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The word “ritual” is thrown around colloquially today, but sometimes it still carries the weight of religious ceremony. For supermarket supershoppers, as we might call them, these stores themselves, with their floor-to-ceiling shelves and flickering freezers brimming with food that’s available for purchase, are a sanctuary that transcends faith, race, and economic status. Grocery shopping is an intimately personal act—deciding what to put in your body and what to feed the people you love—performed in public.
Grocery shopping can be a uniquely pleasurable experience, and it’s a squarely American invention. Before the turn of the century, people got their groceries from general stores, where a clerk gathered your items while you waited and placed them on the counter to ring up. There was no way to compare the costs and relative virtues of, say, Crest or Colgate toothpaste; toothpaste was just toothpaste.
But for some, rooting for bargains taps into ingrained opportunism. For being clever enough to pair a coupon with an item that’s already on sale. For holding off on buying a tempting pint of ripe blueberries at one store before getting it for half the price at the next. There is a devilish sense of satisfaction at having gamed the system enough to get an extra six-pack of Gillette razor blades to store in the bathroom cupboard.
Customers are so excited about spending only $8 on a rotisserie chicken that they happily buy many other items at a modest-to-steep markup.
That makes the business work, but it also makes supermarkets compete in a race to the bottom on prices.
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