When we first moved to Germany a year ago, going to the grocery store scared the crap out of me! A new language, culture, and rules meant with each supermarket visit, I would psych myself up but inevitably leave feeling like lost and inadequate. Each week, the store became my “Everest,” and I would drag a teenager along to climb it with me. We just had to survive the supermarket. It took almost six months before, finally, I started to get the hang of it. And now it sucks just a little less.
Whether moving or visiting Germany, I’ve collected the good, bad and confusing things about German grocery stores.
A Coin Ensures the Cart Returns
Before even entering the store, the game begins. Shopping carts need a coin (usually a 50-cent piece) or a cart token to release from their docking station. In the beginning, I kept a coin in my car, but eventually discovered the token keychain, a gift from our school, saved me from locating a 50-cent piece each week (which has usually gone missing). It’s always with my keys and makes the first step in the store a success.
Because in the U.S. customers often don’t return their carts, I love this concept of the coin/token for the cart. It means carts aren’t floating around in the parking lots waiting to roll into your car. The coin forces returning the cart to the station.
Money Back for Recycling Bottles
Shortly after entering the market with my token-embedded cart, I head to the bottle return station. Like the shopping carts, this deposit system (called a pfand, pronounced “fant”) ensures bottles are returned so they can be recycled properly. The majority of bottled water, beer, and soda have a deposit built into the price. It’s important to check though as some bottles will not have a deposit. Then they need to be recycled (plastic or glass) in a different way.
One can return bottles to any store for a refund–not just the store where you bought them. Place the bottles in the tunnel, watch them spin and get sucked inside, push the green button, and out comes a receipt to give to the cashier at checkout good for a discount off your total. Boom! Brilliant system.
Fresh and Inexpensive Produce
Germans are very particular about their produce. At both the larger and discount grocery stores, all the produce is both extremely fresh and fairly cheap, in comparison to US prices. It can vary a bit depending on the day or season. One day avocados will be 1 Euro and the next day 2,33. I haven’t figured out why. But in general, I spend way less in Germany on produce than I ever did in the States. As a result, we eat more fruits and vegetables.
Fun New Foods to Try
Foreign grocery stores are a great place to explore to try new flavors and get a feel for what is beloved in the country. Germany’s love of sausage/meat, cheese, bread, gummy candy, tea, chocolate, muesli, and bottled water is evident when browsing the aisles. In fact, I bet these aqlone make up more than 50% of the store.
Some things to notice while shopping:
- Many things flavored with paprika.
- Soups in a tube that resemble a giant sausage.
- A large selection of candy which makes for great gifts.
- A whole new selection of snacks: smoked almonds, wasabi-covered peanuts (in fact peanuts covered in all kinds of things), new Pringle flavors.
- New condiment flavors: curry wurst ketchup, mustard in tubes, mayo/mustard combos.
- Wine, beer, and alcohol are all available for purchase.
Check Out Can Be Stressful
As with most things in Germany, there are rules and the grocery store is no exception. The rules are not written so it takes a few months to learn them all. However, most of the rules apply to the check out process.
- Load your groceries onto the belt. If there is someone in front of you, he/she has likely already put down the divider. You should, too. Otherwise, the person behind you will be annoyed.
- If the person behind you has only 1 item, it is polite if not in a rush to let them go before you. Not required, but often done and appreciated.
- Add produce last. You will buy some bagging time while the cashier looks up the codes for fruits and veggies.
- No one bags your groceries! Period. It is 100% on you. If you didn’t bring bags, you can either just dump everything into the cart or purchase one of the assortment of bags. (Tip: The paper ones are flimsy and are not even worth purchasing.)
- The cashiers leave little time between scanning customer items. As soon as the scanning begins for your items, you own the bagging area only until time to pay. Once the payment is made, move your stuff out of the way.
- As the cashier scans item, bag them quickly.
- Once the scanning is complete, you are expected to pay. Right then. I have managed to stall and the credit card transaction gives me a few extra seconds to put in the remaining items.
- Once the receipt is handed to you, the expectation is get the hell out of there. Some nicer cashiers may wait a few seconds, but most will not.
Closed on Sundays. Period.
Plan ahead as grocery stores are closed on Sunday. Should you need basic items, gas stations and grocery stores attached to (or near) train stations may be open. The selection will be limited and pricey so it’s best to plan ahead. If you want more thoughts on this, I have an entire post dedicated to stores closed on Sundays.
Inventory is Totally Unpredictable
For the most part, Germany grocery stores stock everything an American expat family might need. We have found black beans, cheddar cheese, peanut butter, cream cheese, tortillas, hamburger buns, etc. But there is no guarantee that any of it will be in stock. In fact, by Saturday afternoon, you’ll be lucky to find everything on the list. I have been left scratching my head when things like ground beef, fresh mozzarella, eggs, garlic, red onions, spinach, powdered sugar, and Greek yogurt are strangely absent from their shelves.
Tiny Milk Cartons for Tiny Refrigerators
In America, we do everything big, including milk in gallon plastic containers and correspondingly large refrigerators. Here, milk is sold by the liter—1 liter. (See the comparison above to an American half gallon.) That means each week, my family consumes at least 7 liters/cartons of milk. And while I completely understand the small containers are because of the small apartments and small refrigerators, for a family with teenagers it generates a lot of extra containers.
Grocery Store “Welcome” Doors
Germany is one of the most trusting countries, behind Iceland, that I have ever been to. Anyone can walk onto a train as public transportation doesn’t have turnstyles to scan tickets. Police are rarely seen in public except in high tourist areas. Shops allow backpacks with out having to check them in. Overall, a very trusting culture.
But the grocery stores are outfitted with doors with electronic sensors, which allow you to enter, but only exit through the cashier. Which means if you run into the store and can’t find something, the only way out is to push past all the customers in line. Don’t try to go out of these doors as an alarm will sound. (I did that.)
An Entire Aisle Dedicated to Soup/Flavor Packets
There is an entire aisle dedicated to flavor packets by Maggi and Knorr. After some inquiring and very unscientific research, these are leftover from another era where people couldn’t (or didn’t want to) cook. To be honest, I rarely see anyone in this aisle so I’m confused as to why it takes up so much real estate for something A) not consumed and B) small to begin with. (These packets are tiny!) Someone equated it to our aisles of soup cans, which is a good comparison, but these soup/flavor/sauce mixes still remain a mystery. I have tried them and they’re nothing special.
Cashiers Sit to Scan Items
If I were working at a grocery store, I’d absolutely want to sit while I scanned. This certainly would make the job much better, and maybe, even make one happier while he/she works. Although this change from other countries doesn’t seem to correspond to happier cashiers.
Food photo from DPA via The Local