Lileks: When grocery store sampling crosses the line
- Article by: JAMES LILEKS
- Star Tribune
- March 21, 2013 - 10:35 PM
You have heard the story of a local man who filled up two plastic bags with free deli samples at Cub — almost a pound and a half — and was detained by security. A fracas ensued. The man recently filed suit, claiming the forcible detention violated his civil rights.
It’s quite the puzzler, I’ll admit: How can you steal something that’s free?
By taking it all, that’s how. If you can’t understand that, imagine the point made by Judge Judy as she stares at you, her eyes like two industrial lasers boring through drywall.
Eager to see if this man’s affront to our sense of shared communal values had affected how stores deal with sample hogs, I toured some grocery stores on a midday afternoon. Herewith, a report.
I went first to an unnamed, depressing grocery store, which you’d expect would have scraps of cardboard on a plate with some ketchup for dippin’. Nothing.
Then I went to Cub to see if they had piles of shaved turkey, but either arrived between servings or when someone in management said, “Hold on, we’re giving samples of turkey? Is turkey a mystery to anyone?” Again, nothing.
Sometimes they have tiny pieces of pizza, a brand you’ve never heard of — Schlobbicks, a neighborhood fave since 1958! — and the next week the same spot is occupied by someone from TCF trying to get you to open an account; you expect to see small pieces of dollar bills on napkins.
Trader Joe’s had Quinoa Chips, that fashionable grain, which is different from Qiana, a disco-era fabric (as far as I know, anyway). The chips were served in a paper cup, because no one likes to take chips from a plate others have touched with their filthy, germy hands. Always assume that everyone rubbed raw pork and chicken all over their hands and forearms before they set off shopping.
Byerly’s had cheese made from grass-fed French cows who say Moeux in between heavy existential sighs; it smelled like something that spent the summer in a gym bag and tasted incredible. I would have bought some, but apparently it’s exported by sending it over on golden barges one pound at a time, which drives up the cost. There were three other cheeses, and I tried them all. This was permitted. You can sample six things once. You cannot sample one thing six times.
Can I go back for just one more? you ask. Well, if you didn’t catch the goaty essence the first time, it’s not like the second cube will be goatier. But if you pick up two different types of cheeses, and appear to be deeply divided about which to buy, you can take another cube if you are holding the cheese in one hand and look like you’re concentrating. Everyone will understand that you are in the midst of the judging process.
Can I circle back later for more, even though I know I won’t buy any? God will know.
By the way, it is OK if one cube adheres to another when you spear one with the toothpick. If some extra cheddar wants to come along for the ride, nothing you can do about it. If you apply too much pressure by accident and the toothpick penetrates two cubes, this is also permitted. Both fall under the “inadvertent sample doubling” clause of the social compact.
Cub said that the man’s oversampling actions violated “social norms,” and they’re absolutely correct. We may rely on the Supreme Court to tease precise meanings out of the Constitution, but everyone knows you don’t take all of the free samples. It’s part of our social contract.
Ah, but what if one didn’t sign the social contract? Can I point out where it’s legally binding? Alas, no. The contract has a million escape clauses appended by people whose sense of entitlement trumps everything.
The coffeehouse squatter who takes a table for two hours. The person at the Redbox who researches every choice on a smartphone, including watching the trailers, while the line behind her grows. The guy in the car whose music is so loud the bass dissolves kidney stones for a block around.
So it’s nice to see the social contract proclaimed and reaffirmed. If the cheese-sampling scenarios seem familiar to you, then you have a conscience and understand that the smallest of things can be the most important. If you take all the cheese, there will be no cheese for others. If everyone abuses the cheese, then cheese will cease to be offered.
As it happens, I ended up buying some gouda at Byerly’s, partly because I had six pieces in the course of researching the ethics of this matter, and because it was the right thing to do. Little things matter.
Also, I can expense it.
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