Tales from the Whole Foods Trenches: How Not To Be A Total Dick At The Grocery Store

It's tiresome hearing the "Whole Paycheck" joke all day, but atrocious hearing it from someone currently spending the equivalent of your actual paycheck.
Publish date:
December 12, 2012
groceries, retail, friendly advice, your bagger is watching you

Most people grocery shop fairly regularly, and mostly on autopilot without regarding their surroundings. That was definitely true for me until I worked at Whole Foods.

The corporate culture was its own special experience, but cashiering proved to be a fascinating study in human behavior. And I'm comfortable saying generally that Whole Foods customers are THE WORST.

Maybe the pervasive sense of entitlement is a product of their own economic insecurity. Maybe the pronounced class distinctions between the customers and employees make it easier to dehumanize the workers. Maybe shopping at Whole Foods makes customers feel so good about themselves that they forget it takes more than reusable bags to not be a terrible person.

Whatever the explanation, customers were frequently rude and inconsiderate. Not all employees are nice or even competent. But that goes for any industry and doesn't account for much of what I witnessed, including blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, personal insults and worse abuses.


One minor incident involved a woman telling me essentially, "People learn good behavior in college -- oh, sorry! I mean, if you ever get there." This happened months after I earned a Masters, which only made the underlying insult more absurd. The nonchalance with which she declared that college has intrinsic value AND cashiers have trouble "getting there" was repugnant and classist.

It's relatively easy to dismiss outright meanness, but much harder to stomach people clueless to how appallingly offensive they are.

Frequently men wouldn't realize how appallingly creepy they were either. And while ringing up groceries, there aren't many options besides scanning items extra quickly or calling a supervisor. Although having a visibly protective dude nearby never hurt, and I'm not above playing into problematic structures for immediate safety.

I'm very proud to say at my store sexual harassment was never tolerated. I saw one man banned for life for verbally harassing employees, with a warning notice sent to nearby stores, including our competitors.

These examples aren't the most extreme cases, but are what the day-to-day could include.


This also hasn't been indicative of all of our customers. Most of them were frankly forgettable. And we had extraordinary lovely shoppers as well. Ongoing relationships sometimes developed with those we saw regularly as we got to know them, even watching their children grow.

One of my favorite customers was a blind man I led through the aisles. We chatted about the recipes his wife cooked and I scored him samples from the panini counter. He was so popular that we'd argue over who got to shop with him.

I've never seen another workplace with the camaraderie I experienced at Whole Foods. Whether it was with a public serenade or a fresh pretzel roll1, my colleagues and I went out of our way to support each other. We commiserated together about bad customers and collectively delighted in the good experiences.

Considerate customers make happier retail workers and smoother shopping experiences. Here are 10 guidelines I learned on the job for not-being-a-dick at grocery stores. Break them at your own risk. Egregious offenders may find themselves facing cashier justice!

Closing time: When announcements sound that the store is closing, start checking out. We all want to leave and there are closing duties that can't be finished until all the customers leave. One customer we all recognized would habitually stay 20 minutes past closing -- multiple nights every week. Don't be that person!

Return your cart: Don't leave it haphazardly by your car or the entrance. It makes work harder for the person collecting them. Drivers in parking lots typically aren't paying close attention, and more time maneuvering between cars with multiple carts increases the likelihood of someone getting hurt. In Chicago, I dreaded braving the brutal winter to collect carts from the icy parking lot. What would have taken each customer less than a minute took me 30.

Phones: Talking on cell phones makes everyone nearby listen to your conversation. If you can't refrain, have the grace to make it interesting.

Unpacking: Here's basic advice for unloading your cart super helpfully -- any bags you have FIRST, then heavy items, cold items together, and eggs last.

Bag your own groceries if no one else is there: If a bagger isn't available, helping bag your groceries can considerably cut the time it takes you to check out. There's no real secret -- the tips above are the basic principles.

Children: Stores are not playgrounds! Climbing on shelves or registers can be dangerous! And workers know the difference between rambunctious kids with conscientious caretakers and children who are acting with tacit approval. Come on.

Cleanliness: If you change your mind about something, put it neatly back where it belongs, especially if it's cold! I once found frozen chicken in the cereal aisle, which was quite unpleasant. And if you steal a snack, be a courteous enough thief to dispose of the evidence instead of leaving your trash in the shelves. Stores have trashcans so you needn't give your wrappers or food scraps to cashiers either.

Customer Service: Don't interrupt an employee who's helping another customer. Everyone leaves unsatisfied with the encounter.

Bills: Don't complain about how much you spend. Most employees you'll talk to don't set the prices, and certainly don't put items in your cart. It's tiresome hearing the "Whole Paycheck" joke all day, but atrocious hearing it from someone currently spending the equivalent of your actual paycheck.

Treat workers respectfully: They're not robotic extensions of the store. This is the core message -- retail employees are people and should be treated with respect and dignity.

It's the holiday season right now, so please please please everyone be extra nice to retail workers you encounter!

1. Pro tip: pretzel roll + avocado = cheap delicious sandwich! Return