Paul Andersen: Fair Game

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

If Kroger had any idea of the stress it has caused its regular customers, it would never again reorganize products in its El Jebel City Market. When a store rearranges its aisles, shoppers must relearn deeply embedded patterns formed over many years.

Brain studies have revealed that this level of disorientation can cause psychological trauma resulting in paranoia, night sweats and, in extreme cases, complete mental and physical collapse. There aren’t enough mental-health professionals in the valley to answer to the challenges of severe shopping disorientation.

I’m writing this months after the El Jebel City Market rearranged its items, and I’m still dazed and confused. It is only now that I realize how deeply the impact of this trauma has affected my life.

After many long and painful sessions, my therapist has concluded that I’m still lost in the old store, which is imprinted in my hippocampus like a tattoo. The act of aimlessly pushing a cart up and down strange aisles has introduced a kind of foggy dementia, comparable to an early onset of Alzheimer’s. And it’s all Kroger’s fault!

I’ve been told by insiders that stores rearrange their aisles regularly as a strategy, believing that befuddled shoppers will buy pretty much anything as they navigate unfamiliar terrain. The longer people shop, the more stuff they buy, so keeping them confused supposedly earns profits.

This is the perfect opening for an entrepreneur to create an app for a grocery-store GPS that could mount on shopping carts, but sadly nothing is forthcoming on that front.

It’s clear to me that City Market shuffled its products to keep up with Whole Foods. Change, even when it’s of no perceptible value, is equated with progress, so even though the reorganized aisles made no obvious sense, Kroger management changed it all. What it sacrificed is one of the most important of all grocery-shopping values – familiarity.

When it pulled the old shell game and swapped the condiment section with baby diapers, the peanut butter for cooking oil and the cleaning products with Hispanic foods, the store became terra incognito. That shook my world. Instead of pickles, it was Pampers I was loading into my cart.

When Whole Foods launched with a huge splash this fall, it cut immediately into City Market’s customer base. This despite the store’s new look. The neat little islands in produce and the exotic cheeses and the bulk food bins designed by supermarket masterminds mattered not a whit.

Whole Foods is a breeze by comparison because it’s smaller and easier to navigate. There’s more new stuff to see, the people-watching is entertaining, and the overall grocery-store geography is more appealing and adventuresome. (How dull must my life be to say that?!)

On the other hand, when I venture into City Market, I prepare for an endurance shopping trip equipped with water bottle, snack bars and a fully charged cellphone. There’s no telling how long I might wander the aisles gazing perplexedly at all the stuff I don’t need. Now I know how Rip Van Winkle felt after his 20-year doze.

Aging has its challenges, and one of them is adapting to shifts in routines. The onset of physical stiffness parallels with mental rigidity as ossified neurons and sloppy synapses fail to flex to novel circumstances – like the new location of toilet paper somewhere in the cavernous recesses of the City Market wilderness.

I am in deep appreciation for the City Market staff for amiably guiding me through these uncharted waters, often holding my hand while leading me to a corner of the store I haven’t visited in months. “Here,” they say, pointing at the economy size of Kuner chili beans, “is the item you requested.”

If Kroger really wants to hold on to shoppers, it should leave the shelves alone but rearrange the exit doors. It would sell much more stuff if nobody could find their way back out to the parking lot.

“Oh, he never returned/No, he never returned/And his fate is still unlearned/He’s been pushing his cart through aisles of Kroger/He’s the shopper who never returned.”


Asher on Aspen: Find your church

On a recent September Saturday morning, I awoke with an intense yearning to lose myself in the mountains, disconnect from cell service, and rediscover why I decided to call Aspen home in the first place. Standing there, at the Cathedral Lake trailhead, I knew I was right where I needed to be.

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