Paper Trail: What Grocery Lists Reveal About Shoppers

Old People Really Like Cookies

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There's a new reference book out for anyone trying to sell anything at the grocery -- or understand America. It's called "Milk Eggs Vodka."
'Milk Eggs Vodka,' by Bill Keaggy, is an archive of shopping lists.
'Milk Eggs Vodka,' by Bill Keaggy, is an archive of shopping lists.

It's a book of shopping lists.

Yes, real shopping lists -- a couple hundred of them, reprinted in all their crumpled, stained and misspelled glory. They represent just a fraction of the thousands of lists collected over the past decade by oddball/genius Bill Keaggy, who hopes you'll send him any lists you find too. He just loves them.

So do I! So do untold legions! Keaggy's grocery-list website,, gets a couple of thousand hits a day. Why?

"You really get a glimpse into people's lives," says Keaggy, a graphic designer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when not stopping to pick up and preserve the detritus of modern life. A grocery list is like a diary, he says: utterly honest and not written for public consumption. Short and mysterious, it is the haiku of everyday life:

"Squirt gun, hot peppers, strawberrys, bee trap, pie pans."

Read it and you can feel the sun beating down on a birthday party (and some kid screaming).

"Buns, vodka, wine, chips, vanilla ice cream, kitty litter."

That one just made Keaggy laugh.

"Prozac, kid hair de-tangler, Ibuprofen, Fiber-All, Sensodyne."

As Keaggy notes in his unfailingly wonderful marginalia, "Wow, your life sucks, my friend. Constipation, headaches, aching gums, kids with knotted hair. No wonder you're depressed."

Aside from the lives revealed by these lists, there are also the demographics. The Trader Joe's shopper's list includes, as if by law, goat cheese, shallots and pastry crust. Quiche alert! But the list written in fat, pre-teen letters, with smiles in all the O's, says, "Food -- Thanks Mom! Pizza Lunchable, Taco Lunchable, Gatorade Rapid Rush -- Blue, Cooler Ranch Doritos."

"I'm not so sure this list should have been labeled 'food,'" Keaggy observes.

Maybe not. But here you have a totally candid picture of what one girl -- possibly representing one entire generation -- wants for lunch. A few years later will it be buns, wine and vodka? Or Prozac and Fiber-All?

While Keaggy didn't write this book as any kind of marketing study -- he laughs at the idea -- he has come to a couple of conclusions, including the fact that old people really like cookies. (He can tell an old person's list by the shakiness of the writing.)

After collecting at least one list from every state, he found that 41% included some sort of bread and 37% included milk, half had some sort of personal-care or cleaning product, and just 6% were looking for liquor. Adds Keaggy, "Yeah. Right."

The most fastidious shoppers write their lists on the back of envelopes and put coupons inside (and sometimes forget they're there). The most frazzled write lists like: "Spaghetti. Sauce." Or even shorter lists: "Celery!" And the most honest write things like, "Bud Light, good beer." That's not commentary; those are two separate items.

And then there are the lists that can break your heart: "1 lb hamberger, cheeseburger mocornoi, bread, butter, lunch meat. If enough money -- chips."

It's not just the spelling that hurts.

After years of loving all these lists, Keaggy gradually realized that shoppers were wasting time and possibly money by not being organized. They were returning for single items ("Celery!") and being vague about their needs ("Get supper things"), so he created a checklist to help them. It lists just a couple of hundred items by department -- simplicity itself. Yet it has been downloaded tens of thousands of times.

If you ever find one of these lists, kindly send it to, P.O. Box 752, St. Louis, MO, 63188.

Meantime, don't forget:

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