There I was on Saturday morning at the grocery store, my cart full, hastily putting my items on the checkout band. I sent two parties ahead of me to the cashier, knowing I would need a little extra time; my weekly groceries still filled the cart and my attempts to organize the checkout band for efficient packing were consuming precious seconds. The people behind me began to move closer, although I hadn’t moved forward an inch. Someone sighed loudly from farther back in line. And I began to sweat.
Finally, my groceries all lined up in perfect order on the checkout band, I proceeded to the cashier, who began her rapid-fire process of scanning and piling them for me to place back in the cart. I wasn’t fast enough, she dumped things in for me to speed things up. Desperate to keep up, I was of course unable to pack things in the cart in the order I had planned while placing them on the band. The heavy things were on top, the eggs near the bottom, and the potatoes just got dumped on top of the yogurt. Eager to end the transaction, I paid (with my debit card, which wasn’t possible just a few years ago!) and made my way to the car, where I again packed the groceries, this time at my leisure and in the order I preferred, into the reusable bags waiting in my car.
Whew. Grocery shopping culture here is so different. Even after more than a decade of it, I still get nervous. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. This is how things are at Aldi, where you get good food at low prices, without the frills. Literally, their idea of a frill is being able to pay with a debit card. It used to be cash-only. There are other grocery stores, of course, but none offer the value-for-money available at Aldi. It takes some practice to shop there, you have to learn which of the products you like without the help of national or international brands. Aldi’s concept is to sell brand-name products without the brand name or packaging, at a steep discount. The manufacturers go for this deal because Aldi sells in such large volume at its small markets. Everyone shops at Aldi.
There are other, more enjoyable, places to shop. The kind where you can get a large shopping cart and wander through wide aisles, browsing shelves of brand-name products while music plays in the background. Some of these stores even have complimentary paper bags for your groceries, allow you plenty of time to bag your items at checkout, and occasionally even have school kids there on a Saturday morning to bag them for you. Enjoyable as this shopping experience is, you end up paying at least 60% more for your groceries. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it isn’t.
There are also multiple stores somewhere in the middle, and of course the fancy organic stores that charge a small fortune. However, if you are just moving here from North America, you will be surprised at how small the grocery stores are – even the large supermarkets here are “normal”-sized in your home culture. I understand there are some warehouse-style stores, but nothing along the lines of Costco or Sam’s Club. And to be honest, I wouldn’t know what to do with groceries from a Costco trip once I brought them back to my European-size kitchen. Storage is another issue all together, and probably deserves it’s own post!
When I know I will be grocery shopping, whether at a discounter or a high-end store, I prepare two small things first: 1) have the 1 euro coin or chip for the shopping cart ready (having to go inside and get change in order to get the cart leaves me feeling defeated before I even start!); and 2) bring reusable shopping bags and keep them in the trunk of the car.
I suspect that this is one part of life here that will always feel foreign to me. The good news, and the upside, is that the food on offer is very good, and the prices are low, which offsets my culture shock every time.