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You may think of those people scanning...


You may think of those people scanning bar codes at the supermarket as mere checkout people, but to me, they're trusted news sources.

Over the years, I've gotten more tips -- and story ideas -- from the guardians of the register than any other sub-group of society. They ask little of us ("Paper or plastic?") but observe so much. The average checkout specialist can, within 30 seconds, scrutinize your purchases on the conveyor belt and make keen deductions about lifestyle, general health, annual income and personality quirks. They know if our feet smell (from that can of Dr. Scholl's sneaker spray), if we wear dentures (that new, blue Efferdent), if we can't get enough about Roseanne and Tom (after we've reached for a tabloid) and if we are still spoiling that child within (Frosted Flakes are a dead giveaway). Moreover, they always know when you're dieting (why else eat Styrofoam-like "rice cakes"?) and when you're not (your basket contains Malomars or any flavor of Haagen Daz).

After years in the business, master checkers can spot trends better than many high-paid demographers. In the early Reagan years, they were the first to detect the decrease in consumption of red meat and subsequent increase in consumption of fish and fowl. In the Bush years, they provided early warning on the fresh pasta and bottled water booms. And during Bill Clinton's run for office, they heralded the emergence of clear beverages and cosmetics.

My checkout spies observe the parade of human progress from a unique checkpoint. To them we dedicate Arlene Ehrlich's delightfully serio-comic cover story on supermarket behavior.

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