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The Art of Bagging Groceries

Posted by on May 5, 2013 | 6 Comments

groceriesBack in the day I worked at a now-defunct grocery store. I did a variety of jobs in pretty much every department. The various jibs required some unique skills like cutting a box with a box cutter without damaging the product, operating a price gun, and playing the “we have to get rid of this close-to-expiring milk by playing games with how people choose which one to grab” game. I also spent considerable time as a cashier, which involved bagging groceries for my fellow cashiers.

My cousin Shannon and I often reminisce about the experience of working at the grocery store, which always evolves into a bitch session about the lost art of bagging groceries. Even though self-checkout lanes are quickly becoming the norm, there are still a few holdouts. The problem- the people bagging groceries today appear to be complete morons. They mix cleaning products with meats, place the hot rotisserie chicken in the same bag as the ice cream, and place the eggs n a plastic bag under the 64 ounce can of ravioli. Complete morons.

I don’t like to just mindless bitch about stupid shit. I genuinely believe each of us has the power to change the world for the better. Sometimes those changes can be profound, like doing something epic to promote world peace or cure homelessness. Other times it’s the little things, like a brief guide explaining the lost art of bagging groceries. This guide is written for the grocery professional, but can be adopted for the consumer, too. Let’s get this party started!

Before the Food Gets to the Bagging Area

Observe the customer. You should be asking the following questions in your head:

  • What do they have in their cart or basket? Lots of produce? Organics (hippies?) Lots of cans or frozen produce? This will affect the decision of which bags to use. Plastic is easier to carry, but the hippies usually don’t like them.
  • Consider the current weather. Paper should be used for frozen products, especially on warmer days. If it’s raining hard, avoid paper as it will rip when wet.
  • Do they have their own bags? If so, get the bags before they begin loading their groceries on the belt.
  • What about the person? Are they young and strong (allowing you to load the bags close to their carrying capacity) or do they appear rather feeble? In that case, the bags will have to be lighter.
  • Are they strategically grouping groceries as they place them on the belt? This ALWAYS means they have a particular plan they want you to follow. Bag their groceries as they’re grouping them. Maybe they’re shopping for multiple people or are planning some food to go to storage. Respect it even if it doesn’t make logical sense.

Once the Groceries are Scanned

After the cashier scans the groceries, utilize your bagging area as much as possible. 

  • Group groceries as they will be bagged. Think about where the items would likely be stored in the customer’s house. Place all produce together. Same deal with frozen, refrigerated, and dry goods. Cans and boxes can be further separated if space allows. Cleaning supplies can never be placed with food, especially the non-dried goods. Non-grocery products like pet food, shampoo, tampons, etc. can be grouped based on their use. Again, think about where they would probably be stored in a typical house, then place them in similar groups.
  • Don’t start bagging until you have a group large enough to fill an entire bag. The first 30 seconds or so should be spent sorting and planning each bag.

The Actual Bagging

Once you have the products grouped, you can begin placing them in bags. Different types of bags have different characteristics which require dramatically different techniques.

  • Plastic bags are the most common. The secret to the plastic bag is respecting the load limit. Overload the plastic bag and it will rip. Underload it and the customer will have to carry a shit ton of bags into their house (and it’s wasteful.) Know the characteristics of your bags! Some are stretchy. Others are rigid and will easily tear. When loading plastic, it’s important to load it as close to the maximum weight without filling it to the point where the customer can’t comfortably carry it with the handles. Produce is easy, just keep “crushables” with other fragile produce like tomatoes and apples. Dry goods are a little different. Place boxes in the middle of the bag, then cans to the outside. This prevents the points of the box from ripping the bag. If a single product weighs too much, double-bag it. NEVER place crushables like bread or eggs with cans or other items that can smash them when the bags are carried.
  • Paper bags are preferred by some customers, and should be used as a thermal barrier for cold stuff on hot days. Paper plays by slightly different rules. They ca usually hold more weight, but are usually more difficult to carry. Resist the urge to fill them to the top. When placing products in paper bags, think of the game “Tetris.” The goal is to fill as much space as possible. Heavier stuff goes on the bottom, lighter stuff on top. “Crushables” like bread or eggs can be placed on top.
  • Cloth bags should be treated like plastic bags, though they can carry more weight. Remember to consider your customer, though.
  • Some products may not require bagging. If the product is significantly bigger than the bag, don’t bag it. Giant packages of toilet paper and paper towel, cases of beer, or 40 pound bags of cat litter are good examples. Other things like gallons of milk or bags of potatoes occupy a gray area. Some customers prefer them to be bagged, others do not. Simply ask. ALWAYS ask.
  • When placing the bags in the cart, follow the same “crushable” rules. This presents, in my opinion, the most difficult challenge a bagger faces: how to load the bags in the customer’s cart. Consider how the customer will load the items from the cart to their vehicle. In all likelihood, they would place the biggest non-crushable stuff first, then non-crushable bags, then crushable bags. The best strategy is to keep the big non-crushable stuff on the bottom of the cart. Segment the rest of the cart. Place the bags in the cart in a way that will allow the customer to load the heaviest stuff fist, but still keep the bags of bread and eggs on top.

After the Bagging

Once you’re done, thank the customer. If your store allows it, offer to help them to their car. If you do, observe the exact same “crushable” rules- heavy non-crushable stuff on the bottom, lighter stuff on top. If the customer purchased something that can roll like a watermelon, cantaloupe, or pony keg, support it on all sides with bags of cans and boxes. If they have a pickup, place items toward the front of the bed. If they have a kid in a car seat, make sure nothing will fall on the child.

In Conclusion

Bagging is a dying art. Crushed bread, broken eggs, torn bags n the parking lot, and hamburger contaminated with Drain-O doesn’t have to be an inevitability. We can change this growing trend if only we can spread the word and educate the new generation of grocery store associates. If you shop at any sort of grocery store, YOU can make a difference. You can do YOUR part by sharing this post far and wide. Share it on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Together we can revive this dying art!



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  1. Sue
    May 8, 2013

    Oh yeah, I must lead a sad life cos I’m glad someone else cares about this. I figured the decline in bagging standards was because packers are now all about 14 and mostly get anything they want courtesy of the Bank of Parents, so have no concept of the value of money and the fact that I have had to work for those groceries! I go through the DIY channel or pick a checkout where the operator looks to have a bit of life experience.

  2. Ehd
    May 7, 2013

    Nice guide but my experience tells me that most people working the grocery store checkout simply don’t care. I worked in a grocery store in the days before scanners and plastic bags and it was a small matter of pride to sack the groceries properly. Most stores I shop have me unload the cart onto a conveyor belt so I usually pre-sort my groceries onto the belt so that most of the stuff has a decent chance of being bagged sensibly.

  3. Derek
    May 6, 2013

    I frequently bag my own groceries, and do so while my 3- & 5-year-old daughters are acting crazy and causing a ruckus. We bring our own bags from home, and one of them is quite large, usually fitting most of the groceries. We buy copious amounts of produce/whole foods. There is no “art” when I do it…I load all the sh*t i can into our ginormous bag while simultaneously telling my eldest to stop hitting her sister. I don’t think about what it where…it all gets loaded, we drive home, and I put them away. The food is never damaged and there are no ill effects of this bagging method (or lack thereof). The only problem i see with baggers today is that they use too many damn bags…I don’t need my oranges to be in a bag by themselves…they can take any punishment the greek yogurt or mushrooms can dole out.

  4. Jimmy
    May 6, 2013

    Curious if you have an opinion on tying off the handles of the plastic bags. PRO: it keeps stuff from spilling out when you set the bag down. CON: you have to double-knot it if you want it to stay together, and then carrying the bag causes the knot to tighten. So then it gets so hard to un-tie that it’s easier to just tear th bag apart. But then you can’t reuse it for something else.

    I enjoyed this post. I often have these types of random engineering-type thoughts bouncing around in my own head.

  5. Michelle
    May 5, 2013

    So, that’s completely random…also why I always prefer to bag my own groceries! I once had a bagger tell me to let her take over because I was doing it “wrong” and then she proceeded to jam everything together in just the wrong way, albeit as fast as possible. Grrr.

  6. Dave
    May 5, 2013

    My personal pet peeve is when raw meat is bagged with fruit or veggies that are eaten raw. E. Coli apples anyone?

    Odd and random post, but interesting nonetheless.