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Market research's raw data

March 27, 2005|Christine N. Ziemba

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then grocery lists must be the automatic doors to the American psyche.

Bill Keaggy, 34, a St. Louis resident who began posting his collection of random grocery lists in 1999 (on www.grocerylists.org), says it's possible to read into a person's life and lifestyle by closely examining a list's organization, shopping items, shorthand and secret codes.

For example, we're pretty sure what the author of grocery list #200 had in mind when jotting down items like "belt," "knife," "hunting license," "say goodbye to wife," "kill deer." On list #618, a more creative type preferred drawing the carrots, mushrooms, lemons and eggs to writing the words.

Keaggy, who serves as the features photo editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when not collecting lists, says that his hobby of amassing these usually crumpled, stained and crossed-off notes has a slightly voyeuristic appeal.

"I love the art in small things forgotten. It's great finding items that were not meant to be seen," he writes in an e-mail. "I mean, even love notes, while private, were meant to be viewed by someone else. Not grocery lists. They are simultaneously raw, real, secret, boring and graphic."

Though much of his collection comes from the St. Louis area, Keaggy receives submissions from around the country. And while he doesn't classify or categorize the 700 lists that are now online, Keaggy has noticed similar shopping habits across America: No matter where you live, onions, beer and toilet paper are the most popular items.

"Another pattern, if you can call it that, is that a lot of people are very poor spellers," he writes. "I understand that these lists are usually made in a rush, or while distracted, but I've seen some amazing interpretations of the correct spelling of things." (Who knew you could find bannes, bolony, suchi, strimp and Fugi apples at the market?)

The lists can be cryptic, but some codes aren't too hard to break. It would be a safe bet that the author of list #520 -- with diet pills and ice cream -- probably shops at the "rock'n'roll" Ralphs on Sunset.

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