Feb 13, 2012 • By

Big-time bagging

I used to think a grocery bagging competition was little more than a chuckle at the end of the television newscasts that I used to write in my former career. You know, like an extreme sport, a water-skiing squirrel or a hot dog eating contest.

I was wrong. It’s serious business!

Today is the National Grocers Association’s Best Bagger Championship. The best baggers from 24 states are in Las Vegas competing for the title of National Best Bagger. We had a chance to chat with two of them.

One thing is clear: They take this whole thing quite seriously.

Blake Westling, a college student studying biology and chemistry, holds the Best Bagger title in Minnesota. The 20-year-old works at the Byerly’s in Eagan, but goes to school 125 miles away. He practiced with his trainer each day via Skype. (You can see him in action, here.)

“I have a kitchen table and have groceries the company has bought for me. I lay them on the table and angle my computer so you can see,” describes Westling. “My trainer says ‘go’ and I start bagging. I show him that my hands are up and that I’m done. We critique my form. We’ve done it blindfolded, as well.”

Stephanie Teteak, the head bookkeeper at Larry’s Piggly Wiggly in Kaukauna, Wis., is taking a second shot at the national title after competing last year. (You can see video of her, here.)

“We practice like crazy. We spend probably an hour or two here every night after work just practicing,” she says. “We time me bagging and then weigh the bags and see how we did.”

The championship is done in four rounds of five people, and one round of four people. The top five scorers advance to the final round.

“You start with 10 points for your time. Once you get up to 44 seconds, you lose a point. If you get up to 48 seconds, I think it is, you lose another point, and it goes on and on,” Teteak explains. “Your weight is worth five points. You bag the groceries in three bags. They take your heaviest bag and subtract your lightest bag. If you have a pound-and-a-half difference, you lose a point and a half. So the weight is really the hardest part.”

In addition to speed and weight distribution, contestants are scored on bagging technique and style, attitude and appearance.

“We don’t know what groceries are going to be there,” Westling says. “You get anywhere between a minute and three minutes max to look at the groceries, and then you’re bagging.”

The winner takes home $10,000 and gets to be on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Of course, the prizes are incentives, but the baggers are motivated by more.

“Bagging is really one of the most important jobs in the store, because it’s the last physical contact that the customer has with your store,” reflects Teteak. “So the impression you give the customer then is what they’re going to go home with.”

Good luck to Blake and Stephanie, and the other 22 baggers vying for the national title today.

Editor’s note: (2/14/12) Stephanie won and Blake came in second!