Friday, July 23, 2010


I will admit something unflattering about myself - I am a grocery store snob.  I'm not talking about the organic, health food, snobbery of most of the people who love Trader Joes or Whole Foods.  I am a snob for customer service.  See, the thing is I worked in a grocery store my senior year in high school and during summers while in college.  I even went back to my old store for my first job after college.  When I was working there, I had some great bosses and our store director had a few very simple, but very effective rules.

Rule # 1 - Never make customers wait in check-out lines.  People have a limited amount of time for shopping.  When you go to the store, you know that you have only 30 minutes.  If you are at a store where you know you will have to wait 15 minutes to check out, then you will only shop for 15 minutes and then head for the check out.  If you know it will only take 5 minutes to check out, then you will shop for 25 minutes.  Thus, you buy more.  So, rule number one was that if more than one person was in line to check out, you called up additional checkers until every person in the store was up front, no one was waiting anymore, or every check out stand was being used.

Rule # 1 is also the one that is most often broken in places not Hy-Vee in Shenandoah, Iowa.  In DC, I would have to wait for 10, 20, 30 minutes.  I HATED this.  I loved going to the fancy, expensive grocery stores just to not have to wait to check out.

Rule # 2 - Keep the shelves full.  90%  of the items in a grocery store don't sell so much that you have to worry about them running out on the shelf.  The main exceptions are larger items where you have a limited amount on the shelves, such as milk, pop (soda) or cereal.  This is especially true when there is a sale.  Again, this is a rule broken too often in the States.  In DC, one of the chains would have a sale of Pepsi products that required you to buy four to get the sale price and the shelf would be empty.  You could never find any more.  This leads to Rule Number 3.

Rule # 3 was to always personally take the customer to the item they cannot find.  Hy-Vee's slogan/theme song was "There's a helpful smile in every aisle."  If you can't find something, (a) you won't buy it and (b) you will spend your limited shopping time (see Rule #1) searching for the product.  You will buy less and be more frustrated.

So, how does shopping in Belize compare to shopping in the US?  Well, there are essentially 3 different types of grocery stores here.  First, you have the typical crappy Chinese store.  It is called a Chinese store because it is owned by a Chinese or Taiwanese family.  These are typically very small, very dirty, with limited amounts of products with varying expiration dates.  Not exactly whole foods.

Second is the Belizean grocery stores.  In Belmopan, this means Brodies.  Brodies is small (there are larger versions in Belize city that are more like American stores).  About half the store is non-perishables like bathroom supplies, towels, sheets, plates and glasses, votive candles.  The other half is typical grocery store stuff.  Some food (a surprisingly small portion of the store), cleaning supplies (a surprisingly large portion of the store), a bit of alcohol and paper products.  Brodies is the most expensive place in town (they sell a quart of icecream for $18 US).  BUT, they typically have the same products every time you go there.  I know that if I want to pick up a box of cake mix that Brodies will have it.  The other Chinese stores are not as predictable.

The third type of store is the fancy Chinese store.  In Belmopan, there are a few of these.  Fancy, of course, is all relative.  About the size of a large 7/11, they have more products than the small Chinese stores and are dependably cheaper than Brodies.  For the most part, you can find things there on a regular basis.  This is where I usually do my shopping.  A new store opened up on the edge of town which is really nice and almost like a real grocery store.  I haven't been there enough to evaluate the prices.

The one thing that is sorely missing from all of these stores are the 'departments' in American grocery stores.  There is no meat department, no produce section, no bakery.  Don't even think about artisan cheese or a deli.  This is what I miss the most.  Especially the produce.  We have the farmer's market on Tuesdays and Fridays, but I am just never prepared enough to take full advantage.  I'm not good enough at planning meals.  Plus, if I am honest, the produce scares me a bit.  I don't recognize a lot of it and don't know how to cook a bunch of the stuff that I do know how to cook.  For bread, you go to the bakery and for chicken you go to the chicken place.

But, where Belize lacks in selection, they truly make up for in customer service.  I never have to wait to check out.  The one time I asked where something was and they actually had it, the guy took me to the product.  And the shelves are always full.  If something isn't on the shelf it is because they don't have it in the store.  So, in many ways, the stores here suck.  And the next  time I make it into a real grocery store, I will marvel at all the selection and variety.  But, when I wait in line while the rude check out person slugs their way through my order, I may actually look back fondly on the Belize grocers.

(Note: this post inspired by my trip tomorrow to go shopping in Mexico.  We are driving 3 hours and to another country in order to shop and go Inception, which better be as good as advertised).

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