When you walk into your neighborhood grocery store, you might first drift toward the inviting rainbow of the produce section conveniently located near the entrance, optimistically loading your cart with bananas and broccoli before being tempted by the corn-laden pleasures that lurk deeper in the market. But there is one supermarket chain with locations all over the globe where that never happens. In this store, no one has ever witnessed a customer buying a fruit or vegetable, unless you count the inflatable bananas that women in baggy red sweaters sometimes sprint through the canned goods aisle to get. Not even an avocado. No millennial has ever shopped here.
Nearly every customer runs to the back of the store, cart careening wildly through the aisles, until they reach the gourmet hams. They heave five of them in their cart before heading to the wedges of imported Swiss cheese, which cost $24 apiece. Jugs of Mazola oil, bags of coffee, diapers, and a herd of colanders are chucked in the cart. After the shoppers finish checking out, they leave the food behind. But when these customers return to their regular grocery purveyor, you can be sure that when they hear the beep, they’re thinking of all the fun they could be having on Supermarket Sweep.
If the above sentence gives you nostalgic pangs for Lifetime’s ’90s offerings or reminds you that a channel called PAX once existed, you, of course, know the store in question was located on a studio lot in Los Angeles and was used to film a game show. If you could put only one thing in a time capsule from the ’90s to show what America was like back then, a box of recorded episodes on videotapes — replete with perms and economic sunniness predicated on a shoddy premise — would do the trick. It is beloved by many, hated by more. A 1992 New York magazine review of a TV production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead concluded, “Still, even mediocre Stoppard on TV is superior to Supermarket Sweep.”
Most of all, it is just weird: a game show that tests contestants not on trivia or skills, but on the accumulation of facts about brands that comes from a lifetime of fulfilling a basic necessity of being human. We have to eat, and thanks to a never-ending parade of innovations originating during the Industrial Revolution, that means sifting daily through the inner Rolodex of Proctor & Gamble subsidiaries that has slowly replaced the space once reserved for memorizing Samuel Taylor Coleridge or cataloging tips for how not to die of the plague. Like most game shows, it is about nothing.
As you might have heard, the program is getting revived more than a dozen years after it went off the air. And, like many other popular game shows, it was repackaged and resold internationally, creating Supermarket Sweep clones that aired on nearly every continent. There was an Australian one. In Vietnam, there was Siêu Thị May Mắn. Ukraine and Greece had their own Supermarket Sweeps. Altogether, at least 12 countries produced versions of the show. They are now available for your viewing pleasure on YouTube, thanks to loyal fans who recorded the show during its golden age of exportation and its years of subsequent syndication.
Game shows are one of America’s most plentiful natural resources. As one TV executive told Forbes in 1992, “In markets where programming is scarce, nothing sells better than game shows. They are cheap, easy to produce and outrageously popular.” That’s why the Price Is Right is known as Le Juste Prix in France, why Jeopardy! spawned a dozen exclamation-point-covered knock-offs, and why the movie Slumdog Millionaire exists. But these shows let their contestants take part in the extraordinary. Supermarket Sweep only lets them reenact their daily lives in a more absurd dimension.
So why was it replicated abroad? “It was a show that could translate easily, because we all shop,” says Tino Monte, host of the Canadian version of the show. “I’m not going to look much deeper than that.”
Jason Mittell, a film and media culture professor at Middlebury College, was happy to look instead. “Supermarket Sweep works as a global export,” he writes in an email, “because consumer capitalism has been such a successful global export... The show offers localized versions of a widespread practice common to all developed capitalist societies, purchasing food in a grocery store, making the program highly relatable and rewarding the knowledge people gain through this everyday mundane practice.”
“One possible reason,” Morris Holbrook, professor at the Columbia Business School and author of Daytime Television Gameshows and the Celebration of Merchandise, writes in an email, “is that (perhaps ill-advisedly) many foreigners emulate what they perceive as American values and that Supermarket Sweep embodied those values to the hilt.” On PAX, the show was often paired with another consumer-obsessed show, Shop ’til You Drop. It cannot approach the lovable Supermarket Sweep, which treats shopping for sustenance, instead of desires, as its muse.
On the surface, the other shows in the Supermarket Sweep franchise look familiar; the same set of values reflected in the same poor grocery lighting. There are always three pairs of players, an assortment of sisters-in-law, couples, college pals, and neighbors. The host stands in front of an elegant display of produce. Everyone hugs constantly. The attire looks like clothing from a period piece: shocks of primary colors, normcore chic, and mullets of unusual size. In a Don DeLillean twist, contestants are often forced to act as customer and employee while pricing and stacking products, as if the show were some dystopian training camp for future minimum-wage workers. At their heart, the Supermarket Sweeps also reveal who is good enough at the most rote parts of life — and ruthless enough — to remain alive during an apocalypse. Don’t let the mom jeans fool you — Linda just put an ironing board in her cart and she knows how to use it.
People did not watch the show for the crashes. It appears there was only one.
It is amazing how much a country can assert its national identity without ever leaving these fake stores. Food ties people to a place, and a taste of potato salad or whiff of pecan pie conjures up a swell of love for home nearly better than anything else. And grocery stores can work as a comforting archive of that national identity, either indexing the tastes of home or making you miss it because of what you can’t find. As a result, there’s sort of an Olympics-adjacent pride in each show’s iteration of Supermarket Sweep, as only a citizen of each place would be able to answer such specific, useless questions about brands of cookies, or cheer on their fellow man from the couch as they race to find them in under 30 seconds. (Sample question in the U.K.: Which of these is a type of biscuit: Shrewsbury, Flitch, or Flounder?)
In each show, the host, announcer, and contestants do the work of presenting a cheery, capitalist fiction that would make their country proud — all the while pretending that it makes total sense that winning at shopping equals spending the most money possible.
In the U.K.’s Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, which ran from 1993 to 2001, with a brief return in 2007, announcer Bobby Bragg openly mocks the shoppers scurrying around the grocery store, as if chasing down bargains required subtweeting. “It looks like he’s lost the will to live!” he laughs in one 1998 episode. Bragg gives slap-dash soliloquies on “dodgy trolleys,” the fact that “there’s frozen veg flying all over the supermarket,” and that time when “we nearly had a collision near the nappies.” The eponymous hero of the show, Dale Winton, is effervescent; where other hosts lean on the affable purity of a local news anchor for inspiration, Winton wants to practice his slapstick and dish.
He is in charge of the greatest innovation in the British Supermarket Sweep besides the catchy jingle — “Check it out! Check it out!” — reminding viewers repeatedly that the sort of people who sought out the opportunity to be on the show were as boring and lovely as the show itself. There are no reality TV molds to fit the six players in — Supermarket Sweep lets everyone revel in their adorably dull selves. All players fill out a questionnaire before being honored with their 23 minutes of fame. This survey is rendered down into one deliciously odd detail, providing the pairs with the same kind of literary condensation that short story writers perform on the extras of their narratives.
Lorna and Tracy, we learn, were on a disco dance team for the young at heart over the age of 25. Sharon enjoys karaoke. Her ambition is to sing a duet with Phil Collins and George Michael. Sandra’s unusual talent is running up her dad’s phone bill to an excess of 200 quid. Judith wants to buy a country mansion so she can hold Wild West parties and dress like Dolly Parton. Cemetery Kelly lives in a cemetery. Allan can do Jim Carrey impressions. These facts don’t reveal anything about the contestants, but, later, when we see them running around the supermarket yelling, “CHEESE! CHEESE! CHEESE!” or “BEEF! BELIEVE ME! BELIEVE ME!” it almost makes sense.
In Brazil, the music used during the sweep sounds like what elevator music might sound like in an Indiana Jones movie.
The commercials for upcoming episodes of Clink Caja in Argentina feature laser guns. Watching Supermarket Sweep in a language you don’t understand helps boil the show down to its essence. We are watching people shop for 20 minutes while sports commentary plays, and we are riveted.
The “time’s-up” horn in the Turkish Supermarket sounds like the Inception noise, and the host looks vaguely hipsterish. The brands might be unfamiliar to a North American viewer, but everyone is still crazy about picking up diapers.
In Canada, where the show ran from 1992 to 1995, Monte mentions a health tip during each episode, as if to compensate for the fact that the quantity-over-quality aspect of the show doesn’t leave much time for nutrients, metaphorically or literally. Instead of $5,000 or 2,000 pounds, shoppers have a chance to win a La-Z-Boy they have to share with their brother-in-law, a year of free bottled water, a trip to Cuba, or a very heavy Toshiba TV. The race for the gourmet hams has been replaced by a dash for huge hunks of prosciutto.
Dale Ruprecht, the American Sweep host, once said he was befuddled by contenders’ determination to go for the biggest items in the store to spend big, instead of going for the efficiently sized boxes of hair color or expensive skincare. Monte, the host to our north, told me that he wondered why people didn’t just run for the caviar. It almost seems that the contestants, having used their own daily-shopping experience to get to the Sweep, force themselves to only purchase the most expensive items they deal with in their own lives, instead of the priciest items in the store. It feels like the participants are aware of their forbears and armchair contestants, and are forced to treat the show with the comforting predictability of Sunday mass. Those who came before us went for the dog food and the diapers, and so must we, lest those at home be disappointed.
But, at some point, all the shows were forced to reckon with the fact that while a lifetime of living helps prepare us for the rigors of competitive shopping, reality is porous on a game show. Monte, who was originally turned down for the Canadian hosting job, until he received a fax informing him that producers wanted him back, said that the episodes were filmed in a manic burst one summer with some days ending with seven shoots. One day, early on, the studio had to be ventilated because all the meat had gone bad. The canned and dry goods remained, but all the piggy bits being tossed around for the rest of the season were mere props. Ruprecht remembered similar problems, as hot dogs began to ferment in their own packages. Maybe it was all a lie, and people only went for the ham because it felt the most like a fantasy, or at least wasn't in danger of exploding in their faces.
Monte also says that even though the show, on his end, only lasted one summer more than 20 years ago, people still come up to him because of it. Once, he heard a knock at his door in Toronto in the middle of the night. It was a handful of students from Nova Scotia who were completing a scavenger hunt, and they needed one of the crazy ties, the ones with Marilyn Monroe or fish or squiggles on them, which became part of his uniform on the show. The show might have ended, but the desire to chase down Supermarket Sweep props endures. As Nicholson Baker once put it, “How can you not become attached to the poignant scraps that flow through life?”