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Secrets of grocery stores

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Well-kept secrets of grocery stores and their stocking, counter refills. I have mentioned that I have several jobs in the previous post. One of my jobs is part-time at the big grocery store and in these 4 years I have learned so much and every day I find myself feeling sorry for customers, who make their shopping harder than it has to be. And just as often I am utterly surprised by their demands. All my observations are based on a big-city supermarket grocery store, some things might be different in smaller stores.


Grocery stores hide fresh items in the back!

Well, that claim is true and false at the same time. It is true, that when a new patch arrives at the grocery store stock and counters need refilling, we put newer at the back. But all products are divided into two basic groups: long and short shelf life. Long shelf-life products usually have the “best before date” in 1 or more years. For example, canned foods, pet foods, drinks … and these products are bought in bulk depending on statistics once a month, once in a quarter. And even if the counters are refilled daily – it is that same patch, with the same dates. So there is no point trying to reach in the back or dig your way to the lowest box. Most likely that item is with the same date as the top one.

Short shelf-life goods – all products which best before is 7 days or less. Even here there it rarely pays off digging, because these are ordered daily. This means every morning or night* arrives the freshest products to the store – milk, bread, raw meat, vegetables … And they are ordered with pretty precise math – so they last only about a day, and maybe few are left for the next day. You can check this out by going to the store a short time before closing. These shelves are mostly empty.

*Some stores have night shifts which means, that new products arrive mostly at night and will be put on the shelf before the store opens in the morning

Near the counter is always the wrong worker

How many times have you asked something from a worker who is currently at the counter – refilling or cleaning out, and got an answer: I don’t know about these products/ these are not my category products? I assume that a lot and most of the time is the answer something like that. Right?

Do you know why? Because most exhibitors in big stores don’t have “their own” category. They are constantly shifting around and the refill or clear counters category managers/ shift manager tells them. And for them it doesn’t matter whether are they putting cheese or cat food on the counter. All products have the same rule – the counter has to be the fullest, freshest (if dates are different) at the back, products can’t fall while moving around, etc. What’s in the package – it’s irrelevant. And the category managers, the ones who know all products and ranges – they are most of the time safely out of the sight in the office. Also, they are the ones making prices and are responsible if there isn’t a range wide enough for you. Not the one putting goods on the counter. Sorry.

Grocery stores are wasting food!

Another popular claim mostly is made in media, but sometimes to the manual laborer – because they are almost only one’s client can see. Besides security. There are a bunch of laws grocery stores have to follow. One of them is, that expired goods can’t be sold. These laws are maybe differed by different countries. But here, expired food is allowed to sell only on certain terms and some stores find it easier to remove them and be safe. Because if a client unawarely buys old food and gets sick – they can make a claim or sue. Noone one wants that.

Expired food to the dumpster?

But grocery stores don’t waste food on purpose. Most of the stores have contracts with several charities and if you see workers collecting same-day goods from counters it means, that all these goods will be donated. In a few hours, there will be a charity representative collecting those goods and sharing them by their rules. Most common are cooperations with churches and charities, who are helping families with low income. Only truly expired or damaged foods are written off and thrown away.

illustration for quick dinner tricks - frying pan

But throwing away isn’t the goal and none of us wants to do that. To minimize this there are really complex reports on which all purchasing is based and category managers order rather than too much. They analyze statistics daily – how much was sold, was there written offs, is it a seasonal product, how was it sold last week same time, last month same time, last year? But people are unpredictable and there is always room for error.

And by the way – if you are one of those, who blame grocery stores for wasting food. Take a step back and look at yourself: do you check dates? How often are you buying food with today’s or tomorrow’s date? If the answer is rarely or never – then shut up. You haven’t helped reduce the waste, you don’t get to reproach.

Looking for unrealistic dates

Last month I passed my shifts in the bread section and it has really made me wonder about people’s heads. As mentioned before – short time products are ordered daily. So is bread. Every morning we get a delivery of approximately 300 boxes of white bread and (black) bread. We have a very strong rye bread culture. The bread that arrives at us is cooked the previous night and distributed at dawn time. there isn’t any fresher option unless you won’t step into a bakery or bake it yourself.

While I put them on the counter, the store is open. And several times per day I get a question: when the fresher bread will arrive or why this bread expires so soon, it must be old. Mainly are these the most popular loaves of bread which mean there was a blank counter in the morning. Everything has just a few hours ago taken from ovens and packed.

How long should bread be fresh?

Apparently, bread is not supposed to expire within 5 days. On 27.11. several clients didn’t buy bread, because the best before date was 1.12. We have two different terms for best-before dates here. One is for products that are best before that date but are good to consume also after. There is an unlikely chance they turn toxic or something after that (for example bread). And then we have different terms for products, which shouldn’t be consumed after that date because they may make you sick (for example raw chicken).

I was so attempted to ask them – how long they plan to keep the bread. But it would be considered rude. So I didn’t. It feels like we have reached an era where we expect pure, organic, and preservative-free. But it has to stay fresh – forever? Sorry. It’s not possible.

The truth behind dates

And no matter the dates on the product – it all comes down to how you transport your food home and keep them there. The simplest way to get a picture is ice cream. It’s best before might be next July. But how do you take it home?

Version 1: you buy ice cream, put it in the shopping bag with bread and milk, and pop it on the back seat or a trunk. Imagine we have a summer day. By the time you get home, the ice cream has started to melt. If you refreeze – it won’t be that same texture. By starting to melt, the expiration date on the box lost all meaning. You now have to check the small text on the box, which probably will tell you that opened (melted) ice cream should be consumed within x days. At least if it’s cream/milk-based. Vegan ice creams might be different – don’t know.

Version 2: you have a thermal bag or even a cooler in the car. You take the ice cream as the last item, put it in the thermal bag, or leave quickly and put it in the cooler. When you get home – ice cream is just as frozen, as it was in the store freezer. You didn’t open it and put it right in the freezer. The date still counts.

It’s all about conditions – not date

The same goes for all foods. If freezer/cooler foods spend too much time at the wrong temperature – they start to change. And you have to just follow your survival instinct to decide – eat or not. If you take milk from the cooler and then forget it in the car in summer. The best before maybe in 4 days – but it’s bad.

This is actually one of the reasons I prefer to order groceries online. Because then all goods are delivered in special cars with cooling and freezer area, which are monitored constantly. My nearest store is 20 km, so enough time to damage in warm time. I know that from an online store my ice cream is still ice cream, not some cold yogurt/ice cream hybrid. also meats and milk.

15 thoughts on “Secrets of grocery stores

  1. I’ve seen a few documentaries about the food waste that supermarkets make, and how some people have started raiding those waste bins out back of those supermarkets to take that food, because it’s still safe to eat. I think that France brought in a law about it, whereby they have to donate the food instead of chucking it

    1. Different countries may have different rules and laws for donating and disposal of expired foods. But I doubt that any business owner anywhere is looking to waste food, their goal is to sell as much possible.
      In Estonia it’s demanded by law to make expired food uneatable before putting it to dumpster, this means opening the packages and pouring all out. Which I think is idiotic. I know several workers who don’t do it, so homeless or other people in need could take it. Ironically they will be fired if caught.

  2. It was interesting to read about some grocery store secrets based on your experience of working there. It’s great to hear that grocery stores do donate their food but I understand that some waste does happen (I read in another comment that you said a customer left ice cream in the cookie section)

    1. Thank you, I am glad you liked it. Stores do the best they can, but everything sadly isn’t preventable – like customers ignorance or laziness. Although some may thing “there is a person in store to put everything back” there actually isn’t a dedicated person for that. If we see someone ditch good – we will put it back. But if the goods need certain temperature and we don’t know how long it’s been sitting in warm – we can’t put it back.

  3. This was actually really interesting! I did always wonder about the dates etc on food. It is a shame that so much food doesn’t get sold but good to know it doesn’t all get wasted!

    1. Stores are doing their best to minimize this.
      Sadly there are too many customers who change their mind about purchase and drop items at random shelf. And it’s something needed to store in freezer – it has to be thrown. Most shocking find for me was ice cream in cookie shelf. Melted of course.

    1. Waste does occur, but stores are doing the best they can to minimize it. But people are unpredictable at times. And sometimes it’s pure stupidity of client’s who change their minds buying a item on their cart and leaving them on random place for example milk to cookies section. These we have to bin.

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