It's well worth the effort, because scanners do a lot more than cut your wait in line. Scanners provide retailers with precise information as to who bought what product at what time in what quantity, so that they're not stuck with merchandise that doesn't move well. It also speeds up ordering, as Mike Vriens, the store director at Ralphs, explains. "Our guns scan the item itself or the bar code on the shelf, and that information is downloaded into a computer, which, in turn, sends it to the host computer in our main office, which electronically sends it to the warehouse, which prints out a hard copy and starts plucking the order."
Despite its high-tech system, Bristol Farms is down-homey. The personnel (known as "owner partners" because they're required to buy stock in the company) are all decked out in blue jeans and red-checked shirts and have the bubbly enthusiasm of characters in a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musical. Instead of wanting to put on a show, they want you to make a good dinner. Their sales technique is infectious; they keep feeding you. I ambled into the produce section--past the Brussels sprouts on a stalk and the Model-T Ford piled high with gourds, pumpkins and nuts--and stopped in front of a pomelo. Instantly, the produce manager plucked one from the old-fashioned wooden produce basket, peeled it, handed me a slice and delivered a brief history of the fruit. In the course of 20 minutes, I was invited to sample coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, Fuji apples and the newest concoction from the deli kitchen, Ginger with Tiger Shrimp.
The prices of these items are discreetly stamped on the bottom; a customer is forced to pick it up and look. "We don't have aisle numbers either," says Mike D'Angelo, the specialty food director. "We deliberately make this place a maze. You come here and have to ask, 'Where is this?' We make it a point to communicate with the customers. To educate them."
I really don't care where my turkey grew up or the name of the captain who caught my Chilean sea bass, but they wore me down. I stare at some mustard. "What flavor do you feel you like?" D'Angelo asks helpfully. "I can present you with a honey dill. Maybe you don't like dill. How about a garlic honey mustard, or a raspberry honey mustard, or maybe green peppercorn garlic mustard sounds interesting?"
I return home laden with grocery bags filled with food products that I'd never heard of. I spent twice what I spent at the Barney's sale. "So what do you want for dinner?" Duke asks.
"Please," I sigh, "can't we just eat out?"