Why "Supermarket Sweep" Was Such a Hit in the '90s

Image Credit: NBC

Get five garbage cans and put them in the cart. Fill them with hams, turkeys, and some albacore tuna. Grind some coffee beans for an extra $100. Grab the huge bottle of Snapple if you see it.

If you had cable in the '90s, this all probably makes perfect sense to you. And why, when heading through the checkout, you listen to the beep and still think of all the fun you could have had on Supermarket Sweep.

Supermarket Sweep aired on the Lifetime Network (Television for Women and Middle School Children with No Plans) from 1990-1995 and then again on PAX from 2000-2003. The game show was 10 minutes of boring trivia and price guessing to kill time until the real razzle dazzle: A frenzied race through a grocery store where contestants tried to spend as much money as possible in a limited amount of time. The winning players — always a couple, always in matching sweatshirts — were rewarded with the dollar amount they racked up "shopping" and a final run through the store where they could win an extra $5,000.

Sweep and its sister in consumerism, Shop 'Til You Drop, were Lifetime's most popular daytime shows for three years straight. After filming fresh episodes, they aired reruns to equally high ratings. But why?

The early '90s was a tough time, economically. The average middle-class income dipped down to $50,000 for the first time in a decade. Nearly one million workers were only able to find part-time work. Each family of four held an average of $32,000 in consumer debt.

Perhaps most importantly, a great recession was just beginning to wane and households were now accustomed to shopping for value rather than quality or convenience. If a family had any extra money to spend, chances are that they were spending it a "one stop shop" like K-Mart or Walmart. Though this concept had been done decades earlier, it felt fresh again in the late-1980s and was marketed towards families with all parents working — now a full 2/3 of households.

American television shows have always been a likeness of the times. If Rowen & Martin's Laugh In reflected the go-go comedy scene of the late-1960s, then Supermarket Sweep glorified the 1980s highest art form: advertising.

TV watchers were now no longer limited to three channels showing news, a western, or an American flag waving in the wind. They could switch around (remotely!) and find something else to watch while they waited for a commercial to end. Aware of this, advertising seemingly went into overdrive creating jingles that still haunt an entire generation's dreams.

Like a siren, she wails: P_izza in the morning, pizza in the_ evening, pizza at suppertime, when pizza's on a bagel, you can eat pizza any time.

So what do you get when you combine the drudgery of food shopping and the government-brainwashing quality advertisements of the early 1990s?

If you're making a game show, you get Supermarket Sweep. The legend says that the show's creator was food shopping with his wife when he thought about how fun it would be to have enough money run through the store and buy whatever you wanted. I like to imagine that's all he said in his pitch meeting with the studio and that the competition and sweatshirt details were all implied.

Re-watching the show on YouTube is exciting and a real timesuck. It's so fun and easy to become frustrated with the players. Why are you looking for soap in the pet food aisle, Brenda, why?

Before the airwaves were saturated with reality TV, there was novelty in watching someone turn the everyday into spectacle. I would like to see this show relaunched today (the inferior Guy's Grocery Games will not even be acknowledged) and feature less in-your-face jingle humping. There is such a sweet satisfaction in watching someone compete, often poorly, at something you know you can do better.

Maybe that was the real reason for the show's success. At the end of a very long day, in any decade, a person just wants to sit down and feel better about themselves by watching someone run around and look silly. Sweatshirts are optional.