By Susan Roberts
For the whole of my working life in South Africa I never gave a thought to the way in which supermarkets were stocked. Of course I knew the products and brands I liked, so I didn’t bother much about the rest of the stuff. In fact, some of those preferences probably took root when I used to push the trolley for my mother back in the days of Noah’s Ark, when someone first invented the supermarket. Things have always been set out in a particular way and there’s been no reason to suppose it would ever be different.
Until I reached Australia. Ever since I arrived here I’ve been confused by the arrangement of goods in the local supermarkets.
Why do Australians put yoghurt sachets with desserts? Why do they hide the lemon juice in an aisle that bears absolutely no relation to anything regarding lemons, juice, fish or baking?
And another thing: I still can’t find packs of four frozen pizza bases that actually work properly on my pizza stone!
Slight digression here: I’d been here about six months before I finally found a pack of two enormous frozen pizza bases to make my own pizza. It took me ages to find the right ingredients, and even longer to ring up my purchases at the self-service checkout. Why do they call green peppers capsicum? Why are patty pans known as “squash yellow”? Did you know they call button mushrooms cup mushrooms? Me neither.
When I finally got the whole lot home I pulled my magnificent pizza stone out of its bubble wrap and did my usual thing. However, when the pizza came out the oven, its base had hardened into something resembling a stone itself and was completely inedible. Needless to say, the beloved pizza stone is back in its bubble wrap in the garage…
So – digression over; back to the current topic.
Last month I got myself a temporary job. In a supermarket…
To cut a long story short, I didn’t find this job – a friend very kindly found it for me and I spent four weeks capturing data in a supermarket for an online grocery shopping company. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve never been a techno-wiz, but it seems that even I could point an iPod at a bar code, then take a photograph and fill in some details and press the “OK” button.
Well, okay let’s be brutally honest here – I did get some of those details wrong and after the button’s been pressed there’s no going back to change anything. However, I had a very patient boss who, when I phoned him to tell him I might have categorised a product or twelve in the wrong place, assured me that it was easy enough for him to change in the system when he checked it later.
Categorising groceries is actually harder than you think. I no doubt displayed my tendency to procrastinate as well as my warped, un-Australian idea of where to put them.
What are almond milk, rice milk and soy milk if they aren’t milk? Dairy alternatives? Fine, but then why was the normal cow milk stacked between them? Was it hiding from something? Pretending to be what it wasn’t? Or was it (as I suspect) lying in wait purely to trap me into classifying it as the wrong thing?
(Surely if they stacked the shelves in a less confusing way the manufacturers of cow milk wouldn’t have to put a drawing of a cow on the carton to avoid confusion? In retrospect, it’s probably just as well that most of them do. At least if I’ve categorised something wrongly, the picture should alert them.)
In the end, the best option seemed to be to pick the most likely category that people would search under and use that. Hence, if a vegan or lactose-intolerant person is looking for their version of milk, they’re less likely to look under “milk” and more likely to search under “lactose-free” or “vegetarian/vegan” options.
I really enjoyed categorising teas, hot chocolate and fresh yoghurt, though. In fact, I’ve never seen so many varieties of tea in my life. Fortunately I captured the data for hot chocolate after lunch and not before, or I might have been tempted to tear open packages and sample them with my bare hands because they all looked so good.
Did I say bare hands? Did I not mention that it was freezing in the supermarket where I stood static for hours each day? My only movement was in my thumbs, like some demented teenager texting on an iPhone, moving a few centimetres to one side or the other at a time. Around me, the staff of the supermarket dashed about with trolleys, unpacking boxes, moving stock and generally keeping their circulation going, while my feet slowly froze into ice blocks.
After the first day, I resorted to wearing the layers that I only ever used to use on holidays in the Berg. Gloves with the thumbs opened at the tips proved to be a good defence against frostbitten fingers, along with thermal underwear, scarf and beanie, and my trusty warm snowboots.
One family friend in Melbourne already calls me Mrs Shackleton because I’m smothered in winter woollies every time she sees me. It’s a good thing she didn’t shop in that particular supermarket in the last four weeks…
My Shackleton clothing waiting by the front door.