relatively insignificant, therefore easy to track. My first week back from the inactive list, I was floored by figures I encountered. Consequences of Covid”s secondary damage, I understand why they’ve skyrocketed. Now, I have to develop a greatly-revised arithmetical standard for decisions about what constitutes a good purchase. I feel like a rookie adjusting to a strange new playing field. Recovering stardom won’t be easy, but I’m resolved to re-claim that status. Once I do, I don’t want to be benched again.


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