The Insider - Heard On the Street
Until the mid-to-late 1970's it was a rare supermarket chain or independent grocer in America that hired women of any age to bag groceries. I know this for a fact because I was one of the boys who made his spending money as a teenager, and later most of his tuition and living expenses as a college student, bagging groceries and stocking shelves in a supermarket.
But beginning in the mid-to-late 1970's, and accelerating in the 1980's to today, this gender bias changed dramatically. Young, and not so young, women began filling the grocery bagger ranks in America's supermarkets, working side-by-side at the checkout stands with the boys.
And a funny thing happened when that big change came - most of the girls (sorry guys) were far better at bagging groceries then us boys were - more careful in how they packed Mrs. Roger's eggs, better at segregating the frozen foods and perishables together so they would stay colder for Mrs. Roger's trip home, much better when it came to chatting with the customer while bagging (women are superior to us men when it comes to multi-tasking), and so on. To sum it up, they were, generally speaking, more courteous courtesy clerks than the guys were. Sorry again, guys.
Another funny thing happened when the big change came, those of us boys who worked in the stores bagging groceries and stocking shelves were pleased as punch to have young, and not so young, women working side-by-side with us, as is the case today in America's food and grocery retailing industry.
I thought about this history and experience yesterday - despite the fact my memory isn't as good as it was when I was bagging groceries four decades ago - when I heard the news the judges at the National Grocer's Association (NGA) convention and show in Las Vegas, Nevada honored Stephanie Teteak, 30, with the first place award at its annual "Best Bagger" championship contest, which was held during the show on Monday.
Stephanie Teteak, who works for the Larry's Piggy Wiggly supermarket in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, was one of two finalists in the annual "Best Bagger" competition, which was held yesterday during the show, which began Sunday and ends Wednesday.
The other finalist was Blake Westling, a 20-year-old college student and grocery bagger who works for a Byerly's supermarket in Eagan, Minnesota.
There were 24 competitors (see the photo below) in the competition, representing 24 U.S. states. Each of the competitors had to win state competitions in order to make it to the national finals in Las Vegas.
The contestants were judged on a number of criteria, including: speed, accuracy, distribution of product weight in the bags, bag building techniques, appearance (theirs' personally as well as that of the full bag) and attitude. The NGA also had the contestants use reusable canvas bags, providing a green reminder to all who watched the contest.
The items used to fill the bags were just like those grocery products bagged on the job - boxed breakfast cereal, a container of Folgers Coffee, a package of cookies, a can of Campbell's soup, a carton of eggs, and the like.
There were five preliminary rounds in the competition yesterday. Stephanie Teteak and Blake Westling were the last two standing when all was said and done.
Waiting for the judges decision, the two "Best Bagger" contestants stood on the stage holding hands (see the photo at top). When the judges announced that Teteak had won, Blake Westling congratulated her. There was no gender bias in his eyes or in his behavior.
For her winning effort Teteak, who in addition to being a grocery bagger is a bookkeeper and has been in the grocery business for 13-years, takes home a check for $10,000, along with the "Golden Grocery Bag" trophy given to the first place winner each year. Her store - Larry's Piggy Wiggly, in Kaukauna, Wisconsin - was awarded a golden colored checkout stand with Ms. Teteak's name on it.
|Stephanie Teteak accepts her 'Best Bagger' check at the NGA Show.|
A total of $24,000 was awarded in the competition, which was sponsored by the Kellogg Company, Bunzl Distributors Inc. and Pan-Oston. Rob Mow of Martin’s Super Markets in South Bend, Indiana came in third place, winning $1,000. Florida-based, employee-owned Publix Supermarkets picked up fourth and fifth place, with Alexis Jeup of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee and Bryan Nowell of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, winning $1,000 each.
Teteak, who competed in the competition last year but didn't place, says she "worked really hard" to achieve her win, practicing regularly and competing in the Wisconsin state bag-off competitions 10 times previously.
America's top bagger said yesterday she plans to use her winnings to "pay off some bills." That's smart, wise and financially prudent, a trait she shares with Blake Westling, when it comes to how they plan to use their winnings.
|Stephanie Teteak (far left) with two of her fans at yesterday's bag-off.|
Object lessons come in many forms and from various places in life, including from "Best Bagger" competitions like the one held at the NGA show yesterday.
I think there's two such lessons we can learn from Stephanie Teteak's winning of the "Best Bagger" competition yesterday.
The first lesson is that although change can be difficult - such as the supermarket industry's opening the doors to women as grocery baggers and checkers, and later as shelf stockers, store managers, mid-level managers and executives - if its the right thing to do (like it was), most of us recognize it, and then wonder why it took so long to come about.
Most of us also embrace such change (some earlier than others), because that's also the right thing to do. Case in point: Few if any people would argue against the fact that opening the doors to women has made America's food and grocery retailing industry far superior in every way to what it was back when it was primarily a boys club.
The industry has been a bit slower in opening up its senior executive ranks to women, however. But that too is changing.
For example, Walmart has just named a woman, Rosalind Brewer, as chief executive of Sam's Club, and last week Safeway Stores, Inc. named Lori Raya president of its top-grossing Vons' division, which has 300-plus stores in Southern California, Southern Nevada and California's Central Valley.
Both Brewer and Raya came up through the ranks at Walmart and Safeway respectively. And there are numerous female grocery baggers (and stockers and checkers) out there working in America's grocery stores who welcome the opportunity to advance up through the ranks, if they so desire to do so.
Additionally, an increasing number of women are becoming store managers.
And at the headquarters level women are gaining leadership positions in category management, merchandising, marketing and finance, whereas in the past most grocery chains slotted women senior executives in areas like human resources, public relations and nutrition-consumer affairs. For example, one of the fastest-growing areas in the U.S. food and grocery industry is private or store brand product development and marketing. Many of the most talented executives currently heading up those programs at chains are women.
The second object lesson I suggest we can take from Ms. Teteak's victory comes from her quote about bagging being the most important job in the store.
That lesson is, that we should all remember what she says because it, like all the other store-level positions, are where the action is. If it doesn't happen at retail, it isn't going to happen at all.
Events like the NGA's "Best Bagger" competition serve an important role in drawing attention - both within the industry and to the general public - to the employees who work in the stores.
NGA president and CEO Peter Larkin, who previously was president of the California Grocers Association, said it well in a statement today, noting: "This competition continues to shine a light on the incredible dedication and work ethic of grocery employees, particularly baggers, from all across the country. These competitors are a small sample of the thousands of baggers all across this country who help customers every day with exceptional customer service and demonstrate an enormous amount of pride in what they do."
And it is well deserved attention, as Stephanie Teteak shows us, not because she won first place in the NGA's "Best Bagger" competition, but because she competed - and was able to compete because of those changes that started in the industry back in the 1970's, and continue today.
But regardless of gender or performance, I doubt Teteak would have become America's top grocery bagger yesterday, or entered the competition in the first place, were it not for the attitude she has about her job, which she expressed after receiving her award yesterday, saying: "Bagging is the most important job in the store. No bag of mine goes out there, that isn’t perfect."
That's an attitude all of us need to make sure we have, regardless of what our job is. Thanks for the lessons Stephanie.
(Bottom three photographs courtesy National Grocers Association.)
- The Insider
[Read past columns by our 'The Insider' columnist here.]