Shopping in German-Speaking Europe
From groceries to clothes to electronics
Shopping is shopping, right? Wrong. If you’re used to shopping in the USA, we have some helpful advice for shopping in Germany and Europe.
A high-end watch counter in Frankfurt, Germany.
Photo © Hyde Flippo
Sales Tax/VAT (Mehrwertsteuer)
Unlike in the United States, when you see a price tag in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, what you see is what you’ll pay. The VAT (value-added tax) is included in the price, but you can see the tax amount on your receipt. The standard tax rate is 20% in Austria (10-12% for groceries, books and magazines), 19% in Germany (since Jan. 1, 2007; 7% for groceries, books and magazines, flowers, transportation.), and 7.6% in Switzerland (since 2001).
In Europe and the German-speaking countries, sales taxes go by various names. In Germany it’s the value-added tax (Mehrwertsteuer, MWST). In Austria it’s a turnover tax, or Umsatzsteuer, but the effect on your pocketbook is the same.
Under certain conditions, when making larger purchases, it is possible for non-Europeans (non-EU residents) to get a VAT refund, but the procedure is complex (there are forms to be filled out) and arrangements must be made at the time of purchase. You have to prove you are taking the purchased items out of the EU within three months of purchase. The minimum amount entitled to a refund varies from country to country.
- Cultural Differences - USA vs. Germany - Comparison
charts for various customs and daily life in the two countries!
The first thing that Americans, used to shopping at almost any time of day or night, need to be aware of is the Ladenschlußgesetz (store closing law). Notice that it is a store closing law, not a store opening law!
Since 2006, each of Germany’s 16 states has been allowed to pass its own laws for store hours, and all but two have done so. But don’t plan on shopping on Sunday or after 8:00 p.m. in most of Germany and the other two major German-speaking countries. (To buy groceries or shop on Sunday, go to the nearest large train station, which often has full-size grocery stores and other shops.) Shopping hours are most liberal in Berlin, but even there they have not yet reached anything close to American conditions or even those in many other EU countries. (See German Shopping Hours for more.)
|An Aldi discount grocery store in Trier, Germany. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons|
Buying Groceries (Lebensmittel)
The first thing an American notices in a German supermarket is a more limited selection of brands and products. (The selection in Switzerland and Austria can be even more limited.) While an American supermarket may offer 20-30 different breakfast cereals, a German one may only have a dozen or so (including a few you’ve never seen before!). On the other hand, German grocery stores usually offer a wider selection of cheeses, meats, bread varieties and other foods, although many Germans still prefer going to a butcher shop (Metzgerei), a bakery (Bäckerei) or pastry shop (Konditorei) for such things.
|British Food Supermarket
British Corner Shop: Online supermarket for expats.
British food delivered to Germany and worldwide.
The second thing you may notice is that the checkers are seated at their cash registers rather than standing. Checkout in a German grocery store is much like that in the US, with laser scanners, etc. But you may feel rushed as you try to pay and bag all your groceries yourself! (That is not the cashier’s job and baggers are extremely rare.) The next customer in your checkout lane will soon be shoving his or her way into your space. And don’t forget to bring your own shopping bag – or you’ll have to pay for one. (Real has experimented with payment using your cell phone and bar codes, but it will be many years before that is common.)
|This typical neighborhood grocery store in Berlin stays open until 10:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Photo © Hyde Flippo|
In larger German metropolitan areas there are also Costco-like super stores (Globus Handelshof, Kaufland, Metro, Real, etc. - see links below) that sell groceries and other items at “wholesale” prices. As with Costco, you usually have to be a member in order to shop at such hyper stores, and you’ll probably need a vehicle to haul away all your goodies.
Aldi and Lidl are the main discount grocery store chains in Germany and other parts of Europe. In Austria, Aldi uses the name "Hofer."
More grocery store differences:
- Credit cards (Kreditkarten) Very few German grocery stores (or any stores for that matter) accept credit card payment, and then only in tourist areas or at larger stores. Most will accept the EC bank card (which requires a German bank account), but your best bet is plain old cash. There’s usually an ATM (Geldautomat) in the store.
- Shopping carts: You’ll need a one-euro coin for the shopping cart deposit. (The smaller plastic baskets don’t require any deposit.) Just insert the coin into the slot to unlock the cart. When you return the cart, you get your coin back.
- Weighing veggies/fruit: Many grocery stores require you to weigh and bag fruits and vegetables on a scale in that department before you go to the checkout stand. Some stores have scales at the registers, but you still usually need to put your items in a plastic bag.
- Organic/natural foods: Germans are big on “Bio” (natural/organic), and you will find a good selection of organically grown food in German supermarkets and Bioläden.
- Bottle return (Leergut) Most of the beverage glass and plastic bottles you get in Germany/Europe have a deposit value that you can get back by returning them to any market (not necessarily the one where you bought them). Kaiser’s and some other grocery chains have automated machines that scan each bottle and determine the deposit value. You get a ticket (Bon) with the total amount, which you give to the cashier at checkout to get your cash.
- Real orange juice (direkt gepresst): Most Germans drink the normal bottled orange stuff they call orange juice (Orangensaft) – but really isn’t and tastes like crap. If you want the real thing, you have to make your own or go to the refrigerated section and look for cartons labeled “direkt gepresst” (directly squeezed, sometimes found in a special glass-door fridge). Other juices are also available direkt gepresst as well.
More Shopping Advice
Watch for our new pages on shopping for clothing, electronics, furniture and more…
Next, learn about shopping hours in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
NEXT > Shopping Hours
- Get your product or service listed here! More information.
- British Corner Shop - Online supermarket for expats. British food delivered to Germany and worldwide.
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NEXT > Shopping Hours
Web content Copyright © 1997-2012 Hyde Flippo
- German Shopping Hours - Only recently have shoppers in Austria, Germany, Switzerland had decent store hours, but it’s still far less than in most places.
- Cultural Differences - USA-Germany - Comparison charts for various customs and daily life in the two countries!
- Business in the German-speaking world - from the German Way book
- Sending Money to or from Germany
- Money, banks, and credit (from The German Way)
- German Business Links - Banks and businesses in Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland
On the Web
- Aldi (Wikipedia) - One of the best-known discount supermarket chains in Germany. Aldi also has stores in Europe, Australia, the UK and parts of the US. Trader Joe's is owned by Aldi.
- Aldi.com - The official Aldi website.
- How to go Grocery Shopping in Germany in 25 Easy Steps - Ger-sey Girl blog
- Kaiser’s - Tengelmann - A large German grocery store chain
- Kaufland - Large German warehouse retailer that also runs Lidl; also has a department store division (SB-Warenhäuser)
- Lidl - Aldi’s main competitor
- Metro - "Groß im Handel, klein im Preis" - 5 locations in Berlin alone, plus locations in most larger German cities; similar to Costco in the US