Dispatches From A Whole Foods Checkout Line

Bassam Tarazi
6 min readMar 19, 2023
A grocery bag with the text “Can we double bag today?”
It can get personal.

“I would move to Amsterdam in a heartbeat if I could,” grumbled the checkout lady at Whole Foods as she whipped a paper bag into shape. “Every shopper has to bag their own items there. In fact, it’s illegal for staff to do anything.”

This was the tail end of an interaction I had to endure in that completely unavoidable bottleneck between grabbing what I needed, and being on my way.

I could use InstaCart, I know. And I do sometimes, but I like food shopping in person, especially at Whole Foods. It’s like seeing the output of an R&D food lab that uses only cashews and cauliflower. Inevitably, I get a few things that weren’t on my list. “Like an adult in Whole Foods” has to be the grown up version of “Like a kid in a candy store.”

The consequence of this choice is the conveyor belt showdown I’ll have on lane 3.

The grocery checkout process feels more like a TSA checkpoint than a point of sale. It’s unlike any other in-person shopping experience for several reasons.

For one,

in transaction-time-per-dollar spent, you and the cashier are in each other’s close vicinity for eons. It can be upwards of five minutes for the cashier to scan or enter a mere $150 worth of items.

And in this dead space of time, I’ll typically get a, “Got any fun plans today?” from the cashier.

Really? No “How’s it going?” or “How’s your day?” that can be handled with a one word answer and a “How about you?” Nope. Straight to personal questions.

Am I doing anything fun? What constitutes fun? Whose definition are we going by? If I’m not doing something societally-accepted as fun should I feel ashamed of my day? Who else can hear us? Wait, why do I have to tell them anyway? Where do they get off asking something like that to a complete stranger? Imagine your pharmacist asking if you’re doing anything interesting tonight. It’s an odd question.

Calibrating how to answer, I like to release an elongated “Ummmmm…”

When I’m feeling feisty I’ll answer with. “Nope. What about you?”

This certainly throws them for a loop. As they fumble with a response I want to lean in and say, “Awkward, isn’t it?”

Second,

the checkout person has to remember tons of items that don’t have barcodes. It’s quite a feat. Everyone knows that an organic banana is #94011 but how does anyone remember anything after that? I mean, a single Serrano pepper, four Cremini mushrooms, a bag of…she doesn’t know what’s in the bag because it looks like wartime rations from a bygone era.

“It’s a rutabaga.” (Which falls in the category of “new-age yuppy vegetables.” Obviously, my wife needs it for the run-of-the-mill, paleo friendly, anti-inflammation organic soup she’s concocting.)

You should’ve seen the commotion when the cashier couldn’t find it in the system. The TSA checkpoint turned into a customs interrogation. “Where did you get this?!”

Third,

the grocery-buying process is incredibly revealing. Our diets and eating habits are not something we like to share with strangers, but the supermarket is a fishbowl. Frozen french fries, Bob? Really? You’re still into cutting down virgin forests for your paper towels, Lorraine?

I know that if I’m judging other people, they’re judging me, and the cashier is definitely judging everyone. Of course, she doesn’t say anything, but who has to when she is handling my package of chicken thighs like she was forced to corral loose puddles of mercury with her bare hands.

Maybe this is why I hate the question, “Doing anything fun today?” I already feel so exposed and self-conscious.

Fourth,

after the awkward chatting, laborious scanning, and silent judgment comes the actually-getting-those-mishmash-of-items-into-bags-so-I-can-get-home process. This is where everyone’s angst and expectations tangle for supremacy. Who’s doing what? Who should be doing what? How is it being done? And who is or is not moving to Amsterdam?

I empathize with supermarket employees who don’t want to bag groceries. It’s not easy. There are strategies and tactics involved. But my empathy does not elicit my enlisting. I mean I would use the self-checkout line if the idea was to mindlessly toss items into bags like legos into a plastic bin, but getting food in bags is just Part One of my grocery shopping journey. After checkout, there’s wheeling the cart to the car, loading it, driving home, and then getting the groceries inside.

The integrity of the bags is critical for that stage of my journey.

For years I lived in an apartment building where my parking spot was many flights below — and a lot of steps from — where I eventually needed to be.

Carrying my haul from the car, I had to shuffle towards the elevator, open two different sets of fire doors, somehow get my key fob out, and press chest-high buttons. “All hell breaking loose” kept at bay by metacarpals, burning forearms, the tensile strength of recycled paper, and a dollop of adhesive on the bag handles.

Why don’t you just make two trips, Bassam?

Why don’t I just give up on the richness of life while I’m at it? There’s no such thing as two trips when you park on P-2.

And so, foreshadowing Kalamata olives and Honeycrisp apples rolling through an oil spot in my parking garage, the first thing I say while loading my stuff onto the conveyor is, “Can we double bag today?”

Interesting sentence structure, I must say. “Today” is there to make it look like this request is a one off, like most of the time I would never! The “we” acts as if the cashier and I will be packing pals. It’s not true, but if I said, “Can you double bag today?” it would feel oddly directive, like I was telling her how to do her job.

Sure, she says, but her eyes say, I’ll cut you.

That look is warranted. Have you ever tried to get one bag in another and have the corners line up? It’s like getting a model ship in a wine bottle. Nevertheless, it must be done.

Once I have them on the hook for the double, I follow up immediately with, “And heavy’s ok.”

This is key to part two of my shopping experience.

Without telling them how to do their job explicitly, I’m nudging them towards the Goldilocks zone of four double bags, because four heavy bags and one underarm carry of toilet paper is the upper limit of one-trip-ability.

  • 4 single bags will rip
  • 5+ bags are too many to carry
  • 4 double bags is just right

I sometimes have to add, “…so long as I can grab the handles,” because nothing is more frustrating than a perfectly weighted bag topped off with a big bin of lettuce keeping me from being able to clasp the paper reigns with one hand unless I had the claws of a pterodactyl.

At this point, I have crossed the Rubicon. I’ve disemboweled any chance at discourse, and I’ve only passive aggressively told them what I want without actually saying it or being helpful in any way.

And so, amidst the sounds of beeps, scans, crinkling paper bags, and the cashier’s audible dreams of a Dutch relocation, I look on eagerly like the bags were my growing babies; making sure the eggs are visible, hummus containers are not on their sides, loose kale is not stacked on top of raw meat, and most importantly, that the handles of four-double bags remain accessible above the fray.

The cashier will say, “This one is good,” and slide it to me. I’ll test the weight and disagree. “Oh, I think we can get a couple more things in there.”

That’s where I reach over into her space, grab a few loose lemons and put them in the bag, saying, “Theeeeere we go.”

Finally finished, she trickles out a “Have a good day.”

I answer with my last asshole salvo of the proceedings, “Can I have a receipt?”

Happy that I’m set up for a one-way trip from P-2 when I get home, I’ll wheel the cart out of the store with a smile on my face and think, maybe the fun thing I will do that day is bragging to my wife that I got all our groceries upstairs in one trip.

Of course, she will not care.

Perhaps she’ll get excited when I show her these new cauliflower tortillas. I mean, cauliflower tortillas?! What will they think of next?

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Bassam Tarazi

Financial Advisor. Traveler. Author http://t.co/oHy2GhSLLY. Burrito lover. Avid Leaper. TEDx Giver. Copiously curious. Regular blower of minds. www.bassam.com