Bag It

Time marches on; society loses skills deemed necessary in an earlier, pre-technological age.

Today's case in point: Bagging groceries.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the highlight of my trips to the local grocery store was watching the groceries get bagged. Fhlap, fhlap and a new paper bag was unfolded on its end. An expert bagger would put one hand in the bag and flip the groceries inside with the other, all the while scanning the checkout stand with one eye and winking at me with the other, or so it seemed. Mirabile! When we got home and prepared to put the groceries away, each bag was a near-perfect solution to a three-dimensional puzzle. Boxes and cans and jars were neatly and seamlessly stacked and nestled together. Fruits and vegetables and bread and eggs were carefully cradled to avoid being crushed. Baggers must have trained for in-store service as if they were going for the gold. There were, I think, bagging competitions.

Today, the tyranny of the plastic bag means not only a crush of idiotic plastic bags, each one holding only a couple of cans. It also means that when I ask for "paper, please" (all the better to hold my newspapers on the way to the recycler), I get a sullen look from the "bagger" who now has to do something more than simply dump things indiscriminately, and two at a time, into a plastic hole. I also get paper sacks into which my groceries are dumped, more or less indiscriminately, three or four at a time.

True, this is more likely to be a problem at stores such as Giant Eagle, which hires high schoolers to bag and doesn't train them well, than at stores where wages, benefits, and training are better. And bad bagging is a problem that I can cure myself -- by bagging my own, which I've been known to do. (In fact, the presumption that the store should bag may be a purely American thing.) In the small and subtle observations that make up our daily lives, I'm not ranting so much as noticing, and this isn't nostalgia so much as a brief and qualified elegy for a lost art. I've undoubtedly met sullen and incompetent baggers before, but the one I met last Saturday reminded me that something distinctive, not to say important, is disappearing.


7 Responses to "Bag It"

Kurt Schimmel said... 4/30/2007 4:54 PM

most of the time I read your wonderful blog for the content...however, this time I felt the need to comment.

I couldn't agree with you more. If available, I always choose paper, which ends up being about 2 bags...or 20 plastic bags 8-).

jet said... 4/30/2007 10:16 PM

Cannot agree more. I remember the "bagboy" competitions the Post eXchange had for people to densely pack *and deliver* bags of groceries to a car in the parking lot.

These days we usually bring our own bags for groceries, and I take every opportunity to show off my bin packing skills.

Here's another wrench to throw into the works -- not only ask for paper bags, but ask that they be "bagged heavy". A good bagger can get an amazing amount of stuff into a single bag if they know you can carry it.

Back in the late 80s in the south, common tip for a bagger was a quarter a bag delivered to your car. What does that work out to in 2007 dollars?

Anonymous said... 5/01/2007 12:09 AM

One nice thing about shopping at Whole Foods, their paper bags are wonderfully available and their staff use them properly.

C. Briem said... 5/01/2007 7:52 AM

wasn't it Sophie who advocated making the plastic bags blue so they could be used for recycling pickup?

Jonathan Potts said... 5/03/2007 11:39 AM

I worked at a Giant Eagle during the early/mid 1990s that still used paper as the default bagging option. I never bagged competively, however.

As a reporter, I onced covered a bagging competition. I wouldn't be surprised if they still go on as a novelty.

Anonymous said... 7/24/2007 12:56 AM

I find it amazing what people find to complain about in a world that is falling apart. I would just like to add my two cents. I work at a Giant Eagle in Ohio where I am receiving a high enough wage to put myself through college without financial help. To add an insiders view on this blog...I see 2000+ customers a day. 90% of whom are rude, ignorant and in a hurry. By the time I get to customer 2001 I could care less and why should I? They don't respect me. I promise you would delete this post in a second in you had to work for a week as a bagboy/girl in a chain grocery store today. I do not think that your idea of a bagboy is disappearing, I think that we live in rude pushy society that didn’t exist 50 years ago and unfortunately people in the service industry get to experience the brunt of it. I understand that the author of this blog gets to approve comments before they post (hence only comments in agreement) but at least I know he had to read it and I hope to see it published. And just as a side note that might be of interest, there is a Giant Eagle bagging contest in Cleveland Ohio tomorrow at 12:30, my boyfriend is a top competitor, 1 of 12 finalists out of all the Giant Eagles in the nation. If you are up for a drive, you’re all welcome to come and see what you’ve been looking for all along. If this comment, which has turned into its own post, make even one person be more considerate of that high school kid or whoever, bagging your paper bags then I’m glad I took the time to write it. I hope to see this posted and I will be sure to inform you on how the contest goes tomorrow.

Mike Madison said... 7/24/2007 7:14 AM


Here's your comment. I think you made my point for me. And that point is:

*It's a service business.*

The fact that your customers are rude to you does not mean that you are entitled to be rude to them. If you can't handle that equation, then you should find another job.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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