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Hit the road, Desert Companion readers! And while you're at it, have a look around. This issue invites you to not only escape to the outdoors, but also to think about the environmental issues affecting our pursuits and our world.

In the Bag

New York Event 2020
Photo by Sofia Negron
National Grocers Association
New York Event 2020

An annual grocery-bagging competition in Las Vegas brings out the 'essential' in essential worker and the 'skill' in unskilled labor

Inside a ballroom in an opulent Las Vegas Strip casino, competitors who have been training all year step up to the stage. Spectators sporting feather boas hold up giant cardboard faces and scream. Each athlete lines up on their mark. The emcee counts them down — “Three, two, one, go!” — and the nation’s best compete in what might be society’s most common and least recognized sport: grocery bagging.

This is the National Grocers Association’s (NGA’s) Best Bagger Competition, held every spring at Caesars Palace. According to Laura Strange, the NGA’s chief communications and member engagement officer, this annual competition is “a way for these store employees to feel good about the way they’re supporting their organizations to serve their communities.”

Although NGA President and CEO Greg Ferrara has stated that baggers are “essential,” because they’re the last impression a customer receives of the store, their work may be even more critical than his assessment implies: They assist customers who may lack the strength or mobility to bag their own groceries, make grocery shopping more efficient, and ensure no one goes home with broken eggs and squished loaves of bread.

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And yet, their work is often categorized as “unskilled labor.” For many of the participants, this competition is a way to be recognized by their community, and to prove just how much skill goes into their work.

FOUNDED BY THE American Paper Institute in 1983, then evolving into the “Texas – Oklahoma Checkout Shootout” in 1987 (which featured just two baggers competing under the commentary of emcee and former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw), the NGA Best Bagger Championship is now an annual event featuring the top baggers from across the nation. This year, winners from fourteen states competed for the grand prize of $10,000. For baggers who make an average salary of $35,373 per year, according to estimates by Glassdoor, that’s a significant chunk of change.

For the competition, baggers line up onstage at mock cash registers underneath swiveling colored lights, like they’re working at a realistic replica of a nightclub grocery store. They’re judged on four categories; perhaps the most obvious is Speed, which accounts for 10 of the total 30 possible points that a competitor can achieve. To win all 10 points, the bagger must finish bagging all of their items in fewer than 53 seconds. During the championship, the baggers will have to bag between 25 and 35 items, according to Strange, which means they have about 1.5 to 2.1 seconds to bag each item and win the maximum number of points.

An equally significant category, also worth 10 points, is Proper Bag Building Technique. In this area, contestants can lose points for things like placing “crushable items,” such as bread or eggs, on the bottom of the bag, forgetting to bag items, or throwing them into the bag in a disorderly manner. The other two categories, each worth five points, are Distribution of Weight Between Bags, and Style, Attitude and Appearance. Both of these categories are explicitly customer-focused: evenly distributing weight among bags makes them easier to balance as they’re carried out of the store, and, as the criteria for the Style category states, “All contestants should present a neat appearance, be polite and convey a customer-oriented attitude.”

Strange, who is part of the group that determined the items used in the 2023 championship, says, “Typically speaking, we try to find an assortment of what people will find in a full-service supermarket. We try to include what you would find in everyday American grocery baskets. And then some fun little surprises in there — there’s always one or two.”

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Since competitors are not told exactly what they’ll be bagging beforehand, they have to get a little creative when it comes to training.

“Last year, my boss and I created a cardboard cutout of where to place everything and placed it to the side of the register,” says Sarah Mehany, the 2023 Tennessee state champion. “We did it half with the setup the TGCSA (Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association) gave us, and then half without, because we know it won’t be exactly the same.”

Both Mehany and the 2023 state champion from Minnesota, Marissa Schumacher, say they practice every day in the week leading up to the competition. Mehany says she scheduled a six-hour shift every day that week to train. Schumacher watched the video of the 2022 competition to evaluate the competitors’ techniques and paused the video to answer the host’s post-competition questions herself. The showmanship is, after all, part of the spectacle.

MEHANY AND SCHUMACHER are similar in another way: They are both young and female, which is very different from the norm in their field. The average grocery bagger in the United States is white, male, and 39 years old, according to data compiled by Zippia. In fact, the overwhelming majority of grocery baggers — 71 percent — are male, which is what makes it even more surprising that the championship winners for three out of the past four years (2020, 2022 and 2023) have been women. As Mehany notes, the competitors also skew toward a younger demographic than the national average. “From what I’ve seen, everyone has been a rising freshman or college student” in the Tennessee state competitions, she says. Mehany is a college junior, while Schumacher is still a senior in high school.

No matter the age, though, all grocery baggers are working in a position that requires them to simultaneously practice superb customer service skills, endure the physical demands of being on their feet and lifting heavy items for a full shift, and solve the puzzle of bagging items efficiently. For the NGA, the purpose of the competition is “to highlight the hard work and dedication of a role that is truly such an important role in the store, but isn’t always recognized,” Strange says.

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The critical nature of baggers and other grocery store workers became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they were categorized as “frontline workers,” who ensured all of us were still able to eat, but the sudden appreciation for baggers during a desperate time didn’t come without its cost. The pandemic “put emphasis on the role itself, but there is also an element of employees who came through during tough times and responded to their community’s needs, which put pressure on those who worked in stores,” Strange says. Between 2022 and 2032, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a 26-percent drop in the number of the country’s grocery baggers. This may be attributed to the low pay. The anticipated decline may also be explained, at least in part, to the rise of self-checkout options at grocery stores. Strange, however, believes that some grocery store owners will continue to opt for the more human touch of employing cashiers and baggers.

“Some (store operators) have leveraged self-checkout for efficiency, to have more lanes open,” she says. “But there are stores that differentiate (themselves) on the experience itself, so having that warm, friendly face to help you check out is where some of our members provide value.”

BEING THAT FRIENDLY face has helped Schumacher to grow into herself a bit more. She says she used to be shier, but talking with customers all day has given her the confidence needed to compete on the national stage.

“I’m talking to so many people, and most of my conversations are just fine. You don’t really need to overthink so much. It’s just a conversation,” she says. “Working here (at Kowalski’s Market) definitely got me out of my comfort zone.”

Schumacher, who plans on studying meteorology or atmospheric sciences when she begins college later this year, also competes on her school’s cross-country and track teams year-round. She says that her competitiveness and self-criticism are the same in these sports as they are when she’s bagging.

“I can be a bit hard on myself,” Schumacher says. “I think, ‘Oh I could have done better in this area,’ or, ‘Next time, I can improve on this.’ I see those similarities quite frequently.”

As with most competitions, participating in the Best Bagger Compeition can validate the hard work that the competitors put into their job performance. “It would be an accomplishment (to win),” Schumacher says. “All my time working here … it would feel honoring, knowing that I did that.”

Though for Schumacher, just being at the championship itself was thrilling. “The end goal is to win,” she says, “but I also want to meet new people, like the other competitors, and explore Las Vegas.”

Strange says she has spoken to a lot of competitors over the past decade who are simply excited about experiencing something new. “Last year I spoke to a young man who had never been on an airplane, or even out of his state before,” she says. “It’s fun to provide experiences like that for people.”

For Mehany, the competition is about “opportunities.”

“I feel like this is such a niche and unique thing, and (this competition is) giving people the opportunity to prove that they’re the best at it,” she says. Mehany is a junior in college, double-majoring in politics and international studies. Somehow, she also finds time to participate in her college’s swim and cheerleading teams. Mehany is currently studying abroad in Berlin, and she flew back from Germany just for this competition because, she says, it’s “such a unique experience.”

Bagging has been essential to her college journey: The TGCSA provided scholarships for her wins at the state level, where she snagged second place two years in a row before winning first place this past year. “I would be in a completely different place in my college journey without TGCSA,” she says. Recently, she adds, she decided she wants to go to law school.

Like Mehany, many of the past winners of the championship have used their grand prize money to make major purchases, stabilize their finances, or both. “I know a number have been able to use the money to pay for school, purchase cars or homes, or pay off some debt,” Strange says.

For competitors such as Mehany and Schumacher, who are currently or will soon be attending college, winning could mean supporting themselves through school or preventing additional debt from student loans, which may grant them greater freedom in terms of academic and career pursuits. While a win could be life-changing for these competitors, they also spend hours of their precious free time optimizing their bagging techniques — simply for the love of the game. Mehany says, “Bagging is one of the strange aspects of my life that I love!” ✦

Editor’s note: As this story went to press, the 2024 Best Bagger Championship at Caesars Palace was underway. The winner was Madison Ireland.