Marina Mayer, our managing editor, knows it's not nice to stare but she can't help peering into other people's shopping carts. Walk down the aisles with her as she theorizes on the art of grocery shopping.

Supermarket Staredown

I know it’s not nice to stare, but sometimes, I just can’t help it.

Like when driving past a fender bender on the highway, or when the waitress has food stuck in her teeth. The polite thing to do is turn away, but in such cases, who cares about being politically correct?

Lately I’ve been caught sneaking a peek into other people’s shopping carts on a couple of occasions, not because I’m human and everyone does it, but because I want to learn what other people are snacking on.

Okay, so maybe I am nosy. Personally, I consider myself a professional observer or a wanna-be food-critic.

Walking down the aisles of my local SuperTarget, I find a mixed bag of consumer shopping habits. My favorite is the mom-and-small-child scenario. The little kid is sitting comfortably in the child seat of the cart and begins howling because mommy passed up the latest new snack that had a dinosaur in the commercial (the things that kids remember).

To keep the rugrat quiet, the mom tosses the product into the cart, without a concern or care of what it is and how much it costs, let alone what she is actually feeding her child. This type of situation, from what I’ve seen, encompasses a cart full of snack-pack-size chips, crackers, pretzels and popcorn, family-size frozen pizza and, of course, cookies.

I even heard one mother ask her young child if he’d prefer the cookies with the chocolate chips or the fruit? “Chocolate chips,” he yells. Chocolate chips it is and into the cart it goes.

I also gawked at the tiny tot trailing her mom and pushing her own mini-size shopping cart up and down the aisles. Her cart only contained the fun snacks like cookies and candy. That meant, no fruit, cleaning supplies or coffee. When little girls can push strollers with dolls or carry mini purses to mimic their mom, apparently they can also push child-size carts.

Then there’s what I dub the male pattern. Regardless of age and company, men are programmatically wired to grab-n-go, and a trip to the market is no different. They can be found racing through the aisles as if this very trip was being filmed on Supermarket Sweeps. Plus they almost never push a cart or carry a basket, but instead pile all of their items into their arms and bite down on the occasional bag of chips (macho man).

Other male shoppers know how to juggle their purchases underneath the armpits while the credit card dangles from the teeth. No wonder supermarkets introduced self-checkout. It’s so the tellers don’t have to swipe credit cards with teeth marks and covered with drool.

Other not-so advanced shoppers seem to still be learning the ropes. One man was carrying five boxes of graham crackers and only one chocolate candy bar. I hope he wasn’t planning on making S’mores, otherwise I’m rescinding my invitation to his campfire.

Then there’s the sensible shopper, usually found with a grocery list, an envelope of coupons and a cart full of odds and ends, such as salsa for the tortilla chips, butter spray for the popcorn, maybe even pizza toppings for the pizza crust. This shopper can be found analyzing the products, comparing prices, ingredients and nutrition facts.

I even overheard one lady calling her husband to ask if he still wanted the honey-flavored whole grain bread even though it cost more than the traditional wheat bread they usually buy. His answer? She chose the traditional wheat bread. I later learned she was putting her dollars and cents toward the premium frozen pizza instead (a choice made after another phone call to the hubby). Hopefully she wasn’t interrupting his Saturday golf game.

And don’t forget the cluster of teenagers and young couples, usually dressed as if they were scheduled to walk a runway right there in the store. Although some may be just killing time (maybe the mall was too crowded), they really don’t shop.

After numerous trips to the store (I do make a list but still always manage to forget that one item), watching how other consumers shop isn’t so creepy as it is educational. It may help you learn how to handle your own trip to the grocery store.

I’ve mastered being a food critic, and I’m on my way to mastering consumer shopping trends. So if you don’t want me peering into your cart, don’t be so amusing.

Marina Mayer