26
Apr
10

Expat Survival Course, lesson 2- Groceries

So you are used to jumping in your car, driving to your nearest grocery store, grabbing a cart from the corral, browsing the aisles with their dizzying selection, and heading home having done all your shopping under one roof.  Well, maybe that’s not how grocery shopping is for every American, but more often than not, that’s sort of what happens after most Americans say, “O.K., off to get some groceries.”

In a lot of ways, in the UK it’s not that different.  Chain shops are becoming the only option in some areas, but if you look hard enough, there are still independent butchers, green grocers, fish mongers, and even cheese shops.  In some places you can still get milk delivered from a dairy.  Many towns, cities, and boroughs have open air street markets and farmer’s markets.  Even the biggest shop tends to at least try to cater to their cycling, walking, and bus riding customers so you probably won’t have that “crossing miles of blacktop to get in the front doors” experience you get when walking to many American grocery stores.

Looking at the chains, there’s a whole range of options here, some more expensive and upscale (like M&S) and some more bare bones (such as the discount chains like Aldi and Lidl). In regard to prices within the same chain, the rule seems to be the bigger the shop, the cheaper the prices.  A small convience store sized Tesco in the middle of London might sell bread at 30p a loaf more than the gargantuan Tesco in the suburbs.  While it might not be worth hopping on a train and travelling out to the country to go to a superstore, going a few blocks more to a slightly bigger one might save you a few pounds more on your total shop.  Plus, you will have better selection in an even slightly bigger store.

Make sure you bring a pound coin so your trolley (shopping cart) can hold it hostage.  Don’t worry, you will get the pound back, but it ensures that you don’t run off with the trolley and use it for tasks around the home.  As handy as having your very own trolley may seem, it saves the shops from having to replace them.  Plus, it pretty much eliminates the jerky habit of leaving a trolley right in the middle of a car park (parking lot) where it can block people from using bays or be blown about by the wind, mowing down random people.  You might find your shop keeps free range trolleys, but for your first trip, bring a coin.

Inside most shops are pretty similar to what you’d find in an American grocery store of the same relative price range.  Things might seem a bit different at first, but you will get used to it.  The only other major thing I can think of is that you should be prepared to bag your own groceries because that’s pretty much how it’s done here.  I know I don’t have to tell you to bring your own bags when you can, but if you join up with many of the shops’ points cards, they will give you extra points for bringing your own containers.

Instead of actually travelling to the store yourself, many of the chains offer delivery either for free on orders over a certain amount or for free.  Definitely an advantage to living in a small country.

You can also sign up for organic meat, dairy, and produce delivery from smaller companies and farms.  I think this “produce box” service is becoming more available in the States as well (I don’t think it was widely done when I left), but it’s rather common here.

On top of all these options, there still remains the option of shopping in corner stores for small shops.  They tend to be close to each other in clumps.  I wouldn’t recommend relying upon them for all food, but for a couple pints of milk or a can of tuna, it’s usually easier than going all the way to a larger shop.

I am not going to go into where to buy your favourite American breakfast cereal, because for the most part there is no straight answer.  What’s available in one Tesco might not be available at another.  There are plenty of websites and even bricks and mortar speciality stores where you can buy  imported American products for a premium.  Then there’s the Costco option (you can use your American card here).  But really, why move to a different country just to try to recreate your home country there?  Don’t get me wrong, I occassionally crave a good dill pickle or Diet root beer, but I’ve allowed my tastes and habits to change.  You will change too, and I think people who become too dependent on care packages from home or overpriced imported goods just delay that change and miss out in the meantime.

Current supermarket chains in the UK (The “Big Four” are Tesco, Asda (owned by Walmart), Sainsbury’s, Morrisons)

Discount Chains

Certified Farmers’ Markets

London’s Farmers’ Markets

Milkman

Deliver milk
Note: For veg, fruit, and/or meat box deliveries, you should really Google for the one that serves you best.  I’ve not found a single page listing them all.  Each of the chains which offer online delivery should be listed in those Wikipedia lists, and you can find their websites with details on their delivery schemes.

Happy shopping.

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