Grocery Shopping With My Father

by | Dec 1, 2015

My father’s approach to life can be summed up as a nice blend of fun and pragmatic and our father-daughter bonding time is no different: go to lunch, check the oil and windshield wiper fluid in my car, and run a few errands.

Recently my father and I went grocery shopping together. It was time for his annual pesto making extravaganza thanks to the backyard basil harvest and the remaining  ingredients had to be procured. It wasn’t until after my father and I finished shopping that I realized how very rare it is to tag along when someone else shops for themselves.  Though I wasn’t totally an observer in this case because I was pushing the cart and was part of the team trying to figure where products were located in an unknown grocery store, sharing this real scenario with you is a great chance to show how in depth observational research can help companies find opportunities to improve an experience. It is also is a great chance to see how hard grocery shopping really is for the novice shopper.

Shopping for Pesto Ingredients

There are two grocery stores in my father’s suburban town – the original one and the new one. Both are owned by large grocery chains.  Since having two grocery stores is relatively new for this small town of 9000 people the first decision we had to make was: which one are we going to? We talked this over on the way to lunch. “What are we getting at store?” I asked, assuming it was something special since he is not the primary grocery shopper in the family. “Ingredients to make pesto. Pine nuts. Which store do you think would have those?” he replied. This is a fair question because pine nuts are the elusive nut of the nut category. Before I could answer him he answered his own question, “That’s a big store item. We’ll go to the big store.”

As we left the restaurant, I’ll admit I didn’t know where we were going next because I didn’t know which of the two almost identical grocery stores was considered The Big One. Turns out it is the new one. He parked the car, popped the trunk, and got out his two recyclable shopping bags. As he was doing it I looked into the exceptionally clean trunk and saw that there were 8 more recyclable bags where those came from (which impressed me because I never have those bags when I need them, ever). “Oh! Get that shopping cart over there. Not the big one, that small one, I really like those!” he said, as if there was going to be a mad rush on that one cart. I retrieved the half-size, two-tier compact cart and told him that I thought this kind of cart only belonged to small city grocery stories with tight aisles. “Just wait,” he warned,”you’ve never seen the grocery store on a non-football Sunday in the suburbs.”

With a recipe in one hand, a 6 item shopping list in the other, and me pushing the cart, we entered the store. “Do you want to start from the left or the right?” he asked me.

I watch people shop a lot as part of research and consulting projects.  We’ve done research for a very large drugstore chain, a national home goods retailer, and a few food brands in the US and internationally that involved in-store observational research and in depth interviews with store managers, buyers, and the shoppers. But in my personal life I rarely grocery shop with other people. Most of us don’t.  If we live with others we divide the tasks amongst the residents and one person does the grocery shopping. Possibly you grocery shop with your partner but you have the same list and goals.When we shop on our own most people have a routine that takes them through the store in a certain pattern to pick up items they often buy every week or every two weeks. Most people visit the same grocery store each time and don’t need to relearn the layout. When out-of-the-ordinary products are needed, our regular routine is a little messed up. “Coriander? The recipe requires coriander? Where the heck is that?” but generally we do the same thing each time.

Start from the left or the right? Honestly, I usually just start from where ever I enter. We entered smack in the middle of the store. He was right, we had to choose. I chose left and we headed off to the frozen food aisle. “But if we start with frozen food it might melt by the time we get to the other side.” I offered. “Oh, we don’t need anything frozen anyway, we just don’t know where anything is so we will start here” he said as we headed down the farthest aisle to left, the frozen food aisle. As an infrequent shopper out to get specific ingredients he didn’t really know where anything was going to be and didn’t want to miss anything on his list so we were going to go up and down every aisle until we completed the list of 6 ingredients and a few other items he needed to pick up.

“This store recently changed its layout,” he explained as walked. “They used to have lists at the end of every aisle that listed everything in the aisle in alphabetical order. You could look at the list and know if what you needed was in this aisle.” I looked up at the signs hanging over the aisle that listed  5 big categories of products in the aisle thinking that was what he meant and was debating whether to point out the obvious signs. He followed my eyes and corrected my thinking, “No, no that. There were lists, printed, like in Excel, at the end of each aisle.” Huh. “And then they got rid of them because they were too convenient for the customers.”

My father is a retired business man who has a great understanding of all things business and he is also very funny man. His sense of humor is very dry though so it took me a few beats to realize what he had just said “they got rid of them because they were too convenient for the customers.” He was laughing at his joke when I caught on. “It was so easy when they had those. I think they now watch us on the camera scrambling around looking for things and laugh at us.” From that point on every time we got to the top of an aisle he would look at his recipe, look at his shopping list, and say something like “if there was only a list of things right here that would help me know. . .”

You learn so much watching other people shop especially if you get the chance to understand what is going on in their mind at the time, in their life on that day, and in their wallet and their budget. This is part of the research we do for retail clients. On this excursion with my father I wasn’t doing research and yet he was unintentionally commentating his entire shopping trip for me like a dream research subject.

“Ok, soy milk. We like this one because <insert reasons>.”

“Wait here, I missed something! <returns 30 seconds later> huh, they moved the bread. Again.”

“Oh, here is the bread. Look for “something-something swirl bread” . . .oh, there it is. Jeez, it’s really squished in there a little tight . . .  small package, same price. Is that their motto?”

We moved up and down each aisle. If the aisle was dedicated to something really outside of our shopping goals – pet food, cleaning products – we skipped it. We hit every other aisle though. And he was right – we needed the compact cart because these aisles were narrow and packed. It made city grocery shopping look pleasant. Sunday shopping in the suburbs was a lot of carts parked on the side, people reviewing lists, people turning in circles wondering where items were, and more than a few social conversations taking up vital aisle space.

We stood in the “tomato sauce aisle,” as he called it, while he pondered the merits of getting a container of Parmesan and a separate container of Romano cheese or getting two of the combined jars, “Well, I’m going to mix them together anyway, right?”  Sounded good to me though I’m sure the person who wrote the recipe might have disagreed with our logic.

We talked over where the elusive pinenuts might be. I guessed the baking aisle where most nuts are and he guessed the produce area. When we didn’t find pine nuts in the baking aisle our anxiety was building. I’m so used to being able to find out what I want to know at anytime by just searching online. I now wanted the alphabetized list at the end of each aisle!  “Dad, wouldn’t it be great if we could Google this ‘where are pinenuts in this store?'”  I commented. My father walked behind me and the cart silently for a bit and I’m pretty sure he was trying to figure out if there was already ‘an app for that’ or if that could he his retirement business.

We eventually found the pine nuts in the produce aisle (the father is always right) after asking for help. The produce manager warned us that the pine nuts were expensive and he was right:  $12.99 for a few ounces. He abandoned the pine nut idea, traversed the store to get back to the baking aisle, and bought walnuts instead which were much cheaper.

As we waited in the 12 Item or Less check out aisle with our 10 items (he counted to make sure we weren’t in the wrong line) and now a magazine, my father realized he didn’t have the right loyalty card on his key ring. “What will be say? Do you think we can smooth talk our way through this? We could say ‘I have a card, really, but it just isn’t with me.” he half-worried. Ah, the loyalty card conundrum. We see it all the time in research – great benefits but high anxiety. When it was our turn my father literally pushed me forward and whispered “Tell him we don’t have our card.”

We got our discount, put our groceries in the bags and the bags in the cart, and went back to the car. After he unloaded the bags he started to push the cart over to the middle of the parking spot next to ours where, admittedly, we found it. “Dad! The cart thing is right over there!” I exclaimed knowing full well he would never let me get away with leaving a cart in the middle of a parking lot. He sighed, turned the cart around, and launched it across the almost empty parking lot towards the cart corral. Then he rooted for it to make its target as it rolled towards the corral. And as it made it in he looked at me and said: “Retirees, we live on the wild side!”

That retiree might be living a little wild but he was still the father I always knew: Immediately after putting away the groceries he walked out to the car and put the recycled grocery bags back in the car trunk so they would be there next time.


*Thanks to the ridiculous amount of spam, we have shut down the comment area on all of our blog posts but we still want to hear what you think. Email us at

Originally published September 15, 2013