Monday, April 16, 2012

a tisket, a tasket, what's in my grocery basket ...

I like grocery shopping. It’s not a chore that I dread, like vacuuming or rotating clothes with the change of seasons. Actually, I don’t dread those chores either. I suppose that if I owned my own house I would dread chores like cleaning out the gutters, or painting the eaves, but I am only guessing since those tasks never appear on my “to do” list.

Grocery shopping is always on my “to do” list and I find it to be a fun chore. I like because it involves thinking, planning and strategy. It requires skill: planning the meals to eat for the week, creating a list of what is needed and wanted, a plan for where to get all the goodies, and a definite sense for detail and organization. It’s a perfect project for me.

Grocery shopping in New York City is different from other places I have lived, even San Francisco. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a car. When I lived in San Francisco, I lived three blocks from a Cala Foods, but drove my Ford Escort there and back to stock my fridge and pantry with necessities. I still planned what I would eat, but since I was able to haul more, I bought more.

When I lived in Irvine, grocery-shopping day meant going to Albertson’s, along with Lowes, Home Depot, Walgreens, and Ikea and any other store that my “at the time” boyfriend saw a manic need to get to. The car was filled to the brim with he and I, a dog, wood, plants, potting soil, pots, ready-to-assemble (and ready-to-annoy) furniture, toilet paper and paper towels, huge jugs of laundry detergent, and many grocery bags filled with everything you could possible imagine. You’d have thought we were preparing for the apocalypse.

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In my early twenties, when I first lived alone, I grocery shopped off the belief that if a cupboard was bare and the fridge was empty, it needed to be filled. No empty space was allowed, otherwise it symbolized that I could not afford to have full cupboards or a full fridge. Being able to fill them symbolized that I had achieved a level of success in life. “Being able” meant that my fridge and cupboards lived outside my means.

My first task on shopping day was “the big clean out.” I would throw out old leftovers, dried out rice and days old stir-fry, pasta sauce spotted with mold, cheese with green film and hair, lettuce in its own distinct and pungent brown water, smooshy tomatoes, and anything else that had passed its prime. I would toss almost empty packages of frozen peas covered in ice and shriveled to pebbles, and clear out sausages, ground beef, or chicken breasts encased in an iceberg that concealed the whitish glow of “freezer burn”.

Once complete, I would focus on what was needed to stock my fridge and freezer. More rice, more veggies for this week’s stir-fry, different cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, frozen peas, ground beef, chicken, and breakfast meats; anything and everything in order to fill up the drawers and shelves, only to repeat the big clean out process again two weeks later.

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Now that I am older, I tend to control my purchasing power and stick to what I need based on … well … need. Not the need to fill the fridge, but the need to create well-balanced meals.

In New York City, it is easier to “right size” the grocery shopping experience. First, the task is about buying food to sustain myself for one week. Sometimes, I shop daily for what I will eat that night, but this can become burdensome to do each day.

Typically, “Shopping Day” happens on Sundays at my regular grocery store, West Side Market, early and before it gets too crazy. I put laundry in the washer and then head out to the grocery store. Grocery stores in NYC are small and well stocked, with items housed pretty much to the ceiling. They do not always carry every brand and sometimes I have to go to various places to get exactly what I want. For example, West Side Market never has decent artichokes. I go elsewhere to get those. I never buy paper towels or TP at the grocery store. I buy those items at the Duane Reade, RiteAid, or CVS.

Everyplace in New York City delivers. If I am stocking up, or preparing for a dinner party, or buying more than I can carry (or heavy things like flour, sugar, bottles of juice, etc.), I will have those delivered. It’s a nice treat to fill a cart and leave empty handed. At home, the doorbell rings and Ta Da! It’s all being placed on the kitchen counter. A tip, a thank you, and the chore is d-o-n-e done.

I love strolling through a grocery store when it is not crammed like a subway car. I like to test the ripeness of fruit, debate a change in brands due to sodium content, calculate the price per ounce, fill up a basket, and act like Joanna in “The Stepford Wives” while helping a little old lady who struggles to grasp a hard to reach item. All while humming along the sixties and seventies tunes that ooze out of the store’s speakers.

I follow a definite path through my grocery store. It’s based partly on the store’s layout, but mostly on what I need as shown on my meal plan and shopping list. Produce is always first. I spend a lot of time touching, smelling, considering, and sometimes rethinking my meal plan depending on the state of produce. This is usually where I veer “off list” and add veggies, fruit or herbs that I did not intend buying.

Then I move in this order: cheese; bread; cereal (where I also veer “off list”); cans, jars, and boxes of things (peanut butter, pickles, oils, pastas, rice, sauces, dressings, stock, etc.); frozen items; dairy and eggs; meats; and then to check out, where I get heavy bottled items like juice, seltzer, etc.

Aren’t you happy to know that? Do you feel complete?

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When I first moved to New York, grocery shopping was a new and exciting adventure. Occasionally, a drive to New Jersey was needed to stock up. Grocery stores there were larger, had every brand conceivable, and were like the stores in the suburbs of California. I loved being in the chip aisle. An entire aisle devoted to every kind and flavor of chip possible. I felt the same way with the cereal aisle: neat, orderly, and colorful boxes, and boxes upon boxes, upon boxes upon boxes. Ahhh! Domestic bliss!

When I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I realized I moved two blocks from a New York grocery institution, Zabar’s. Immediately recognizable by their white bags with orange and black lettering, this should have been THE pinnacle of Upper West Side grocery shopping. I gleefully entered the market and went to the glorious cheese case. I was promptly pushed out of the way by a wrinkled biddy that started to fight me for a hunk of cheese. People pushed, grabbed, bumped into me without apology. It is small, cramped, and excessively pricey. I left and vowed I would never grocery shop there. It’s horrible, institution or not.

There is Citerella, the Saks Fifth Avenue of grocery stores. It’s fancy, upscale, clean, and classy. I put some basics in my basket only to quickly figure out that the six meager items already totaled over $50. I set down the basket and slinked out, hoping no one noticed. I only ever buy their artichokes. They have the best.

Fairway Market (also a New York institution) is a ginormous place compared to my regular market. Along with the store’s immense square footage come immense shopping crowds. The lines for checkout are like queuing up for the Matterhorn at Disneyland. To avoid fighting the crowd, the best time to shop there is late at night, usually after 10:00pm. I rarely go there.

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Sometimes, I order online, but I just don’t like to. It’s too hard. I cannot touch or smell the produce (even though it is typically amazing) and I struggle when it comes to determining sizes that I need. I will order something, and it arrives as a tiny little bottle, when I needed a jug. I think a quarter pound of whatever sounds like a perfect amount, it arrives, and it’s too much or too little. I think about how a pound of rocks and a pound feathers weigh the same, but the volume is very different.

Online grocery shopping also takes me forever to navigate and complete. Click here, choose a brand or item, enter a quantity, go back to shopping, then do it all over again. Click click click click click click click click click click click click. It’s annoying. I find it faster to go to the store and do it myself.

I also spend too much money when I shop online. I am a marketer’s dream and fall into simple traps, like enjoying clear Pepsi, which I did when it came out, or that great online shopping feature where it suggests things that you might be interested in buying. “You might also enjoy…” appears showing items that I didn’t know I wanted or needed, but in that moment I realize I cannot live without whatever is being presented and I click away.

One time, I decided to order from freshdirect. I was clicking away and my cart was filling up. One of the items I needed to order was mayonnaise. I love mayo. Mmmmmmm! Tasty! I found my brand and clicked the bottle of mayo. Low and behold, I was offered a selection of products that I might enjoy based on my mayonnaise selection!

Since I bought Hellman’s Mayonnaise, freshdirect thought I would also like Heinz Ketchup, Crispix Cereal (it’s crispy times two!) and Quilted Northern Bathroom Tissue. Hmmmm … some of my favorite things all bundled together: condiments, cereal, and potty time. I needed toilet paper, actually, so I clicked it and put it in my basket. But, how did it know?

I started wondering about freshdirect’s macros or decision engine. Why did an order of mayo bring up toilet paper? What was it thinking? It’s like saying, “You just bought a pair of shorts. You might also like a bicycle tire pump.” It just does not make sense. Maybe they were considering the full and complete food consumption chain, from a very personal angle. It can always start with mayonnaise, but it will always end up with … well … never mind.

Whatever it may be, I still prefer to grocery shop in a store, on my own, at my own pace, with my own list, on my own time, where the only suggestions that I am subject to succumbing to are those that pop up in my own head. If suddenly, while reaching for mayo, I remember that I need toilet paper, it is because I remember I need toilet paper. That is all.

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