Race to the Checkout Line

What the National Grocers Association's Best Bagger Championship says about work and competition


Unless you're comfortably wealthy, pathologically thin, or both, you probably go to the grocery store at least once every couple of weeks. When you go, there's one factor that most determines the your experience there, and it's not fluctuations in the price of ground coffee, the number of Ben & Jerry's flavors on hand, or how gripping the National Enquirer cover stories are that week. It's how smoothly you move through the check-out line. A country cannot be great without ?great grocery store baggers—their speed, courtesy, and ability to keep our spaghetti sauce from crushing our hot dog buns is crucial to maintaining public morale.

To encourage baggers to attain new levels of excellence, the National Grocers Association holds a Best Bagger Championship every year at its annual convention in Las Vegas. This year, on February 11, state champions from 24 states will convene at the Paris Hotel to compete for a $10,000 first prize. They may even get the chance to pit their bagging skills against David Letterman, as past winners have done, or meet President George W. Bush, who will be at the convention to deliver its keynote address.  

Of  course, even for elite baggers, life isn't always so glamorous. In the 2009 documentary Ready, Set, Bag, filmmakers Justine Jacob and Alex D. da Silva introduce viewers to eight state champions as they prepare for the 2007 Best Bagger Championship.

Some are high school or college students, others are career grocery store employees, and they approach the competition with varying degrees of intensity. "I thought it'd be fun to try it once and try to win the trip to Vegas," says Kim Weaver, a genial, low-key mom from Pennsylvania. "Amateurs practice till they get it right, pros practice until they can't get it wrong," exclaims Publix store manager Joe Yaeczitis, who's training one of his employees, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago named Roger Chen, to compete in the event.

While all the contestants anticipate moments of glory in the bright lights of Las Vegas, what Ready, Set, Bag illustrates most is how the recognition for doing something well, and the desire to do it even better that that recognition prompts, enriches their lives on an everyday basis. Bagging could be drudge work, a task to endure rather than excel at, but the chance to prove one's expertise in the heat of competition, to be cheered and rewarded for one's efforts, makes it fun and meaningful.

No doubt this is an obvious epiphany with a potentially condescending dimension—look at the small-town baggers and their tiny big dreams! But it's also a ?rare one, at least in the context of the service industry. Just as seemingly every book or movie about suburban American depicts the weird, complex wonderland that exists there as a stifling cul de sac of conformity, repressed desire, and thwarted dreams, every depiction of  service industry work presents a dull hell of petty bosses, rude and thankless customers, tedious tasks, and insultingly low wages. Whether it's in movie comedies like Clerks and Waiting, non-fiction accounts like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, or YouTube shock videos of fast-food employees using your lunch as a handkerchief, any job that ?involves pushing a mop or ringing a cash register is invariably portrayed as undignified and soul-deadening at best, grimly exploitative at worst, a one-way ticket to cynicism, ennui, and disgusting acts of sabotage .

Maybe the people who excel at competitive grocery bagging are just preternaturally decent. Maybe the cameras were never around when disgruntled employees were complaining about inexplicable management policies or overbearing customers. However arrived at, Ready, Set, Bag presents the service-industry milieu in which its story takes place as so harmonious and fulfilling it might chill Michael Moore to his very marrow. The baggers its showcases all seem to get a high degree of satisfaction from their jobs. They're focused, ambitious, and eager to win the national championship, but not in the ruthless, backstabbing way of Celebrity Apprentice, Project Runway, and similar shows. Bosses mentor their charges. Co-workers support and take pride in their colleagues' achievements.

Competition is an ennobling force, not a corruptive one. In stores where an employee experiences success in competitions, others tend to follow. A single store in Sandstone, Minnesota, population 1600, has produced nine state champions over the last two decades. Its teenage employees come in on their off days and bag for free to further hone their skills. "This Best Bagger competition places a value on the bagging position, [which] is often not viewed upon as very prestigious," exclaims National Grocers Association senior vice president Frank diPasquale in the movie. "This competition really challenges them and brings out the best in people."

When this year's finalists take the stage in Las Vegas, they'll get all the time they need to fill two reusable grocery bags with approximately two dozen items ?or so. But if they want to win, they'd better need only 35 seconds or less. In addition to speed, other judging criteria include weight distribution (the two bags should be as evenly weighted as possible) and bag-building technique. A well-constructed bag features heavy items on the bottom, no glass items touching each other, and all crushables in the same bag. Points are deducted for disorderly bags, damaged items, and items left on the table, amongst other potential infractions.

While the various judging criteria help turn what might be viewed as a fairly simple activity into a sport of sorts, they're not there just for show. The skills and ?techniques baggers must develop to do well in competition makes them better baggers in stores. According to Ready, Set, Bag, a single bagger can serve as many as 200 customers a day and pack as many as 7000 items—if each customer ?has an average of three bags, and a bagger can pack a bag in 40 seconds rather than 60 seconds, and there are typically three customers waiting in line at any time, each customer ends up waiting in line three minutes less thanks to the speedier bagger.

Three minutes may not sound like much, but imagine the impact an entire nation of highly motivated baggers could have. If, say, 20 million people go shopping each day, and they all have three more free minutes in their lives than they previously did, America suddenly has an extra million man-hours at its disposal each day. Sure, at first, we'd probably waste most of it waiting for frustratingly slow waiters, bartenders, pizza delivery men, toll-takers, and the like—but all we'd need to fix that is a few more national contests.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.