What goes in first - the chicken or the eggs?
Knowing the right answer separates great grocery baggers from the rest, since packing items in the wrong order can squish or break them.
Every summer, grocery stores throughout Canada hold bagging contests among their checkout staff to determine who goes forth to compete in the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers' Best Bagger Contest in Toronto each October.
In the United States, the best of the best test their speed and skills at the National Grocers Association competition in Las Vegas.
California director Justine Jacob followed eight U.S. state bagging champions in their quest for the national title in her new documentary Ready, Set, Bag!
Ms. Jacob explains what it takes to make it in the world of competitive bagging.
How did the idea for this documentary come about?
My husband [executive producer Oren Jacob]was sitting around with a bunch of new hires, and they were all going around talking about what their first job was. And this one guy said, "I was a grocery bagger, but I never made it out of regionals."
My husband was like, "What?"
Have you ever worked in a grocery checkout counter yourself?
No, I suck at it. You'd think by now I would know how to do it properly. I definitely try, but most of the time, I leave it up to the professionals.
What does it take to succeed as a competitive grocery bagger?
A lot of commitment and dedication.
You get judged on three things. One is speed because you don't want people waiting in line for a long time.
You also need to pack the bags accurately because you can't have bread or eggs on the bottom. And then there's weight distribution. So usually you get two bags in paper, three bags in plastic to pack all the groceries at the competition, and you need to have it evenly weighted. The idea for that is when you leave the store, you don't want a customer to have one super, super heavy bag and one light bag. Usually that's where a competition is won or lost is in the weight distribution.
How does one actually train for competition?
Each state sends one state champion. So a bunch of different stores will train their employees and they'll go to regional competitions or state competitions, and the winner will go on to Vegas.
A lot of the time it will be the store manager [who acts as a trainer] Some of the stores are really committed to it, and they'll set up tables in the back where they put a whole bunch of groceries and the people who are competing will go and practice during the day. And especially if it's a state champion who's training for the nationals, they'll give them time during the day to practice and get better at the speed and accuracy and keep testing them and timing them.
How did this become a competitive sport?
It's been going on for almost 25 years. Originally, it was just sort of to have fun and bring some recognition to these individuals who tend to kind of get overlooked in the industry. At the same time, they're the most important people to a company because they're the ones who interact with the customers. They're the ones who are sort of the face of the supermarket.
No one takes this too seriously. No one's going to die from not being in the competition or not winning. They really have fun with it. What's cool to see is that people really care about what they're doing. They know they can do their job well, and they're excited to compete against others who feel the same way.
One of the contestants in your film is described as having competed in the "Thunderdome of bagging competitions" in California. What's the atmosphere like at these contests?
It's so much fun seeing the difference. California goes all out. There's one store that holds the competition and everyone dresses in teams. They have costumes, and they come in on these big floats, and it's really like this screaming party for three hours. In other places, like Virginia, there were maybe 20 people watching the competition, but it was really sweet and fun.
The thing that was consistent among all of them is there's always a lot of support from friends and family, people who come out and really cheer this person on and help them take it to the next level.
Given that there are more and more grocery chains offering self-checkout, is grocery bagging becoming a dying art?
I don't personally believe that stores will ever go entirely to self-checkout. I think it's actually a nice option to give people. Sometimes you just want to run through quickly, or you want to do it yourself. But my impression is that most stores will have an mixture of both.
And you still need to pack your own bags correctly, so at some point, you have to figure out how to do that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.