No more dirty looks at the express checkout lane

You know you've done it.

Peeked into fellow shoppers' baskets or carts and counted the items to see if they're over the limit at the express checkout lane.

But at some groceries, that dictatorial — and grammatically incorrect — “X items or less” rule is going the way of last month's Greek yogurt.

Some Kroger express lanes now say "about 15 items." As in "approximately" or "an estimated." By adding that one word, Kroger has significantly changed the politics of the express lane checkout.

The move from the dogmatic to the recommended has been introduced at the chain's new locations and remodeled older stores. Approximately two dozen of the 125 stores in Michigan have the new signage, said Kroger spokeswoman Rachel Hurst.

"Customers, along with associates checking people out, were asking, 'Do you have 15 items or less?,' " she said. "It’s more of a guideline than being specific ... It was a more proactive stance if we want to have the best customer service. We don’t want to turn you down for having 16 items instead of 15."

For folks who love language as much as fresh produce, the change also puts an end to the less-versus-fewer debate.

The general usage rule is "fewer" for countable items — 10 fewer apples — and "less" for generally non-countable items — less patience, for example. The new signs are a pleasant sight for grammarians.

This vexing grammar issue was famously encapsulated in a New Yorker cartoon showing the last word of a "10 items of less" checkout sign crossed out and replaced with the hand written "fewer." The cashier says, "What can I say? I was an English major."

Kroger isn't the only supermarket giant betting the move will make shoppers happy.

SpartanNash, headquartered in Kent County, is on board. The company used to mandate a minimum number of items to use the self-checkout area. Now, that limit is gone, spokeswoman Meredith Gremel said in an e-mail.

"We have removed the item count from the vast majority of our stores and signs now read — Self check out," spokeswoman Meredith Gremel said in an e-mail. "Our self check out lanes are primarily used by customers with a minimal number of purchases so we decided to eliminate the number of items restriction."

Stores in the Grand Rapids-based Meijer chain have some checkout lanes with item caps.

"Standard language is “12 items or less” for an express lane, regardless if it is staffed or a u-scan. There may be some signs with slightly different wording, depending on when the store was last remodeled and signs updated," spokesman Frank Guglielmi said in an e-mail.

Aldi, which has 69 stores in Michigan, never had a numerical restriction, according to the company.

Express lanes offer "a perception of control," said Emily Moscato, assistant professor of food marketing at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia.

"As consumers, perception is reality. We  like to have control, so if we’re in a line and we know the rules of this line and it states for you that it’s express, we feel it’ll be moving faster than that regular line," she said. "You have a fear of being behind that family that has a cart that’s overflowing and you think, 'This is going to take forever.' "

At issue is the etiquette and the self-policing of the line. There's always that one shopper who starts giving dirty looks if another shopper's cart seems a bit too full for the express lane.

"The 'about 15 items' was a reaction to people freezing in line and wanting to play by the rules and not knowing how exactly to count the items,"  said Moscato. "It saves those rule-goers who might pause or stop or contemplate and gives a grace period to those who might not be ...  And you don’t have a  checker chastising you. Who wants to be chastised by a checker?"

It's not all about positive customer experiences and Kumbaya casualness. The bottom line is part of this, too.

Shoppers who want an in-and-out trip to the supermarket might curtail what they buy to be eligible to use an express checkout lane. Fewer items being sold means less revenue for the store.

"If you are limiting yourself  to 15, that means the 16th or 17th item, you're not buying that on purpose. Supermarkets aren’t happy with that. Their goal is to sell you more. If you're purposely limiting yourself, it doesn't benefit them. The “about” is saying, 'Treat yourself. Get that extra item.'"

At the Kroger at Woodward and Maple in Birmingham, the shoppers in the new "about 15 items" didn't pay much attention to the new signs.

"I saw I didn't have too many items. I'm aware of that and I didn't think I was ruining someone's night. I'm not putting anyone out," said Amy Emmett, a dance studio owner from Birmingham, who had exactly 15 items. "I always took it as a suggestion. I always thought, they're not counting."

Rick Mannausa of Beverly Hills, also was in line. He was buying 20 items.

"It's a great idea," he said. "People who obey the rules all the time can follow rules all the time. I think it's more casual ... I'm an attorney, who can talk my way out of it."

Detroit Free Press


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