First Response Pregnancy Test

1 bunch bananas

(Positively the first craving.)

Pstg. Stamps

Elmer's Glue

(Now, there's an optimist.)

It started like this. I had a few minutes before the car pool loaded, so I wandered down to the computer lab in my daughter's school. Next to a large green trash bag brimming with computerized register tapes sat a group of mothers, busily marking and adding up the tapes' bottom lines. Once a stack worth more or less $1,000 in groceries was assembled, the stack was filed with others to be traded in to Safeway or Giant Food for computers for the classroom.

At my daughter's school, some of the older children actually use the tapes for simple math projects, counting numbers of tapes or frequency of items, graphing the results, that sort of thing. But it's the parents who find the spare moments for tallying. Beyond the thrill of coming up with a stack adding up to a perfect $1,000, it's fairly boring.

Until you start reading the tapes.

When I first joined a little group of tape counters, I didn't really focus on what families bought. But when my eyes inevitably wandered over the items on the list, some of them proved pretty funny (you do get a little punchy after a few stacks) and revealing.

Korbl Champg

Meat Loaf

(Champagne tastes on a meatloaf budget.)

Turkey Dnner

Turkey Dnner

Magazine

(Life in the singles lane.)

Admittedly, reading through the grocery receipts of my fellow parents is not unlike the National Enquirer's infamous survey of Henry Kissinger's garbage. But at least this was cleaner, and I was glad that the computerized registers don't as yet note the buyer's name. After all, I have to see these people at the potluck suppers and back-to-school nights.

A less than scientific survey uncovered these facts about the shopping habits of the families at my daughter's school:

Only rarely did they escape the grocery with just one item.

Most receipts for five items or fewer included a small package of candy.

Ethnicities know no bounds. Tofu and ginger root go home with ricotta cheese; Jewish rye goes with bacon.

The battle for healthful eating is lost regularly in the aisles of the supermarket. Nearly all receipts listing junk foods also show diet sodas, skim milk, or other low-calorie items.

The largest tape I handled, for $337.64, featured a great deal of meat, paper products, and Slim Fast. The smallest was a 25-cent bakery item. Large orders (presumably the week's groceries) greatly outnumbered small orders. These parents are organized.

Pstg. Stamps

Nestles Crnch

3-Musketeers

(A spoonful of sugar helps the bill paying go down.)

By now, few have escaped the mania. Even if you don't have school-age children, someone in your neighborhood probably does -- and they're soliciting your Safeway and Giant register receipts for their schools. The eligible Giant tapes are pink; Safeway's, in a variety of colors, are all headed with "Computers for Classrooms."

The programs have proved enormously popular with schools. Last year, Safeway's Eastern Division, spanning from Williamsburg, Va., to Baltimore County, Md., donated $1.5 million worth of computers, software and peripherals to 1,262 schools, according to public relations manager Jim Roberts. Giant's D.C., Maryland and Virginia stores donated $7 million worth of equipment to 2,300 area schools, according to Giant Food spokesman Barry Scher. Tapes for the Giant program may be collected through March 2; for Safeway's through March 16.

Similac Reg

Cinn Buns

Sl Sv Donuts

Btr Rum Buns

Apple Pastry

(Sure, it's all pregnancy weight.)

Although the tapes can be funny, some people take them quite seriously. In fact, the data on these computerized lists are changing the way America does business.

"All the variables that a store and manufacturer control can be evaluated" by using the same data customers have on their register receipts, says Leonard Lodish, professor of marketing at the Wharton School and a director of Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based marketing, research and software-development company. Stores can learn whether their price reductions, newspaper ads, coupons or displays actually result in more sales. Stores also sell their data to companies like Lodish's, which analyze the information and sell it to manufacturers. Sometimes these research firms, who buy data from all stores in a particular city, can tell a Safeway store to stock more dog biscuits because a Giant store is selling truckloads.

Historians are also looking forward to using register data, according to Kathryn S. Smith, president of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Historians routinely study the recorded minutiae of individuals in order to create a portrait of past societies.

"If you go back several centuries to find records of daily life," says Smith, "you look for letters, diaries, account books, census records, city directories. But these are records left by educated elites. What you don't find are the records of the ordinary citizen because generally they didn't make or keep those records."

Future historians, according to Smith, will have a field day with our register tapes. They'll tally how much we ordinary citizens spent on cleaning supplies in order to determine how clean we were -- or were trying to become. When they read that we were urged to change our diets for health reasons, they'll study just how much meat we purchased, and the balance between starches and fats. They'll determine how much time we spent at home by comparing our purchases of fresh produce to frozen convenience foods. In fact, historians will be able to suggest the income level of a neighborhood by analyzing its purchasing patterns.

After tally duty, I must confess I'm more careful about what I buy these days. After all, I'm leaving a paper trail. Someone I know might discover my secret need for Peppermint Patties -- before I'm history.

1 lb. M&Ms

Diet Pepsi

(Who are you kidding?)