The Secrets of Super-Efficient Grocery Shopping

Hint: The deli counter is your enemy.

Shoppers pay for their merchandise at a Target store May 23, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois.
Shoppers pay for their merchandise at a Target store on May 23, 2007 in Chicago, Ill.

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Last week, I asked Slate readers to share operations success stories from their own lives. You obliged—offering up ingenious solutions on par with those of Southwest Airlines, Poland Spring, and Zara. A few of my favorites are below. But first, an inquiry:

I used to work for an operational consulting firm. (And yes, The Goal was required reading when you joined.) We would travel a lot, and when you are waiting at airport security with a group of operations consultants, you naturally discuss how to improve the rate at which travelers pass through security. The worst offense is when the TSA has only one person checking IDs, and two or more X-ray lines running, so that the X-ray machines sometimes sit idle. This seems like a terrible staffing choice because you are bottlenecked at a step that is very inexpensive to expand. Meanwhile, you have let the most expensive step (the X-rays) sit idle, wasting the cost of the machine and of the two to three person staff. Much better to simply shift one more person to check IDs, right?

-Sam R.

Seems like an efficiency-maximizing solution, Sam. Any TSA workers care to chime in down there in the comments section? Is there some nuance of security procedure that Sam is missing? Also: Do I need to remove my belt if it is made of webbed canvas with a plastic D-ring buckle? If no, related question: Where can I buy a belt like that? 

Now, onto your operational tips and tricks—which, as it turned out, were almost entirely about shopping.

I’m one of those people who finish Christmas shopping weeks in advance. And it’s not because I like shopping, or because I start shopping in August. I keep a list of presents that family and friends have enjoyed in previous years, and modify it slightly every year so that I know they’ll get something they like. It may mean that there’s not much diversity in my gifts from one year to the next, but why fix what ain’t broken?

-Genevieve L.

Genevieve, I wouldn’t want to be the nephew upon whom you bestow a series of nigh-indistinguishable neckties. But you’ve hit on a technique akin to something the corporate world calls “business analytics.” Put simply, you’re examining the past and using your findings to more efficiently tackle the future. Companies like IBM make their living in part by helping all sorts of clients do the very same thing. For instance: A close look at the operations of the Cincinnati Zoo revealed that ice cream sales were a significant revenue source. Yet the ice cream kiosk was shutting down a full hour before the zoo closed—even though ice cream demand remained high. Bad decision. Analytics helped the zoo realize it was making a poo-flinging monkey of itself.

The deli counter is the Achilles heel of grocery shopping. Standing there while a diligent employee cuts your three different meat selections kills your elapsed grocery time. Instead, place your deli order at the beginning of your shopping (order all of your meats at once, and be sure the employee has the items and quantities correct), and then come back and get your order after you’ve finished the rest of your shopping.

-Tyler S.

Classic operations analysis, Tyler. You found the bottleneck. (In this case, not the fat kid, but rather the procuring of the delicious deli meats that made him fat.) The key to all operations management is to prioritize, and then ameliorate or eliminate the bottleneck. You’ve clearly done that here by subordinating the rest of your shopping tasks to your deli order.

I lay grocery items out for the cashier to bag them according to where they’ll be put away at my house. Pantry items in one bag, refrigerator items in one bag, and so forth. Yup, I know I’m a grocery nerd.

-Megan A.

Megan, if optimizing is nerdy I don’t want to be cool. Your tactic is nearly identical to one used by UPS, the package delivery service. Packages are positioned in the back of delivery vans based on the order they’re to be delivered. The first package on the route is placed immediately to the right upon entering the back of the van, with subsequent deliveries proceeding counter-clockwise around the van’s shelves. This saves a few seconds of searching every time the driver heads back there to retrieve a package. Over millions of deliveries (or grocery trips), those seconds add up.

I am that a-hole who leaves her cart at the end of the aisle, and then walks down the aisle to get the items I need. This means I don’t have to maneuver the cart down the busy aisle and try to turn it back around, or potentially walk the whole aisle unnecessarily just because I don’t feel like turning it around. 

-Kate P.

You may be an a-hole, Kate, but you’re an a-hole who gets out of the grocery store quicker. (Possibly to the detriment of fellow shoppers. But this column is about operations, not utilitarian ethics.) And in fact you’re replicating another package delivery trick. TNT Express—a Dutch delivery service that won this year’s Edelman Award for achievement in operations management—similarly abandons its bulky vehicles when they encounter crowded pathways. When a TNT driver approaches downtown Berlin, for example, he parks his truck at a special base station where TNT houses a fleet of delivery tricycles. The streets in the congested city center are then navigated by trike instead of by truck—saving time and fuel, and reducing carbon emissions along the way.

I bring a large, wheeled plastic storage box from home and place it in the shopping cart when I get to the grocery store. I ask the checkout clerk to put the groceries in the box instead of in bags. Then I can wheel the box to the car, lift the groceries all at once to put them in the trunk, and make one trip wheeling the box into the house—instead of four or five trips back and forth from the car to the kitchen. It’s also eco-friendly, as I don’t use any shopping bags. (Note that this only works if you are strong enough to lift the box or if you can find someone who is strong enough.)

-Hayden B.

Nice tip, Hayden. You’ve eliminated a bottleneck—schlepping grocery bags from point A to point B—by employing a technological solution. You’re like a factory manager who excises an outdated machine from the assembly line, installing a replacement machine with far more capacity.

I don’t bring my husband or my kids when I go grocery shopping. I put in my earbuds (sometimes I even turn on the iPod) and I don’t make eye contact. I’m not there to socialize. I’m there to forage.

-Martha D.

So in this case the bottleneck was Martha’s humanity. Just kidding, Martha! I’m sure you’re a very warm, engaging person when you’re not in the frozen foods aisle! But this raises an interesting point. As anyone who’s read The Goal knows, the, um, goal is not mere efficiency for efficiency’s sake. Depending on your broader mission, some kinds of efficiency might well be irrelevant. Or even counterproductive. So, for instance, if your mission is to lead a life that allows for occasional moments of serendipity (like, say, a pleasant chat with a neighbor you’ve randomly run into at the grocery store), it might not be vital to plan and optimize every little thing you do. Only you can decide. I’ll let Jason B. have the last word on this.

These concepts you are writing about are what I work on all day. I call it “process improvement” instead of the fancier “operations management.” In its essence, it is the art doing more of what you want and less of what you don’t. So it’s important to ask, “How does this streamlining help the bigger process?” It’s great that you can peel bananas faster, but what did you get with that extra time? Were you able to make banana splits? Or did you just end up with more peeled bananas than you really need?

-Jason B.

Potassium-rich food for thought. Oh, and I lied. I’m giving myself the last word. Because, as longtime Slate readers know: There really is a better way to peel a banana!

Note: Reader emails have been edited for clarity and concision.