The Checkout

Yogurt's Hidden Dangers

On one of my latest trips to the grocery store, I fought with a yogurt container. The yogurt won. I have a cut and slight bruise under my right eye to prove it.

I wouldn't normally share such humiliating stories, but my friends and family encouraged me to. Maybe they want to make me feel smaller than I already am (saying I'm five feet is just sort of stretching it). But they assure me that even though they are all taller, they've had similar frustrating supermarket experiences.

I admit it. When it comes to grocery shopping, I'm height challenged. There is always some item I cannot reach; it doesn't matter what store I visit. Usually it's the two-liter bottle of seltzer on the tallest-of-allest shelf. Getting it down without injuring a shoulder is always cause for rejoicing. Or it's that last box of cereal or jar of jam. I can reach them, but only if I climb on the first shelf. (And yes, I do that--and apparently lots of other people do, too! So much for sanitation). I find myself furtively looking around the aisles, hoping someone tall and nice will come to my aid. But more often than not, there's no one around, or it's someone not much taller than me who can't reach it either.

Of course, I've complained to the store managers who invariably shrug and say there's nothing they can do. They suggest I seek them out if I can't reach something--something that's time-consuming and again not much consolation when the manager is also short.

Which brings me to the killer yogurt container. It didn't seem so vicious at first, standing quietly stacked on top of two other containers on the highest shelf (about 5 feet, 8 inches). The only way I could get it was to reach high, grab, then duck my head, hoping a couple yogurts would tumble onto the lower shelves without hurting me. Usually, that works. But the other day, I lost the gamble, discovering how dangerous yogurt can be when disturbed from its perch.

Twice, store officials have offered me a modest coupon for my pain and suffering. I told them I don't want money, just more accessible products for the height challenged. But they say there's nothing they can do.

I know what I have to do: Take my shopping elsewhere. But I also know that sooner or later, I'll be equally humiliated, perhaps not by a yogurt container but by something else. I just hope it will be something soft, like toilet paper.

Got supermarket shopping issues? Please feel free to share them with me in the comments or by sending me an e-mail at thecheckout@washpost.com

By  |  March 2, 2006; 7:37 AM ET Customer Service
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Comments

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You prefer the risk of injuring yourself over the inconvenience of asking for help. That's hardly the fault of the stores you shop in. Retail space is expensive, and if they can't stack things vertically, they'll have to spread out more horizontally, resulting in higher prices for everybody.

Perhaps you might consider bringing a small plastic step stool with you when you shop and hooking it to your cart.

Posted by: Jacquilynne | March 2, 2006 8:11 AM

I have similar problems, and I am 5'6". I know retail is expensive, but perhaps they can spread inventory out a little better (less on one shelf, more vertically), or make locking carts so you can use them as a step stool. I, too, climb on the shelves to reach things. No one wants to have to carry a stool around with them (would you want to carry something around that brings notice to something you can't control and are not proud of?), and it's sometimes too time-consuming to find someone to ask to help. Given that the average height of women (the primary shoppers in this country) is around 5'5" (don't quote me on this, but I but I think that's accurate), why do I have to climb on shelves and depend on others to reach things I want?

Posted by: kate | March 2, 2006 8:33 AM

I am extremely tall (7'2") and I have a bad back which makes it impossible for me to stoop. I think it's outrageous that retailers stock inventory on shelves that are any lower than 5' high. I realize that I am outside the normal height range of most people, but I still think that retailers should cater to my needs at their expense, because I deserve it. I'm a really awesome person. Sure, I could carry a "grabber" (one of those mechanical "hands" on the end of a pole)to help me shop, but that would totally make me look like a dork and impact my ability to hit on sexy ladies in the grocery store. That is unacceptable because it's all about me. My needs are paramount. From now on I will refuse to shop at any store not specifically designed for the freakishly large.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 2, 2006 9:09 AM

Thanks for writing this! I'm barely 5'1" and face this problem all the time. And at most stores, there is never an employee anywhere in sight. The main problem isn't having that high shelf, it's failing to keep the products toward the front edge. If other shoppers have already taken the first one or two items from the front, forget it. (Here's a tip that sometimes works and saves the hazard of climbing on the lower shelf -- grab another item, preferably kind of long, and use it to drag or knock what you want forward. You still may have to duck falling items, though.) The LEAST the stores could do is send an employee around the store a couple times a day to check the shelves and move products from the back to the front. How much of a burden could that be?

Posted by: jane | March 2, 2006 9:43 AM

What about clothes shopping? I shop in the petites department, only to find at most "full service" department stores clothing is hopelessly out of my reach and it seems no one is ever in the immediate vicinity to help when I need it. Only at some discount stores have I found the old-fashioned "grabber" poles that allow you to reach merchandise yourself.

Posted by: lillian | March 2, 2006 9:58 AM

I'm rarely the only person in a grocery-store aisle. And I often help shorter people get stuff off the top shelf. Sometimes they ask, sometimes I just offer.

Just ask someone nearby to help you. Why do you need a store employee?

Posted by: TBG | March 2, 2006 10:16 AM

Would it help if stored provided step stools for each aisle? I guess that might be a liability issue for them, but discount shoe stores do it quite often. It makes it so much easier to reach something on the top shelf without having to search the whole store for someone to help you. Grocery stores just don't have the "stocking boys" that they used to.

Posted by: KH | March 2, 2006 10:30 AM

My Safeway often has a step stool in the frozen food aisle, which is where I need it the most. But it gets moved around.

If stores would just place a few step stools around, then each and every short person would not need to carry a step stool attached to their cart. Or climb a shelf. I have never climbed a regular shelf - they seem too weak. I've only stood in the frozen food doorway to reach the high up way back items.

By the way, why are so many people offended? The article was meant to be funny. Also, to the supposedly 7'2" man, being a 5' tall woman is hardly freakish. It's definitely not off the charts. I know...just a joke.

Why do so many people hate short people (thanks a lot, Randy Newman)? I don't hate tall people, even though many of them bump into me apparently because their line of vision is too high to see me.

Posted by: andrea | March 2, 2006 10:40 AM

I'm a wheelchair user and can totally relate.

Posted by: chris | March 2, 2006 10:51 AM

Take one of those gripper things that you can find in the toy section of a dept. store and use it to grab the things on the high shelves. Who cares if you look silly? Silly is telling people you got a black eye from yogurt.

Posted by: Tiny | March 2, 2006 10:53 AM

Posted by: Anonymous | March 2, 2006 11:12 AM

I can't agree more with the feeling that stores are not consider accessibility of items on the shelf. They just want to maximize the usage of space! I am 5'2", getting the high top last items from the freezer and diary section is always a challange. I agree that we should write to the PR of store headquaters and request step stools be put in each section of the isle.

What happens to "customers are always right" business model?

stella

Posted by: stella | March 2, 2006 11:14 AM

This article made me laugh out loud. It reminds me of my 5' tall wife jumping just to hang her towel on the bathroom door. She married me just to have a convenient "reacher". Short people may have problems with reaching but at least they are comfy when it comes to airplane seating (even if they can't put their bag in the overhead compartment). Take the good with the bad.

Posted by: Watch out! Angry dwarves! | March 2, 2006 11:32 AM

WHICH STORE IS THIS? My Giant has easily reacheable yogurt. Go buy your yogurt there. Almost no shelf is higher than 6 feet, and the yogurt is located at around 4 feet above the ground. Of course, for a wheelchair user to get it, they'll have to lean out of the chair, or use an handy claw.

At 6 feet high, the top shelves are the only ones I might have to knock stuff off rather than reaching up, but I'm used to it, being 4 feet 9.

It's not bad, especially compared to my apartment kitchen where the shelves BEGIN at 5 feet above the ground.


Posted by: Feel Big Shopping at Giant | March 2, 2006 11:33 AM

I use a wheelchair so I am familar with your problem. Yes, stores do need to do a better job of "facing" their stock as that would go a long way to help.

I have a collapsible "grabber" but if the item is out of reach it is of no use. Then, like Blanche DuBois, I am dependant upon the kindness of strangers. Asking for assistance has yielded some very interesting results. Most have said yes, but a few have said no. Strangely enough, most of those who have said no were employees of the store. So much for Customer Service.

Posted by: bill | March 2, 2006 11:43 AM

Why don't you just change your diet to reflect items that are located on the middle or bottom shelves? (And yes I know they like to put all the sugary kids stuff on the bottom shelves just to irritate parents.) I know this can be inconvenient, but we all have little shortcomings in life that we need to learn to deal with in some fashion.

I didn't own a car for a long time, so my diet consisted primarily of light food, and I mean light as in "not too heavy to schlep home". It was unpleasant, but it was something I had to accept.

Off hand, I don't recall buying a lot of items that are located on the top shelf, and it seems to me that this shelf is generally reserved for less popular items. Sale items and big sellers are generally kept on the middle shelves so they are at eye-level to the customer, and therefore more likely to be bought.

Posted by: Whoever said the world was perfect? | March 2, 2006 12:11 PM

My biggest peeve in this regard is the habit some shelf stockers have of piling up extra stock on the top shelf. I can reach the bottom edge of the cereal box on the top shelf but often there are other boxes sideways on top of that one, that will come tumbling down when I take the one underneath. I feel like I am playing Jenga sometimes. I have left some canned goods alone totally when they are stacked high on the top shelf, it is just too dangerous when big cans of tomatoes or beans rain down on your head!

Posted by: catherine | March 2, 2006 12:25 PM

I have the exact same problem, I'm not just short (5'1 1/2") but have short arms.

Once in a while I can find somebody to help me reach something but usually not.

I love all the "why don't you just ASK" and "why is the STORE'S problem?" responses though.

Real helpful. And dismissive and patronizing. I'd rather be short than be YOU.

Posted by: lily | March 2, 2006 12:33 PM

Only in America, can we find the smallest irrelevant thing to complain about....What about midgets (small people), you think you have a problem.

Posted by: Frankey | March 2, 2006 12:49 PM

Thank you so much for writing about this. I am as average height as you can get (5' 3.5"), and I encounter this problem constantly. Rarely is someone available to help, even at the customer service desk. When I can't reach products, I don't buy them; I buy them at the next store I can go to where I can reach the goods I need.

Posted by: Christine | March 2, 2006 12:52 PM

Solution: A step stool (in each aisle) with a "cautioned warning"...use at your own risk! This store is not responsible for any harm to users. Thank you

Posted by: Frankey | March 2, 2006 1:05 PM

this very situation just happened to my poor mother! She reached up to retreive a can of frozen orange juice at an Aldi's store. At Aldis, they carry this item in bulk so they're just sitting in boxes on an open shelf. They weren't stacked properly and the entire box spilled out onto head. she had numerous bumps and bruises on her face and arms, two black eyes, and a cut and bleeding lip. The manager came over and looked at her, and then walked away. She requested that someone please find her a paper towel because she was bleeding all over her shirt. No apology, no coupon, nothing. 2 weeks later she gets a call from corporate office asking if they could close the incident report, because it didnt seem like she was going to sue them. INSANE.

Posted by: Laura | March 2, 2006 1:13 PM

I am short and have trouble reaching things, but I don't complain about it.
What's wrong with people that they feel the need to expect that everything works perfectly for them? Get over yourself and rather than complaining do something. Many people here have great suggestions.
Just accepting it makes you look like a little child that just stands there and cry.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 2, 2006 1:28 PM

Well, I'm having exactly the same trouble with bottom shelves. My local grocery stocks cat food all the way to the bottom, but I can't just snag a couple of different looking labels and hope the critters will eat it. (other people who have feline housemates will relate) My cats only want SOME of the Friskies cans with orange or blue or tan labels so I must read them. I have bifocals. It just doesn't work that way.

I've taken to shopping once a month at a store that shelves the cat food high enough so I can read the labels or at least pick up a can and read it that way. If I can't make it over there, I have to crawl along the aisle to get low enough to read the labels.

The store manager in each of the two groceries I shop regularly has found me down there, asked if I'd lost anything, smiled frostily when I explained the problem and walked away.

Posted by: Emilie | March 2, 2006 1:29 PM

I'm usually the customer appropriating the staff-only ladders, poles, and other tools for managing stock that's out of reach. I have yet to be approached about it, and I'm glad, because from the tenor of this discussion I'll have to continue this practice.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 2, 2006 1:34 PM

Finally an article to help the vertically challenged. If I were you I would sue every grocery store in North America. Your rights as an American are being violated everyday. The First Amendment gives you the freedom of choice and gosh darnit you should be able to get the strawberry Yoplait without any hassle.

Do this - next time you go to the grocery store and do not want to have to ask for help - bring a stool.

Posted by: Brandon | March 2, 2006 1:59 PM

1 - Since it's the mostly 5'5" women doing most of the grocery shopping, it's in the stores' best interest to accommodate that target group -- whether by having step stools or staff members readily available. (Buttons to call for assistance, like those found in home improvement stores, would be a HUGE help.)

I have no problem marching up to customer service to ask for help, but it is inconvenient. I've never gotten a word of attitude for it, but if I did, I would dump my merchandise then and there and walk out.

2 - A similar gripe: Try getting milk out of freezers when all that's left is in the back, way out of reach. The rollers they're sitting on don't work, and no one is back in the freezer room to help.

Can't stores spare a manager or someone to walk around the store and straighten up inventory during business hours? It's good service, and much cheaper than fighting a liability suit from an injured customer.

Posted by: Reston, Va. | March 2, 2006 2:16 PM

At my neighborhood Trader Joe's, staff members are always willing to help. And they are out on the floor stocking stuff, and 'facing', all the time. Good service is out there - you just need to go to the right places.

Posted by: Where are you shopping?? | March 2, 2006 2:46 PM

what exactly do you expect them to do? Re-design the store's layout to accomodate people of below average height? As others have commented, ask a store clerk, ask another customer, or just deal with it. I'm 5'1'' and I realize I'm short and I have to deal with the world. I wish I had that sense of entitlement that the rest of you short people have...

Posted by: Anonymous | March 2, 2006 3:21 PM

It's just amazing how legitimate commentary on grocery stores' poor business practices -- and suggestions for how they could improve (on a consumer-oriented blog, even!) -- gets attacked as whining by lazy short people. Really, get a grip. I and the others who have pointed out stores' shortcomings (no pun intended) haven't said we couldn't manage, one way or the other, with the status quo, and we're not exactly plotting a class action suit here. But maybe if any managers at retail establishments that are interested in better serving their customers are reading this, they'll take in the spirit it's intended and look for ways to improve the presentation and accessibility of their products. As for those of you who are just looking to lash out at what you perceive as unwarranted victimhood, think for a moment about whose sense of perspective is really out of whack.

Posted by: jane | March 2, 2006 3:37 PM

Very nicely put Jane.

Posted by: andrea | March 2, 2006 4:51 PM

Why get all worked up over the phenomenon of natural selection? Clearly, Caroline and those who share her vertically-challenged phenotype must evolve by adapting to a more suitable niche in the supermarket ecosystem, or face certain extinction.

For example, options such as the olive bar, the deli counter, and the in-store bakery all offer ample carrying capacity without bias in favor of the taller "high-yogurt-optimized" shoppers.

The smelly cheeses, in particular, are often found near ground-level, and their powerful odor may act to deter competition from other would-be consumers.

Twinkies, HoHos, and Little Debbie snack cakes are also frequently placed at a comfortable height, and offer the added advantage of extended expiration dates that may come in handy during the next Ice Age.

So, Caroline, remember the dinosaurs, think of your descendants, and leave that unreachable yogurt to the NBA stars!

Posted by: Adam | March 2, 2006 4:57 PM

It's staggering how hostile some of these comments are! You're not doing this area many favors as far as the selfish, snotty, nasty and mean stereotype. I have gone through the same situation of having trouble reaching things on high shelves in the cold cases (although the Harris Teeter in Arlington has a step rail on the edge of the case - GREAT help!). I've had to deal with grown men literally pointing and laughing at me while I struggle. I get my yogurt, and they get glared at. It's not fun to be treated like a freak because your cells didn't divide at the same speed as a 6-foot tall 35-year-old man. Just ask me at 5'4" or my husband at 5'3".

As far as asking for assistance, it seems to me that if you're paid to work at a store, and a customer of the store asks you for help, you need to help them. I worked retail for years during school, and we were REQUIRED to stop what we were doing and assist a customer if he or she had trouble reaching something, be it too high or too low. Of course, this could just be a Southern thing; we are known for our manners and cordiality. But I sincerely hope that doing your job, or even helping out a fellow shopper who needs a hand, is not just a regional quirk.

Posted by: bamagirlinVA | March 2, 2006 5:09 PM

I'm sorry but that's just ridiculous. If you asked for someone at the store to help you get the yogourt - you'd have had help. Instead you complain that you can't reach it yourself totally ignoring the fact that this isn't your world. People of all shapes,sizes, and disabilities have to cope and they have to ask for aid at times.

I'm constantly surprised how many people expect the world to be totally accomodating to their needs.

Plus - I've never seen yoguart I can't reach. I just haven't. Plates, cans, what not but the yoguart always just sitting there at mid-level in the dairy aisle.

Posted by: Lisa | March 2, 2006 6:09 PM

I don't understand the point of people being so hostile about a problem some of us feel. And like someone said before, us average to below average people get by fine. It just seems like better practice to cater to your average shoppers (I'm the 5'5" one). I'm sorry if I appear to have a sense of entitlement. I thought I was just commiserating with Caroline and others about a problem that bothers me when I shop. All you tall people: don't come complaining to me when you hit your head on some threshold or car door. I'll just tell you to wear a helmet. And tell you to get over it. :)

Posted by: kate | March 2, 2006 6:12 PM

I'm of normal height and have no problem navigating shelves or figuring out how to put products into a shopping cart.

Are you just filling space with your personal problems? How about expressing something the majority of people can relate to?

Posted by: Majority Member | March 2, 2006 7:12 PM

Posted by: Webguy | March 2, 2006 7:15 PM

Clicking on this link and reading this column just lowered my IQ by 10 pts.

Posted by: Tom | March 2, 2006 9:19 PM

I'm not taking a reacher to the store, and I'm not hunting for a store employee. I'm 5'2" and a quarter. I've never had a problem with yogurt, but seriously: why can't they put the large containers lower and the small containers higher? Just in general.

What about older people with osteoporosis, or arthritis? What about people in wheelchairs, little people, people with balance problems?

Don't get me started on the bookstores! You can find me just looking wistfully up at the high shelves in fiction.

Posted by: dynagirl | March 2, 2006 9:19 PM

I too am shocked by the hostility and sarcasm expressed here. I am a 5'5" female and occasionally have trouble reaching stuff. I'm REALLY aware of how difficult it must be for shorter people. As for the wheelchair bound, the store I go to has a staff member go around with them for the whole time they are shopping, taking things of the shelves for them. They are so kind and helpful. Perhaps a short person could ask for similar assistance when they know they are going to need to get high-shelved items. Those who sneer at this sometimes dangerous inconvenience would be well advised to be a little more compassionate. Also I am going to watch out for shorter co-customers and offer to help. Grocery store personnel: Please can you help us here?

Posted by: average | March 2, 2006 10:11 PM

It would certainly seem reasonable for the stores to provide a reacher on each aisle that customers could use when needed. Of course we short people can get by, but why would stores not want to be seen as providing extra service to their customers?

Posted by: Sally | March 3, 2006 12:07 PM

I'm too lazy & impatient to ask for help and will take whatever beating I receive & deserve from grocery items. As for the gentleman that said short people are comfortable on planes - I'm not. My feet don't touch the floor which puts strain on my back and butt. Yeah, I can create a footstool out of luggage, blah blah but that shifts and topples. Just another POV. Anyway we all have our cross to bear don't we? ;p

Posted by: Liz | March 3, 2006 1:24 PM

I've never seen yogurt up high in any NYC supermarkets and I use a lot of them--all the dairy stuff is mid-level. I am occasionally asked by older people to get things that are too high, and it's no big deal. In any case, there's no way in NYC for there not to be many things high up, because all the stores are smaller due to space limitations; there is none of the pleasure of supermarket shopping as in a Ralph's in L.A.

However, I agree with those who wrote about the hostility in some of these comments. It seems that almost all online boards are full of a large percentage of enraged people, it doesn't matter really what the subject discussed is--online is for getting indignant and nasty to people who can't do any serious retaliation.

Posted by: Patrick J. | March 3, 2006 8:31 PM

Actually the defining characteristic of most online commentary is self-importance, a trait as evident in the many posts lamenting 'hostility' as in those displaying it. 'Twas ever thus, and far be it from me to disrupt the dance. Ergo...

Look, if you're short, you may as well develop a sense of humor about it, or life is bound to bring you even lower ;-) For those of you who are incapable, for crissakes, we're talking *tall yogurt* here--not segregated drinking fountains or concentration camps. If you can't laugh at yourself a little like Caroline did in her original post, at least try for some perspective.

To survive, many humans past and present have had to chase elusive game, traipse across hillsides for berries, or spend half their days pounding taro root. Or worse.

You have only to pilot your bloated SUV five miles down Chain Bridge to the 24-hour supermarket, then coax an extra few inches of extension from your chronically disused muscles to reach the top shelf--IF you can't bring yourself to ask for help, that is.

So, if this is the biggest problem you face in life, then try just being thankful you have the good fortune to live in this land of germ-free milk, sting-less honey, and inexhaustible (if also elevated) yogurt. 'Cause the people in Darfur are too busy starving to care how tall your damned shelves are.

Posted by: truthhurts | March 5, 2006 2:50 AM

People, for heaven's sake ~ lighten up! The article is a bit of tongue in cheek. Speaking of shocked, I am shocked at all the negativity expressed on this blog to an article that to me in a world of so many daily, grave, frightening and dangerous situations, is a refreshing bit of humor about one of the many little irritating inconvenient drips of water in the bucket of our lives! Look for the humor first always!!

Posted by: Lyn | March 6, 2006 9:58 PM

Although I am pushing 5', I wanted to note that the Jersey Shore is transitioning to the large warehouse stores and closing the smaller markets. Costco stocks all their products within reach, using the higher shelves for storage. The more limited inventory of the warehouse will require only an occasional trip to a grocery or specialty shop.Sam's Club and BJ's are also in the area as well as Wegman and Whole Food Superstores.Numerous shops sell cooked entrees/meals. My weekly grocery shopping trip is a thing of the past....
What are the shopping trends in other areas?

Posted by: Doroth | March 7, 2006 12:51 PM

Wow....some nasty stuff here. I can totally understand where all of you are coming from, though. And nobody can be completely satisfied when there is so much diversity in our world....we just have to learn to cope with challenges and adapt to situations. I am not overly tall myself (5' 5"), and also have problems with reaching certain things. Sometimes it's a bit of a stretch, but I sometimes ask for help, or someone (another shopper) offers (that's what happens where I live...we help each other out when we see people need assistance). And yogurt is totally on the top shelf...and sometimes you can't reach it when the only ones left are at the back.

That all being said, there's not a whole bunch I can do about things, but I'm used to it and I'm just happy to be me.

Posted by: K | March 7, 2006 1:01 PM

Here's a thought: if it were economically efficient for stores to cater to persons of "average" height, here meaning 5'5" or so, wouldn't they already do it? If these companies have let this much anger build without noticing it, people at grocery corporate offices aren't doing their job. Perhaps this is the kind of public outcry needed to make them realize they're underserving their market. My guess is that as long as all grocery stores stock things high, it won't be worth it for any of them to change. It will add costs in terms of space, and only benefit some of their customers. As it is, stores can charge less per item and get the same profit as they would with a less space-efficient stocking system. Unfortunate as it is, the burden is on all you litte consumers to prove that there are enough of you who are willing to pay more to make change worthwhile for the stores.

Personally, I would be infuriated if my local store started stocking everything below my waist. That's one of the few things that would make it worthwhile for me to brave rush hour and drive out of my neighborhood.

Posted by: David | March 7, 2006 8:09 PM

I'm about 5'1 and work at a grocery store. When a customer asks me for help getting something down, I usually have to track down a taller employee, find a step-stool(which are usually in use by day stockers), or climb the shelf.

It's not easy for us employees either. If you need help finding something, understand that we are sometimes no taller than you, and need help reaching things.

Posted by: Shet | May 17, 2006 7:30 PM

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