12 Polite Habits Grocery Store Workers Actually Dislike—and What to Do Instead
Don’t make these all-too-common etiquette mistakes at the grocery store! Here’s what you need to know before your next shopping trip.
The dos and don’ts of grocery store etiquette
Grocery store workers deal with a lot of people every day, and as you can imagine, not everyone is kind and courteous. But you are, right? Maybe … maybe not. You might think you’re following all the proper etiquette rules when shopping and even go out of your way to be kind to workers, but some common “polite” habits are actually etiquette mistakes that can get in the way of them doing their jobs. Even worse, you might make the same mistake every time you step foot in the grocery store, since the employees are likely doing their best to make you happy and don’t let on that they’re annoyed.
“We love all our customers, but some can be more helpful than others,” says Christie Moran, the Foods Merchandising Manager at her local Costco. “Avoiding certain things when you shop would be a win-win for everyone.”
That’s right: Knowing these supermarket secrets is a win for you too. After all, your top priority is to get in and out of the grocery store as fast as possible while saving money on groceries, and these tips can help you do just that. With that in mind, here’s how you can stay on a grocery clerk’s good side.
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Bagging your own groceries
Trying to be helpful by bagging your own groceries? Turns out, it’s actually not that helpful. If you’ve ever compared the way you bag your own groceries to how the professionals do it, well, you’ll realize that letting the grocery store employees take on the task makes a lot more sense. “Customers who try to bag their own groceries may not realize that we have a system in place to make the process faster and more efficient,” explains Kimberly Shaw, who works at K Town Supermarket in Queens, New York. “While we appreciate the effort, when customers try to bag their own groceries, they can slow down the checkout process and create confusion.”
Do this instead: Leave grocery-bagging to the pros, whether there’s a designated bagger at your favorite grocery store or not. If you’re unsure what the etiquette is at your particular store (it does vary) or there’s a really long line, ask what the cashier prefers.
Leaving your cart while grabbing something farther down the aisle
Those carts are clunky, and it can feel like you’re weaving in and out of traffic to get a bunch of items in a single aisle. It seems like it would be much better to pull to the side and leave your cart in one spot while you dash down the aisle to retrieve your items … but it’s not. After all, that cart just may cause its own traffic jam if someone needs to get down the aisle or get an item from the shelf behind it. Plus, it may get in the way of staff members.
“Larger stores will often have designated places where employees are told to place their carts when putting items on the shelf,” says Sam Cooper, a former supermarket employee. “If your [shopping cart] is in the way, it will either slow down the employee doing their job or will make it harder for other shoppers to walk along the aisles.” This also qualifies as a polite habit most people actually dislike.
Do this instead: Stay with your cart at all times, and follow the flow of traffic. “Every store is set up in a certain way to make it easy for customers to find what they need,” Shaw explains. When the cart goes down the aisle with you, that’s what will prevent congestion.
Placing your cart on the curb
You don’t want to leave your shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot—that’s just rude, not to mention dangerous for drivers—so you leave it on the sidewalk or prop it up on your parking spot’s curb where it’s out of the way. But this is not a good option either. Why? You’re not thinking about the safety of the workers. After all, when a driver is pulling into a spot, he or she may not see the worker who’s retrieving the cart at the front end of that spot.
Safety issues aside, it is also a pain for employees to collect shopping carts from all over the parking lot. And rolling carts can also cause damage to cars, says Norah Clark, who works part-time at Whole Foods and blogs at YummyTasteFood.com.
Do this instead: “Customers should return their carts to designated areas or corrals to make collecting them easier for employees,” Clark says. Yes, you may have to walk a few extra steps to do this, but it’s the right thing to do.
Returning an unwanted item to the freezer
That microwaveable burrito seemed like a good idea when you were going down the freezer aisle, but you reconsidered and decided to return it to the freezer. Of course, you did this before heading to checkout because you didn’t want to bother the cashier with an extra task. Not so fast. “Customers taking a frozen item out of the freezer, changing their mind and then putting it back in the freezer can actually cause more harm than good,” Cooper says. “Grocery stores are incredibly strict about how long items can be out of the freezer to prevent potentially harmful defrosting.”
Do this instead: Hand the item to a member of staff and tell them roughly how long it’s been out of the freezer. “That way,” Cooper explains, “the employee can ensure that the grocery store policy regarding frozen items outside the freezer is adhered to.”
Putting an item aside before paying
You changed your mind about those store-made cookies because of the high markup, so you put it on a nearby shelf or rack instead of placing it on the conveyor belt because you didn’t want to bother the cashier with it. The problem? You’re not considering the other workers who need to put it back in the right spot. “Not only does this make it hard for other customers to find what they’re looking for,” says Shaw, “but it also creates extra work for us when we have to re-shelve items.”
Do this instead: Return the item to its proper spot before you get in line, or simply hand it to the cashier if you’re already there, letting them know you’ve changed your mind. This way, they can put it to the side and organize it with the other items that also need to go back, making it easier for the workers whose job it is to return those items and eliminating the need for them to fish out misplaced items from random spots throughout the store.
Helping yourself to inventory that hasn’t been put away yet
You might think you’re saving an employee the time and effort of shelving an item—or even bothering them by asking for it—if you just grab it off the cart before they unload it. But this isn’t quite the time-saver or kind gesture you think it is. When customers open packages themselves, it can create a mess or disrupt the employee’s workflow, Clark says. Plus, you’re invading their work space, which is irritating.
Do this instead: Ask the employee if you can take the item instead of just grabbing it. That way, they can open the box and take out the item properly—without the chaos you’d accidentally but inevitably bring to the equation. This is one of the polite habits both restaurant staffers and hotel workers wish you’d skip too.
Making small talk
Of course, you should exchange the usual pleasantries, but an ongoing conversation could affect a cashier’s productivity. “Cashiers are timed on how quickly we ring up items,” Moran explains. “We have a certain productivity rate we are required to meet, and that number starts from when the first item is scanned until the payment is processed.” While you may think you’re being polite, too much small talk might just cost the cashier in the eyes of their boss.
Do this instead: “The polite thing to do would be to have your payment ready,” says Moran. “And a ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ go a long way!” Remember that from the minute they start scanning, they are being timed.
Making a point to chat with the owner
Yep, you’ve shopped at your local store for years and just want to say hi while you’re there—after all, you have a relationship with the owner. But “what people don’t realize is that we hear that probably a half dozen times a day,” says Alexandra Marino, a former grocery store manager, the daughter of a grocery store owner and a nutritionist at Nature’s Nutrition. “If we indulged every customer and [engaged in] 30-plus minutes of conversation every time, we would not be able to operate efficiently, and service would suffer.”
Do this instead: Compliment the cashier, and ask them to relay your feedback to someone higher up. Should you encounter the manager or owner organically while you’re in the store, a polite hello and a quick compliment is generally the way to go. If you know each other a bit better, it’s OK to get a little more personal, but keep it short and sweet. Remember that everyone there is on the clock, and while you might not be working right now, they are.
Loading heavy items onto the conveyor belt yourself
That big, awkward item you struggled to get out of your cart and plop in front of the cashier? Sorry to break the news to you, but that might not be the best or easiest way for a worker to scan it. Your cashier still has to find the bar code, so they might have to manipulate it and then put it back in your cart. “If it is heavy for you, it is most likely heavy for us,” Moran says, “and we can just scan it in your cart to save us both a strenuous lift.”
Do this instead: Ask the cashier what’s best for them in this scenario. Most clerks would be happy to tell you what works best. Another idea? Shop online for these heavier items so you can have them delivered right to your doorstep and skip this potential problem altogether.
Saying “no thanks” to special orders
“When we do not carry something, we offer to order it special for the customer. They might think they are helping us when they say, ‘No, that’s OK—I’ll get it from Amazon,’ but really they are just hurting our feelings,” says Marino.
You might think that you’re being polite by giving an employee less work (after all, a special order equals extra work), but offering a special order is actually the store’s way of looking out for you. Refusing a special order—even if it’s done in a polite way—can feel somewhat dismissive, especially if you’re shopping at a locally owned store.
Do this instead: Kindly accept the offer of a special order. A special order doesn’t put an employee out. Instead, it’s a kind gesture that ensures them more business, so they’re happy to do it for you. You might even get it at a better price than you would online, not to mention get exactly what you want.
Making a joke at the register
This falls under “no small talk” … but adds an extra layer of potential awkwardness. After all, the quip you have in mind probably isn’t terribly clever, and it could even come across as offensive, depending on your brand of humor and how the cashier hears it. “A funny, lighthearted joke would be when we ring an item and the price is not coming up in the system,” Marino says. “[Customers joke], ‘It must be free.'” Sorry, but your cashier has heard it a million times—probably today alone!—and chances are, they’re trying not to roll their eyes.
Do this instead: Be patient when mishaps happen at the register, and save the dad jokes for your family. (Sorry, dads!)
Tipping grocery store workers
Tipping is essential for restaurant staffers and delivery people, but at most grocery stores, tipping is a no-no. In fact, many grocery store workers aren’t allowed to accept gratuities. “It’s always a nice gesture when [Costco] members offer to tip us, but we can’t accept those tips,” Moran says. Most grocery store workers get an hourly rate, and they don’t rely on tips, unlike waitstaff, hairdressers and Uber drivers.
Do this instead: Genuine kindness goes a long way. If you think a grocery store employee has gone above and beyond, be sure to thank them personally. Another option is to tell the manager (if they are available) that the specific worker did an exceptional job helping you. If you do, however, spot a tip jar at the end of a register, feel free to provide a small tip or throw in your leftover change. And if you’re having your groceries delivered, as opposed to taking them with you, definitely tip your delivery person.
- Christie Moran, Foods Merchandising Manager at her local Costco
- Kimberly Shaw, employee at K Town Supermarket in Queens, New York
- Sam Cooper, a former supermarket employee and current contributor to Find a Restaurant
- Norah Clark, who works part-time at Whole Foods and blogs at YummyTasteFood.com
- Alexandra Marino, former grocery store manager, daughter of a grocery store owner and nutritionist at Nature’s Nutrition