Introduction #

It is easy to forget how recent the phenomenon of the modern grocery store actually is - it only dates back to 1916, when the first Piggly Wiggly was opened in Memphis, Tennessee.

Before that, grocers operated as “over the counter”, as in you would walk up to the counter at the front of the store, and ask the clerk to retrieve whatever quantity of items you actually needed, instead of wander around the store with a basket and select what you wanted from the shelves.

This rapid shift in how people shopped for groceries is critical in understanding how we’ve arrived at the mass-consumerist marketplace we have today.

The pre-piggly-wiggly format of “over the counter” shopping was an inately “needs based” transaction. Besides the wall posters, newspaper ads, and maybe some displays in the store catching your eye, you already arrived knowing what you needed to purchase.

For the most part, this was “groceries” in the original use of the word - dry, bulk goods such as spices, peppers, sugar, cocoa, tea, coffee, grains.

A “gross”, after all, is a bulk quantity of something1, and a “grocer” was who you went to, to purchase that quantity.2

Tracking consumer trends across history, it is quickly made clear just how much of an impact the “Piggly Wiggly” format had on consumer habits.

While the original “pitch” of the store format was that less clerks would be required to process more customers (since you could get the items yourself instead of waiting for a clerk to retrieve them for you) - the shift it caused towards “wants based” grocery shopping is clear.

When you wander around a modern grocery store, the store has more time to show you items, and therefore - you are more likely to make impulse purchases.

Branding rapidly changed with this trend as well - since boxes are no longer just storage for an item, but an aisle-side sales pitch, we moved towards more colorful, distracting, and intense branding.

Sugary Breakfasts, Brand Mascots, and the collapse of local butchers and bakeries - all can be directly linked back to the Piggly Wiggly.

Shopping Simply #

Understanding the history behind our current shopping habits is a reminder that consumerisim as it exists today is not how it always was - or how it always will be - and that we have the power in our lives to demand and create change.

However, while it seems to be as simple as saying “I’ll only shop for what I need”, grocery stores are specifically designed to get you to buy more. How many times have you stopped for one item, and came home too with a candy bar or chips?

Was that your choice at play, or marketing dark patterns at work?

The machinery of enticement is always at play.

The Anti-Piggly-Wiggly Method #

Overcoming marketing trickery can be done relatively simply: You just need to keep paying attention.

Where the problem comes is that there are a lot of different things vying for your attention at the same time, especially in a grocery store. So not only must you pay attention, but additionally be reaffirming your intent.

At first, trying to simplify your grocery shopping habits may be intended to “buy less stuff” - but I ask you to think a little more deeply on it.

When your great-grandparents when grocery shopping, pre-piggly-wiggly, they were shopping for what they need. So it’s not just a matter of buying less, it’s buying what you need - and this is made simplest if you treat a grocery store as only having what you need in the first place.

What you need from a grocery store is more complicated then what your great-grandparents did - if you don’t have a community butcher, or a garden for vegetables, you are likely purchasing all of this at the super market. With this in mind, here’s a list of tips to guide you in making simpler, smarter choices.

1: Set Your Intentions #

Before entering the grocery store, clarify what you need. Formulate a list before leaving to guide you in shopping with purchase, and avoid succumbing to impulse purchases.

2: Stay aware of Dark Patterns #

Recognize the subtle tactics used by supermarkets to influence purchasing behavior. Be mindful of marketing strategies and stay vigilant to avoid falling prey to unnecessary purchases.

3: Craft Your Shopping Rules #

Create a personalized set of rules to govern your shopping decisions. Tailor these rules to align with your values and goals. You may choose to only shop locally, if you can - or perhaps not purchase any product made by a mega-conglomerate like Pepsi.

As an example, here’s the rules I use to shop:

  1. I can only purchase the following:
    • In Season Vegetables & Produce
    • Fresh meat & Deli cuts
    • Fresh bakery items
    • Pantry Goods
  2. When purchasing an item, I must follow these rules:
    • Be Brandless (Store Brand takes Priority)
    • Be Local
  3. When purchasing pantry goods, it should be sugarless when possible.

These rules guide me to think “vintage”, and shop the way my grandparents may have shopped. By buying brandless, I refocus on my health, wellness, and happiness when making choices at the grocery store.

4: Make it Easy #

The idea of these rules is not to complicate or overwhelm your shopping experience. Preparing ahead of time, and using a ruleset to define your criteria, makes it effortless to choose what your purchasing in the grocery store.

If you feel stressed following your ruleset, introspect on that and adjust your rules accordingly. As you become more comfortable with your mindfulness, consider expanding your system. Take opportunities to leave the grocery store entirely, and shop at local bakeries, butchers, and farmers markets.

Mindfulness in grocery shopping is one of the key ways you can take control over your shopping habits, and create a more sustainable lifestyle.

  1. Exactly 12 Dozen, or 144, to be Specific. ↩︎

  2. ↩︎