National Editor Tom Karst In the old days, it was hard to hide a camera. What’s more, the boxy 35 mm SLR cameras that were common back in the 1980s needed a attention-grabbing flash to take a decent picture in a fresh produce department.
But the produce nerd would find himself on the road and come upon a gem of a wet rack display and want to snap a few pictures. Or an aspiring produce journalist would want to add a few retail shots of the snappy and colorful produce department at the hot new supermarket on his latest road trip.
Unless the trip was prearranged and management had already given the okay for a photo shoot, it is unlikely that a sudden impulse to take a picture in the produce department could be satisfied. Sure, one could always “ask for permission” to take a photo, but that kind of request, no matter how sincerely articulated (“I just love what you have done with your apple display! You guys are awesome!”), was kicked up the chain of command to the store manager and perhaps even to corporate. Needless to say, such requests always ended with a polite “No.”
This universal paranoia about photographs inside the produce department/supermarket is not unique to the U.S. When I visited Russia several years ago we visited an upscale supermarket in Moscow where two Secret Service style security guards in suits, fitted with earpieces and lapel mikes, were watching our wide-eyed tour group with sobering intensity. One false move and I could imagine being interrogated in a soundproof room with a single, swaying, light bulb hanging overhead.
What are the reasons for supermarket skittishness about pictures of the produce department? It is not exactly top secret stuff, since thousands of consumers come through the store every week, checking prices and inspecting quality. Supermarkets aren’t exactly protecting trade secrets in how they create displays and plan layouts for the produce department; the seasoned produce veteran can take in a lot of detail with his trained eye in a cursory glance. Another possible reason for the presumptive “no” to photos is the fear that photos may expose the seamy underbelly of ransacked, out-of-stock produce displays. Produce managers don’t want to be immortalized in a less-than-flattering moment.
I can also understand that retailers don’t want competitors coming into their stores and creating a distraction, or perhaps invading the privacy of customers by taking photos. So there needs to be a concession to the fact that such prohibitions on photography within the supermarket are not without reasonable cause.