COMMENTARY: Everyday Ethics: What You Do in the Grocery Store

You can tell a lot about people’s character by how they act at the grocery store. I remember being in a crowded store when there was a shortage of shopping carts. A prosperous-looking fellow was pushing a cart when another man stopped him.

“Excuse me,” the second man said, “but this is my cart.”

The first guy looked really annoyed. Instead of apologizing, he protested, “But someone took my cart.”

His wife glared at him, and he reluctantly relinquished his ill-gotten gain. He had ignored the age-old wisdom that two wrongs don’t make a right in favor of a distorted version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as they have done unto you.”

Then there are the folks who change their mind about buying some item and put it on the nearest shelf, rationalizing that the store hires people to put things back. Well, schools employ custodians to clean the halls. Does that mean it’s OK for kids to throw their candy wrappers on the floor?

Finally, there are express-line cheaters who enter the “10 items or less” line with 14 items because they’re in a hurry or simply because they love having a competitive edge. They count on the fact that no one will call them on this moral misdemeanor, and even if someone does, they’re ready to play lawyer: “It depends on what you call an item. I consider these melons part of the ‘fruit group’ and I count them as one.”

Being considerate, playing by the rules, and setting a good example are important, even in the grocery store.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 18

  1. re the express line… we need more courageous checkers (and understanding management) who will say “Which ten items did you want today” (LOUDLY)

    1. LOL, Charlie! That reminds me of Christine Lavin’s song, “Shopping Cart of Love.” Thank for triggering a happy thought.

    2. The problem with that approach is that it puts the checker at risk of being disciplined or even fired. I once commented to a checker that the customer in front of me had a full basket and she allowed him to get away with it. She said that if she would have made him go to another line, they may have lost a future customer. I said, “What about me? Would you rather lose me and some of the folks in line behind me?” She looked at me with glazed over eyes. As Willie Nelson sings, “The world’s gotten crazy and it seems to get worse every day.”

  2. The ethical challenge of “It depends on what you call an item…” is not easily resolved. If the store has a BOGO promotion or “3 cans for $4” is the total number of items the qualifier or is the unit of the offer the proper count?

    I always assume the store’s declared unit of sale beats the number of items in the basket. But then, I’m always happy to let the bleeding customer cut in front of me to buy one roll of gauze.

  3. Ouch. I rationalize and put things back where they don’t belong. I’ve been an express line cheater. I guess I better start acting more like I think!

    1. Thank you, Michael, for bringing topics such as this to our attention. It often brings it on home as it did to Judy and, perhaps, others (me).

  4. But what do you do when you get in a non-express line that is long and an open checker calls to you from the express check-out lane? Inevitably, once you go over there even after saying you have too many items and them saying it is okay to check out in that lane, three more shoppers who actually DO have ten items get in line right after you. Then you feel like a heel even though you protested and tried NOT to go over to that line. They glare and make you feel like the bad guy.

  5. Oscar Grayson raises an interesting point. As a former express-line cashier, here’s my take on what constitutes an item: if the cashier handles and scans it individually, then it’s one item, regardless of how it’s priced; for example 3 cans for $4 still constitute 3 items. If, however, you select 3 lemons or grapefruits for $4 and put them in a plastic produce bag with a twist tie, then the cashier & bagger only have to handle it once and it counts as one item. Likewise, if it’s a 6-pack of soft drinks linked together by a set of plastic rings, then it’s handled once and counts as one item.

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  6. Michael, you left out the biggest one: people who “test” the fruit by eating a few without paying for them (e.g. grapes, cherries, plums). Small theft is still theft, and it raises the prices for the rest of us.

    1. Linda, those people are on a mission to build up their immunity! 🙂 They test the fruit and it insures that they get their daily supply of toxic chemicals, along with all of the germ bugs left by the pickers whose hands have been on the fruit after they have worked all day making multiple uses of the Rent-a-Can and not washing afterwards.

  7. Considerately playing by the rules has always been nicely aligned with our eternally wise and rich “Golden Rule”. Strong and positive character has not always been necessarily the “easy way” however. Coach Wooden absolutely demanded certain dress codes, shoe tieing methods, respectful speaking habits, focused/devoted practice routines that grew stronger TEAMS; however the “personal responsibility” of champions rests in the soul before the mind. A hero such as Coach Wooden would support the theme of this “commentary”; yet I don’t think it goes deep enough to what “best effort successful character” really is ? :):) Thank you for this opportunity to attempt my perspective on the vital subject.

    1. If one has good character, the other requirements can be much easier taught on the job. Many employers will hire people that may lack some of the requirements for the job because of the potential employees healthy attitude. They are often willing to teach the person the needed skills.

  8. The problem of the Express Lines item limit, is that many times the checker has told be that he/she gets in trouble with the manager if they try to enforce it. The manager doesn’t want an unhappy customer (the one with too many items) but doesn’t realize that there are 5-10 unhappy customers behind that one!
    I have witnessed checkers very gently reminding a customer about the item limit and sometimes it’s just the fact that the person didn’t see the Express sign, other times they get very apologetic and put items back in a basket and go to the other lanes. But we must remember that the checker is the one who is caught in the middle.

  9. How we behave in the parking lot outside the grocery store is also an ethical dilemma. After loading the groceries into our vehicle what do we do with the cart? Do we leave it in the parking space to have it migrate to the other end of the parking lot, careening off other vehicles and customers along the way? Do we lean it against the curb, hoping someone will recover it later? Do we push it a short distance to the shopping cart return area? If we are close to the front of the store do we return it to the store itself? We can rationalize that the store has employees to recover the carts. Does that diminish our responsibility?
    How we drive in the parking lot is an indicator of our attitude. It is a parking lot with people walking everywhere. Back up cautiously, drive courteously.
    There will be store employees trying to recover those shopping carts left all over the parking lot!

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