Goodbye Miss Lonelycarts! Matchmaking Markets Promote Love Among the Vegetables

updated 09/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ever get the feeling you've been seeking your better half for better than half your life? Do you yearn for that lasting grand union? Well, cancel those personal ads, bag the bars and look for the date of your dreams between produce and poultry. Matches that were once made in heaven may now be arranged at the checkout counter. And you don't have to take potluck at your neighborhood Piggly Wiggly either; supermarket singles' nights are taking the guesswork out of whether the unattached shopper in the soft-drink aisle is looking for Mr. Right or the Sprite.

The idea itself is nothing new. Like launderettes, supermarkets have long been considered ideal meet markets for those with more in mind than a quart of milk or a can of tomato sauce. "Every night is singles' night here," says manager Charlie Cushman of a popular Safeway in Washington, D.C.'s yuppie-packed Georgetown. In California, though formal singles' nights have yet to catch on, flirtation while squeezing the Charmin is as well-accepted as, say, drive-in churchgoing or roller-skating in Venice. Just ask actress Jennifer (The Man Who Loved Women) Ashley, 30ish, who first met and dated the 18-year-old deli boy at the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market in West Hollywood, then took up with actor Rex Smith, whose acquaintance she made at the now-defunct Hughes Market in Hollywood.

Inevitably, such successes inspired the designated enchanted evening, a matchmaking phenomenon that is challenging double coupons as a marketing gimmick. Loudly touted on radio stations and usually scheduled on a market's slow night—typically, Tuesday—these shopping-cart revels are catching on from A to P and from Chicago to Boston. Lured by guest deejays, raffles and giveaways, as well as the chance for romance, singles with their names on their chests, if not their artichoke hearts on their sleeves, have been packing the parking lots and jamming the grocery aisles.

One reason, perhaps, is that the supermarket is a relatively clean, well-lighted place that allows easy conversational entrée by even the most fear-frozen mingler. Amid the array of comestibles, "What's your sign?" has given way naturally to "How's the yogurt?" or "Hey, check these casabas!"

Historians of the age will someday discover that the first singles' nights were held last November by the Price Chopper chain in Upstate New York. Next came a February debauch, just before the rising of the sap, at a Shop 'n Bag in Cherry Hill, N.J. The concept has since caught the fancy of other retailers casting a wanton eye toward the bottom line. Says Michael J. Mahoney, 29, public affairs director for New England's 63-store Purity Supreme supermarket chain: "We've had phenomenal success. We're bringing more customers into the stores and it's generating a profit. But," he hastens to add, "that's not why we do it. We're always trying to make the shopping trip more fun."

Aside from the increased store traffic, snob appeal may be hyping the take at the cash register. Boston-area radio personality Dick Syatt, a sometime singles' night emcee, has noticed an attitude of You Are What You Buy. "Some people get only the best yuppie foods—caviar, brie, special spices," he says. "They want to impress everyone with what's in their baskets." Diane Levine, a 33-year-old, twice-divorced mother from Stoughton, Mass., admits she's discreet about what she stuffs in her shopping basket ("I'm not going to put Pampers in here"), but says she doesn't rate dates by their grocery lists: "It's not what's in their carts that counts; it's what's in their hearts."

In fact, since singles' nights often draw more than 2,000 shoppers and aisle-prowlers, empty shopping carts may be hard to lay hands on. That may be fine for the market manager, but what does it do to the shopper who just wants to shop? Janice Harayda, 37, author of The Joy of Being Single, believes the pressure to become one of a twosome is already a burden on those for whom being one is enough. "People are being told these are the new singles' bars," she says. "We can't even go to the supermarket anymore without having to look for a lover. Is nothing sacred?"

Sacred or profane, singles' nights have brought a sense of the hunt to the marketplace and an atmosphere that is close to the circus. Of course, not everyone plays by the rules. Says Margie Glass of WMGK in Philadelphia, which co-sponsors the Cherry Hill singles' night: "We had this one man who walked in and immediately slipped off his wedding band. When we tried to give him a name tag, he declined. He'd just come in to pick up a can of soup, he said. But two hours later, he was still around."

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