Episode at Whole Foods Market

by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

In the context of Canadian grocery shopping, I have discovered that Farm Boy is in the category of superior food products. As for the run-of-the-mill grocery stores, I prefer Sobey’s mainly because its aisles are wide and the imported cheese selection is excellent. From there the trajectory of quality is about the same for Loblaws, Metro and other similar stores.  I exclude from this global account the specialty food stores and “health food” stores where one can sometimes find extraordinary locally-made foodstuffs for example.

On Hilton Head Island the chain of quality for grocery stores starts with Harris Teeter, Publix and Kroger, all very good but “standard” in most respects.  Next in line is Fresh Market which is very similar to Farm Boy, notably high-end produce (and they excel in the fresh fish department and up-scale prepared foods – little things like adding rosemary to their BBQ chickens).  The winner is Whole Foods Market which is to provender what Holt Renfrew is to haberdashery. Its marketing is aimed at the health angle, encouraging people to eat “real” (translation: expensive and unique) food. Although Whole Foods attracts “tree huggers”, “granola crunchers” and people who frequently wear peculiar or unfortunate clothing (and hairdos), there is unquestionably a demographic of well-to-do people whose appearance immediately betrays their alignment with Veblen automobiles and spas.  Whatever the crowd – liberals or rich people – one would expect the same courtesies from either. I am addressing,in particular, grocery shopping protocol, everything from checking before pushing your cart out of an aisle into a main thoroughfare, patiently waiting while someone (who is blocking an aisle) searches for something on the shelf, deferring to anyone waiting at the deli counter ahead of you but who may have overlooked “taking a number”, that sort of thing.

There are, however, two other conventions which commonly arouse consternation – the “8 items or less” checkout and general urbanity affecting standing in line at regular checkouts (such as allowing someone who has only a few items go ahead of you if you have a full cart). The restricted item counter is regularly abused by people who imagine that if there is no one there when they want to check out, then it’s Okay to push through an order of whatever amount.  Of course, it never fails that just as that marauder begins the process of unloading his or her cart, you arrive with your three items. Normally you would wait tolerantly (though perhaps steaming visibly). Seldom does one presume to make a Citizen’s Arrest (even if sorely tempted).  Patience, patience!

Today when I went to Whole Foods to collect Sumo oranges (my latest rave product), blackberries, yoghurt and Clean Well natural hand sanitizer, an incident occurred. It was late in the day and a Sunday.  There were only two checkout counters available.  Both were occupied.  I chose the counter with what appeared to be the smaller order ahead of me. When I got into line at the counter of my choice, the gentleman ahead of me placed his replete hand-held basket on the conveyor belt then disappeared.  I had just arrived at the checkout and I wasn’t privy to any arrangement or conversation which may have transpired between the customer and the cashier. As the customer evaporated and was absorbed back into the aisles of the grocery store, the clerk instructed me, “Come ahead, Sir!”  Accordingly, I began unloading my few items and was in the process of tapping my credit card for payment when the gentleman materialized.  He rather aggressively attached himself to his basket of groceries on the conveyor belt while hissing “Excuse me!” in my direction. Immediately recognizing his gratuitous condescension and obvious claim to priority, I retorted, “I didn’t butt in – I was told to proceed through the checkout!” To this he replied, “Okay then” to which I shot back, “Thanks for your permission!” The deftness of my volley admittedly shocked even me.

In the space of thirty seconds the disgruntled customer had committed what was clearly a succession of faux-pas. Not willing to acknowledge the prejudice of his reckless comments, he chose instead to redeem himself by chastising the clerk for “not knowing better” which I considered singularly unfair and especially abstruse from someone who had oddly decided it was appropriate to lay claim to a checkout counter while continuing to shop. In a huff the frustrated customer hurriedly removed himself and his cargo to another checkout counter.  As I gathered my bag of goodies I mockingly whispered to the cashier that the gentleman was not having a good day. The clerk cautiously refrained from agreement though her grin belied her restraint.  I added that he could “shove it” which appeared to consummate the delight of the clerk.  She and I exchanged enthusiastic and knowing pleasantries upon my departure.

I am not normally given to such precipitous behaviour. In fact, I usually resile from broadcasting my private sentiments. However, given the thrust of the argument at the checkout I wasn’t prepared to roll over and certainly not to apologize to the agitator. As I afterwards returned to my car with my groceries and an irrepressible smirk upon my face, I gloated.  It felt good to have butted heads with the jerk!  As I am an interloper in the United States I generally guard my behaviour with the same diffidence as one does when visiting the home of another.  Whether as a result of accumulated frustrations or the adoption of a new mantle of bravery, I have no regret at having reacted as I did.  Plus, it irks me that the nasty gentleman took the liberty of stepping upon the clerk who is so obviously poorly positioned to meet the customer’s disapproval.