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I Spent Weird Nights Inside French Supermarkets… For Work

In 2002, after an epic trip from Mexico to Brazil with a detour to Canada, I flew back to France. I was determined to travel again and meet Feng somewhere in this big world—details to be fine-tuned.

But first, I needed to save money.

Scratch that—I need to make money, for a start.

After the final exams, in June 2002, I met up with old friends. It turned out that no matter where or what we had studied during the school year, we were all going to spend the next few long summer months in Nantes, at our parents’ places, hopefully working. We were no longer kids and curfews no longer applied. Freedom tasted sweet.

As reasonable young adults, we printed out a stack of resumes (“Work experience: pretty much nothing”) and started the job hunt. I had zero marketable skills or experience, and I lacked connections to get a paid internship. A few of my friends found jobs as waitresses, a couple of them cleaned offices early in the morning, one worked in a factory as a shift worker and one as a cashier in a supermarket.

Half of us were still looking. Since we had no success with bars, restaurants and clothing shops, and since Nantes only had so many of them, we decided to go through staffing agencies. Most didn’t even accept any more resumes from students, they already had a giant pile on their desk.

But finally, one day, we stroke luck with Adecco.

“Can you count?”

“Er… yes.”

“We have a one-time job for tonight.”


“Take it or leave it.”

Of course, I took it, and so did the friend who was dropping off resumes with me.

And so I was introduced to the wonderful world of inventory control.

At 11 p.m., as instructed, we showed up in the empty parking lot of Leclerc, a large supermarket chain. Twenty people are so were already there, sitting around, smoking cigarettes and chatting on their cell phones. Then someone from Leclerc came out and called us one by one.

“Like at school!” my friend laughed.

Once everybody was accounted for, we followed the manager inside and all gathered in front of the cash registers. The supermarket had closed an hour earlier, it was empty but you could still smell the usual Saturday rush complete with overexcited kids running around, products spilled in aisles and cheques being written for a week worth of groceries. The bright neon lights were still on but the annoying background music was off.

It felt strangely exciting to be inside the giant store after hours. Like a kid’s dream, exploring a mundane place without the crowd, discovering it “behind the scenes.”

We were paired with whoever we wanted, given a scanner and assigned to a specific area. My friend and I ended up in the beauty product section—a large aisle in any French supermarket. There, we had to count the number of units for each given product and record the total. Of course, the shelves were a mess, so we had to clean up first—mint toothpaste goes with mint toothpaste, clear mint goes with clear mint, etc. One, two, three, four bottles of Fructis shampoo, regular. Sixteen of Fructis, dandruff-free— well, this one wasn’t a bestseller.

“Can you believe how many kinds of shampoo there are?” my friend said an hour into the job.

Around 2 a.m., we were given a fifteen-minute break. We rushed to the bathroom, a lit cigarette in hand, and grabbed a croissant from a box a nice manager had opened.

We finished as the sun was rising. At 6 a.m., my friend and I walked home and I collapsed in bed. My mom heard me coming. “Everything alright?” “So many fucking bottles of shampoo,” I muttered before passing out.

A couple of days later, the staffing agency called back. Apparently, not having stolen any shampoo automatically qualified me as an inventory control expert.

The more jobs we completed, the wiser we got. We loved Carrefour because managers were usually easy-going and always fed us leftovers from the bakery during the night. Leroy Merlin (the French Home Depot) paid slightly above minimum wage. Go Sport sent half of us home without pay because they had required too many temps (we complained loudly about that one and still got paid for a couple of hours for getting up at 4 a.m.). Kiabi, a cheap clothing store, refused to pay the overnight premium and required employees to show up at 7 a.m. and work through the morning while customers were shopping, which made the whole process pointless.

Some products were fun to work with—books or toys, for example. The smaller the units, the harder it was to sort and count: I still remember counting batteries and screws at Leroy Merlin. Electronics was the easiest—large units, smaller inventory.

I worked through the summer, started to tutor kids in the fall and I manage to save money, enough to fly to New Zealand in December 2002. The staffing agency called for weeks at my parents’ place long after I left.

These days, every time I go to the supermarket in France, I remember these nights counting items in empty aisles.

Inside a French Supermarket
Inside a French Supermarket
Inside a French Supermarket
Inside a French Supermarket
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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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