Supermarket Sweep

One thing I’m looking forward to when going back the UK is the supermarkets. When it comes to supermarkets, the British are up there with the best of ’em, beaten only perhaps by the Americans who sell heavy weaponry just beside the eggs and milk.

British supermarkets used to be appalling, but sometime in the late 1990s Tesco really got their act together and overhauled their stores. They made them bright and welcoming instead of looking like a Soviet warehouse with a couple of tills at the front. They started offering products which went beyond what is required to make standard British stodge, meaning they introduced a foreign food section, exotic fruits and vegetables, and a range of interesting ready-made meals. Tesco soon became the number one supermarket in the UK, displacing Sainsbury’s who had to up their game to compete. I’m not sure when Waitrose became popular – Pembroke and Manchester were hardly hotbeds of upper middle class housewives with excess cash – but these days they’re about as good as you’ll find anywhere. Even Asda, which was where the chavs went, was pretty good by the time I left the UK in 2003.

When I moved to Dubai I used to shop at Spinney’s, which seemed to have some connection with one of the British supermarkets because their branded products would appear on the shelves. This was about as good as a British ASDA, except their pork products were in separate section including the bacon-flavoured crisps which some imaginative fellow had assumed contained something related to a pig. I remember using a lot of Dolmio ready-made sauces when I lived there as, sick of club sandwiches in the local bars, I gingerly started cooking for myself.

My grocery shopping experience plummeted when I moved to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in 2006. There was what called itself a supermarket next to the first apartment I rented. A quarter of the shelf space was dedicated to alcohol, mostly beer and more brands of vodka than I ever thought could possibly exist. I quickly learned you could drink about four of them safely, while really taking your chances with the rest. They sold eggs in polythene bags, a decision perhaps inspired by the British in the 1980s who for some unfathomable reason thought selling milk in bags was a good idea, leaving them on doorsteps in a nation full of cats. When I looked for meat I found a freezer full of unlabeled dark lumps, butchered with a chainsaw. The first time I went I bought a jar of Heinz spaghetti sauce and some pasta and ate that for two days before I found a better supermarket. In fairness, there were two and they weren’t bad. They were at least clean. The problem was stock. One day you’d have something and the next it would be gone never to return, so if you saw something you liked – HP sauce, for example – you’d buy a year’s supply on the spot. This is why most expat houses on Sakhalin looked as though they were preparing for a nuclear holocaust. I managed to get half-decent mince and chicken if I got there early enough but there were almost no ready-made sauces, so I had to learn to make stuff from scratch. This is probably where I first started cooking properly. Because of the stock problems, I’d often find myself in a version of Ready Steady Cook where I had to make a dinner out of some frozen scallops, an onion, and a lump of rubbery cheese because that’s all they had left. The one thing I never found was proper, fresh milk. I saw some cows on Sakhalin and they looked as though they’d been through the horrors of Auschwitz. Grass grew for about two months between the snow melting and the cold coming back. They did produce milk locally but it was disgusting, sour stuff, so I was on UHT the whole time I was there. The Russians do a good range of concentrated fruit juices though, which becomes less of a surprise when you find out tumblers of juice accompany vodka shots during heavy drinking sessions. To be fair, things improved rapidly over the four years I was there, and just before I left a decent, western-style supermarket opened up near the airport which, this being Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, wasn’t very far away.

The only big supermarket I used in Patong was Carrefour, which got bought out by Big C shortly after I started going there. There was an excellent Tesco in Phuket town but I had no car and it’s not worth risking your life in a Thai taxi in order to eat Shreddies. And the Carrefour/Big C wasn’t bad, but it did smell a bit, I think because of all the meat they had lying out on the counters. Decent orange juice was surprisingly hard to find, as was cheese. I’ve been told Asians find cheese disgusting, which is understandable. You take some milk and you leave it to go bad for a couple of months, then you eat it. And we recoil at them eating cockroaches.

Then I went to Lagos. Nigerian supermarkets are an experience in themselves. It depends which one you go to, but they generally have several things in common. One is that the baskets and trolleys haven’t been cleaned since the Biafran War. Another is the mass of people outside hassling you for money, offering to help you carry your bags the whole twelve feet to the car, or generally up to no good. You have to fight your way out the door of some Nigerian supermarkets like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon. You also have to pay in cash – nobody is daft enough to use a credit card in Nigeria – and supermarkets tend to employ people on the checkout with the attention span of a toddler in a toy shop. You hand over a fat wad of naira and stand there patiently as she giggles with her colleague and has to start the counting all over again, and again. That said, the supermarkets in Lagos had pretty much everything you’d want. Lagos is a big, commercial city and importing stuff wasn’t a problem. I remember the potatoes being bad, which is why I only ate pasta and rice, and again there was no fresh milk so I drank UHT for another three years. But you could get a litre of untaxed Wild Turkey for about $12, which more than made up for it. For meat I used to go to a Lebanese butcher who sold beef from those local, long-horned cattle with the big hump on their backs, and there was nothing wrong with it at all.

The supermarkets in Melbourne were excellent, right up to the point you came to pay and realised you need a scalpel and the assistance of someone who can swiftly remove a kidney. Australia is famous for several things: dangerous animals, thrashings at the hands of the All Blacks, and cosy duopolies in which ordinary people get utterly shafted. A mediocre bottle of wine costs around $20-25 in a supermarket (about 12-15 Euros). This is where the Australians all pile in and say no, if you sign up to a special web service and go online at the right time and buy fifteen crates of the stuff it only costs $19 per bottle and gets delivered in under a month, so f*ck off you whinging pom. In any random corner shop in France I can get a decent bottle of wine for 5-6 Euros. The difference is tax.

And finally we get to France. The French were pioneers in supermarkets back in the 1970s, and that’s where they’ve remained. True, they sell an array of cheese that could keep a mouse convention occupied for months and as I’ve said, their wine is good and cheap. The quality of meat in a French butcher is unparalleled, but even their low-end supermarket stuff is pretty good. And if you want to make something French, you’re in luck. However, the French only eat French food (and occasionally Italian). If you want something foreign other than soy sauce, you need to go to one of the giant supermarkets and even then you might come out empty-handed. But what’s worse is the overall state of the shops. Labour laws in France don’t allow shelves to be stacked at night, so they do it when the shop is open. This means that when you’re shopping you often come across an aisle blocked by a pallet and cardboard boxes strewn everywhere. Sometimes there’s even a member of staff nearby. And the places aren’t clean. Monoprix is about the best of them, but going into Auchun or Intermarche is a bit like going into an airplane toilet. You know you have no choice and you’d rather be using the nice porcelain on offer in the lobby of a Grand Hyatt, so you try your best not to touch anything or think of who else might have been there before you. And you try to avoid stepping in whatever the hell that is on the floor.

French supermarkets also have stock problems. My local Intermarche is huge, yet it regularly runs out of milk for a few days. They used to have a decent fridge full of meat, but they decided to fill it with a job-lot of cheese nobody wants to buy. As in Sakhalin, you get the impression they’re trying to shift whatever they’ve been able to lay their hands on as opposed to what the customer actually wants. The service on the tills isn’t much better, and I reckon the cashiers undergo basic training in Lagos. They seem to be split between haggard old women who look as though they wished they’d married someone else and young men who, were it not for the filthy, wrinkled supermarket waistcoat, you’d assume were about to sell you a stolen car radio rather than scan your fruit juice. The young men seem don’t seem to last long, possibly because their court date arrived curtailing their liberty. The women, on the other hand, are likely to be scowling at customers until the earth is swallowed by the sun. Understaffing (another product of high labour costs) is chronic in French supermarkets, which is why long lines at the counters are common. The look of total uninterest on a supervisor’s face when, loafing at her special desk, she spots a twelve-person queue at the solitary open checkout, is so perfect it must have taken years to master. And nobody knows despair like the desperate souls behind the person in the queue who not only uses chèque déjeuner to partly pay for his items, but whips out a chequebook to pay the remaining balance. In 2019.

So yes, I’m looking forward to once again shopping in the cathedrals which are British supermarkets.

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50 thoughts on “Supermarket Sweep

  1. Ah, how I remember trips to the Auchun in Boulogne on the Chunnel, a leisurely trip on the D940 then a dash round the shop, a superb meal in a favourite little family-run restaurant in Sangatte & then back home, with bargains galore. Fruit from the South of France in season, olive oil (so expensive at the time in the UK), marvelling at the fish counter groaning with exotic seafood…

    And now? It’s not worth going – if you shop around, bargains on booze are found in the main UK supermarkets, and Sangatte is a refugee-infested hellhole.

    A shame. It was once a treat in the summer holidays, and just before Christmas. Now, gone.

    And France, I’m terribly sorry about breaking the speed limit on my first trip driving there, because I forgot you post speed signs on the autoroute in kilometres! *blush*

  2. How easy is it to buy pharmacy items like paracetamol or antihistamines in the supermarkets of these countries?.

    From my experience this can be just as variable like in America where you have whole rows of medicines and can get bottles of 2000 ibuprofen for about the price of a starbucks coffee and Greece where you can get antibiotics OTC. To countries where getting cocaine from a local dealer would be easier (and cheaper) then getting a couple of aspirin would – at least on a Sunday when the pharmacies are all closed.

  3. How easy is it to buy pharmacy items like paracetamol or antihistamines in the supermarkets of these countries?.

    Impossible in France, as the pharmacies have a monopoly on the supply of such items. And a nice little racket it is too: go to any street in France and there are at least three pharmacies within a 5 minute walk, each with a queue at the counter. The French love taking pills, especially anally, and French doctors love to prescribe them. Well, why not when the state reimburses most of the cost? This is why when you visit a pharmacy with a prescription handed to you by a French doctor, you need to use a basket.

  4. those local, long-horned cattle with the big hump on their backs

    Zebu? Not exactly Limousin or Aberdeen Angus though…

    The French love taking pills, especially anally, and French doctors love to prescribe them

    True, and if a medic in France wants to take your temperature it’s as well not to insist that the thermometer be slipped under your tongue as its usual trajectory is that taken by the ubiquitous suppositoires.

    JuliaM: Auchun in Boulogne on the Chunnel

    Why would you go to Boulogne from the Tunnel when there’s a perfectly horrid Auchan in Sangatte itself? There’s a perfectly good Carrefour in the Cité Europe and Majestic are price competetive.

    Incidentally, the first Carrefour was by a cross roads in the Seine-et-Marne, hence the name. Mme Bison shopped there to good effect.

  5. I guess I have led a sheltered life on my travels when it comes to the various shopping centre experiences, win some, lose some. I am always fascinated when I am discussing locations in Mud Island with the local folk and they introduce the type of shopping centers or lack off an area has when describing it to you. They take this down to minute detail in the more remote areas, telling you what they sell and what times they are open.

    I quite like the service station deals you can get there, three packets of Wotsits for a quid and the like. I did find that the traffic calming measures in the town centers made it just about impossible for folk like me to pull over and nip into and buy or eat something, not good if you have a business that depends on that, but great for the bigger shopping centres I guess.

    I was looking into some investments in the UK the other day, not much cooking in retail comparatively, the only thing worth buying was International Consolidated Airlines Group with a 7% dividend to boot, fortunately I remembered to never ever to buy into an airline.

    Oh and you can buy decent wine in Melbourne for around $12 a bottle from walk in wine sellers and yes you need to buy them by the box, you just need to know where they are, but they are there.

  6. Since your departure, Aldi and Lidl have become bigger players in the UK market. Great prices and good to excellent quality (particularly on wines and spirits), but shelf-life on the fruit and veg is pretty short.

  7. “…..you get the impression they’re trying to shift whatever they’ve been able to lay their hands on as opposed to what the customer actually wants.”

    That’s Aldi & Lidl’s whole business plan in a nutshell (to TomJ’s point ). World beaters at selling you stuff you weren’t intending to buy, “but the price made it irresistable”.

    Talking of which, it’s a pity you haven’t had experience of our Teutonic friends grocery outlets. It seems the only thing that matters is the price; quality, variety or taste be damned.

  8. TMB:’Why would you go to Boulogne from the Tunnel when there’s a perfectly horrid Auchan in Sangatte itself?’

    My dad loved the drive down on the coast road! We always came back on the autoroute though.

  9. My dad loved the drive down on the coast road!

    When I do Paris-Calais (as I will next Saturday) I always take the A16 rather than the A1. It’s very slightly longer, but a much nicer drive.

  10. I’m surprised at your view of French supermarkets. I wonder if it could be a reflection of where you’ve been living? The Auchan in our town in Flanders was as clean as any of the others.* But Flamands, of course. And queueing? I’m used to E-LeClerk & I don’t think I’ve ever seen a queue of more than two. The LeClerk outside Toulouse is so large, the reason you can’t see from one side to the other is the curvature of the earth. The checkouts span half a kilometer. And they sell everything. If I stumbled across an aisle they were flogging airliners to drive away, I wouldn’t be the least surprised
    Cheese! Yes! Our small LeClerk had two aisles of it. Plus an island counter they cut to request. And butter! Here in Spain you get a choice of two. Con or sin sal. France had an aisle of butter. Including kilo packs for cooking. And queueing in a Spanish supermarket takes considerable portions out of your life.

    *However toilets! Why are French supermarket toilets so niffy? Because the urinals are usually button flush rather than automatic & nobody bothers?

  11. I wonder if it could be a reflection of where you’ve been living?

    I dunno, Annecy and Puteaux are hardly slums!

  12. In Nizhny-Novgorod, I was perfectly happy with the supermarkets there. Since they went through a massive building binge up until 2008, the stores were new and beautiful. We had Auchan, Real (German), SPAR, Metro Cash & Carry, a Turkish chain I can’t remember, and several Russian brands like Magnit and Perekrostok. I don’t think I ever lacked anything.

    Service was good enough, I’d say. Stock was consistent and reliable and cashiers weren’t awful. All in all, I considered myself very fortunate with what was available despite living in a rather scruffy city, as a whole. From how you describe France, I could believe that things were better in Nizhny.

  13. “That’s Aldi & Lidl’s whole business plan in a nutshell. World beaters at selling you stuff you weren’t intending to buy, “but the price made it irresistable”.”

    Aldi and Lidl stores are effectively 2 stores – a food store that stocks the same goods and brands every day of the week, at the same prices too, which is a big advantage over the other major chains who insist on constantly doing ‘offers’, the prices of which are competitive, but mean if you walk if for an item and its not on offer you get shafted. And also a hardware/home goods/clothes store that sells whatever it gets its hand on this week. There is a small amount of food items that appear and disappear depending on what they can source, but by and large thats the 2 elements – consistent food shopping, and random other stuff that you end up walking out with, because its cheap and it won’t be there next week. But if you go to the stores regularly eventually you see the same stuff coming round again. If you miss something just wait a while and it’ll turn up again a few months later.

  14. I remember walking around Sakhalin supermarket Slavyansky in 2002 thinking my generous expat salary wouldn’t afford me French imported yogurt. There were a few weeks when all on offer were those long life Mexican tortillas, bottles of Santa Maria salsa & Corn Flakes.

  15. All your comments about France are spot on.

    People in the UK complain, but it’s great. I think better than USA. Supermarkets in the USA are good, but you don’t get any of the upmarket end in a way that say, Waitrose does.

    Shopping in general is really good. Staff are helpful and if you want chains or niche shops, it’s not hard.

  16. Long queues? Pffft. In my corner of ‘Murca we scan each item as we choose it on a phone app then place it in a large carrier bag. When finished we walk up to a kiosk, scan coupons, get the thumbs up from a clerk then walk out of the store – marriage intact.

    Thank the lord for high trust societies.

  17. I reckon compared to Esselunga in Italy, UK supermarkets are somewhat over-priced expecially fruit and veg (which is of dubious tastiness, mostly having been grown I understand hydroponically in the outflow from Dutch powerstations) and of course the booze is crazy expensive. Mrs Jack and I never spend more than 3-4 euros on a bottle of wine here unless we’re celebrating.

    Where I live they are spotless and mostly cheerful.

    Only thing is they don’t have decent tea, only fancy shite. Or marmite. And the sliced bread is dodgy too. But overall top notch.

  18. The other thing perhaps worth mentioning is the vegetables in a French farmers’ market are no better than those found in the supermarket.

  19. Sam,

    The former mostly. People talk about the farmers’ markets as if they sell produce that is vastly superior to that found elsewhere, but I’ve not found that to be the case. The meat sold in butcher shops is better though, but it’s pricey. I will forever miss the one in Puteaux, which was brilliant.

  20. Long queues? Pffft. In my corner of ‘Murca we scan each item as we choose it on a phone app then place it in a large carrier bag. When finished we walk up to a kiosk, scan coupons, get the thumbs up from a clerk then walk out of the store – marriage intact.

    Thank the lord for high trust societies.

    You can do that in certain shops in the UK too.

    I am quite fond of CostCo though, even if most stuff is in too much bulk for a singly.

  21. The Soviet Union fell after Boris Yeltsin visited an ordinary Texas supermarket and realized he’d been wasting his life:
    https://beelineblogger.blogspot.com/2016/01/how-supermarket-visit-brought-down.html
    I had the same feeling after living in Eritrea then shopping in a small, local Dubai supermarket while on break. They sold cling wrap! And powdered cinnamon! And stuff, in general!
    There was a Tesco in Tokyo where I stocked up on baked beans and that muesli with whey powder in it but it closed down. Japanese supermarkets are pretty good just so long as you are Japanese, which I guess makes sense.

  22. Ah, the heady days of Park ‘n Rob, VI! Where peanuts come in bottles and water comes in bags.

    The last six months we were there that the Lebanese butcher also had loads of nice wine start to come in but only two or three bottles of each, all marked “British Airways, Duty Paid, Not for Resale.”
    Which probably went a long way to explaining why they’d never fetch a fresh bottle in the business lounge when you were escaping, they’d just go out the back and refill it!

    P.S. You forget to mention that the fresh fish counter was under a road bridge that had signs supplied by the Rotary Club politely reminding people not to defecate over the edge.

  23. Tim Newman,

    “The meat sold in butcher shops is better though, but it’s pricey. I will forever miss the one in Puteaux, which was brilliant.”

    There’s still good ones in the UK. It’s partly that they buy in better stuff, like bacon that’s been smoke cured rather than brine cured, but also that they hang beef for longer, which makes it taste better.

  24. I agree, U.K. and American supermarkets are pretty near perfect nowadays. I tend to shop around but on stormy days I go to Morrisons in New Brighton as its worth it just to watch the waves crashing into the carpark.

  25. “. . . beaten only perhaps by the Americans who sell heavy weaponry just beside the eggs and milk.”

    *sigh*

    Not anymore. Not anymore.

  26. I have been told the proper approach to shopping in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is to hire a local girl to hunt the stores, harangue the storekeepers, provide good Russian cooking, do the dishes, and take care of anything else. At least, that is what I have been told.

    And no visit to the Arabian peninsula would be complete without a visit to the ever-expanding chain of Lulu supermarkets. Good selection, good price, helpful Filipino staff.

  27. “I dunno, Annecy and Puteaux are hardly slums!”

    But who are the people working in the supermarkets? One thing I noticed, wandering France for two years. French vary regionally. Flamands are basically Flemings. Flavour of Dutch. Go on like it. Paris is a different country. Bordeaux another.

    “The other thing perhaps worth mentioning is the vegetables in a French farmers’ market are no better than those found in the supermarket.”

    The vegetables i a French farmers’market are the ones found in the supermarket. I’ve seen the boxes.

  28. People talk about the farmers’ markets as if they sell produce that is vastly superior to that found elsewhere, but I’ve not found that to be the case.

    Indeed.

  29. If you think Australian supermarkets are expensive, you should try New Zealand. There’s only two groups operating so there’s a distinct lack of competition. One of them recently raised the price of my products because they decided they want a 45% margin in our segment.

  30. +1 for Widmerpool. Somehow the supermarkets in NZ manage to charge more for home grown products than you can buy them for in the UK or Australia with the added bonus that the decent quality stuff has gone for export so you’re left with the dregs. Fruit and veg is good in season but awful at any other time of the year which is a problem I thought the rest of the world had solved about 25 years ago.

    A supermarket in Dhaka once refused to sell me a fish because it was their display model and had been pickled in formaldehyde…

  31. I love it when Oz residents condemn our supermarket chains over prices and for robbing their suppliers. It demonstrates innumeracy. Just a few minutes will find you a Woolworths balance sheet, which shows a margin of five cents in the dollar of turnover. That Mecca for high prices, Walmart, has a margin of three and a half cents in the dollar. Another few seconds of looking will find complaints of how they are driving all their competitors out of business.
    Often the farmers at those markets are selling the seconds the supermarkets and export reject, well in Oz anyway. All of our meat is the seconds, the meatworks sell the best at higher prices into Asia.

  32. The moo is an Afrikander. Google it. Highly resistant to pests like tsetse fly. Darwin or someone was involved there. It’s not a great milk producer and the beef isn’t the best either, but you take what you can get.

    On my two visits to the Yonited States I was highly impressed by the number of line items stocked by even smaller supermarkets. I could get just about anything and in Thousand Oaks there was even a supermarket that stocked such South African staples as Black Cat Peanut Butter and Mrs. Ball’s Chutney.

    I don’t know about the rest of the world but here in South Africa to get your stuff onto a gondola you have to rent shelf space and stock it with your own merchandisers. The system seems to work well.

  33. Michael van der Riet, the world would not be the same without Mrs. Balls chutney. Thankfully still available in Tesco.

    I now reside in Netherlands where there are 4 local supermarket chains and Aldi. The Aldi resembles the downmarket version that started off in the UK (since much improved) but the 4 Dutch supermarkets, Albert Heijn, Jumbo, Dirk and Hoogvliet are sadly lacking in variety. The cereal section has muesli, porridge oats, cornflakes and a couple of varieties of kids’ cereals and Weetabix if you are lucky. Decent tea is a bugger to find. No malt vinegar. Then again I suppose there’s no call for it considering the locals put mayo on their chips.

  34. I don’t ever remember seeing milk in bags in the UK. Which is why I was baffled when I visited Canada and saw them. I thought we went straight from glass to cartons or plastic bottles.
    The supermarkets I saw in Canada had the look and feel of a Co-op from the 80s.

  35. Long queues? Pffft. In my corner of ‘Murca we scan each item as we choose it on a phone app then place it in a large carrier bag. When finished we walk up to a kiosk, scan coupons, get the thumbs up from a clerk then walk out of the store – marriage intact.

    Thank the lord for high trust societies.

    Most large UK supermarkets have the self-scan system these days. It will be a change that Tim notices upon his return.

    It doesn’t involve your phone itself – here there is a bank of handsets as you walk in and you type in your phone number to identify yourself and take a handset. It’s great for keeping track of what you spend. They do random ‘quality checks’ to make sure you aren’t stealing. On a couple of occasions they’ve found items I forgot to scan, meaning they have to unpack and scan everything.

  36. Reporting in from Taiwan; after a month here I can add that locals seem to do most of their shopping at ‘wet markets’ or small independent stores. The only western chain I’ve found is Carrefour, there is also a local one called PX-Mart. They have a good selection of most items and some imported goods but compared to ones in Japan are lacking in ready prepared meals, salads, etc
    . 7/11’s and Family Marts are everywhere and comparable to ones in Japan and SE Asia (but with fewer bakery goods). Thankfully street food is cheap and everywhere (My new apartment doesn’t have a kitchen, so have been eating out all the time)

  37. Milk in bags being sold in the UK; I have a very, very vague memory of this, which hinges on the milk at a friend’s house always tasting a bit off.

    I think that the milk delivery firms, basically Unigate, didn’t want to ferry about vast amounts of glass bottles; so the idea was that you’d have milk delivered in a bag and then transfer into your own container, and the weight saving would help with the range of the battery powered floats, what with the price of electricity and all the bloody strikes. And the supermarkets were getting traction and home delivery had already begun to fall. So basically about 1976 or so.

    Turns out that what my friend’s mother was doing was continually topping up the same container with fresh milk, and eventually my mother had a quiet word, pointing out that this might possibly be why everyone in the house had permanently dodgy guts.

    Either way, the idea died a rapid death.

  38. Milk deliveries were handy, but often the milk would be off before it even arrived. Especially in summer. I don’t remember fondly the thick plugs of solid milk you’d find just beneath the foil lid.

  39. Oh my- this was such a treat. As someone who spends about 2/3rds of his life traveling, my main hobby is nosing around supermarkets in foreign countries. Why? Because they are easy to find and a country’s supermarkets tell you a tonne about the country and its inhabitants.

    I will add a couple of observations to Tim’s
    British supermarkets are indeed very good, but the real chapel of delights is Aldi, partly because they do indeed seem to be selling on whatever they can get a keen deal on that week, and also because some of their own brand products are genuinely good.

    I also recently went in a Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn where you cannot pay using Visa. Not Visa Credit (like the way M&S didn’t accept credit cards until the late 90’s) but any form of Visa. Maestro/Mastercard, yes, but Visa? No. I’ve bought all kinds of stuff in many far-flung locations with a Visa card, but apparently Visa isn’t good enough for the Dutch equivalent of Sainsbury’s.

    I am consistently amazed by the cost of things in Oslo (£1.50 for chewing gum, £4.00 for a pack of plain biscuits, and the near impossibility of buying bacon in France.

    I’m currently in Houston, and spent 40 minutes in a Wahlgreens (OK- not literally a supermarket, but any ‘pharmacy’ that does beer, fags and frozen pizza is close enough for my liking) last night.

    I can state that the US shopping experience beats the British one hands down. You’ve got to love any country where the staff and fellow shoppers are so damn pleasant you leave a store feeling not only like you’ve made a friend for life, but also with an invite for dinner the following day.

  40. French cashiers look at you as if the last thing they might want is for you to actually buy something rather than just f-off out the store there and then.

  41. I’ve never seen anything heavier than 30:06 sold in the same store with milk and eggs. If there was a store where I could a 20mm cannon and a week’s worth of provisions, I think it would be very popular here in the U.S. Maybe this is an unexplored business model.

  42. I’ll second what Bloke In Spain said about Toulouse supermarkets. They’re quite excellent, apart from the lack of pre-prepared meals, such as those which I enjoy so much from M&S on trips back to Ireland (or Paris). Picard is an alright substitute though. Fresh milk is ubiquitous here (a change from my first time here in 2004) queues are OK and you’re the first I’ve heard say the markets are nothing special, which I’m glad of because I thought it was just me who found them pleasant enough but just not special. And even small shops sell a few Asian ingredients – but if you can’t get them, is there a branch of Paris Store near you? Incredible range there…

    As a growing city (unusual in France), maybe there’s just more competition here?

  43. The supermarkets in Melbourne were excellent…This is where the Australians all pile in and say no, if you sign up to a special web service and go online at the right time and buy fifteen crates of the stuff it only costs $19 per bottle and gets delivered in under a month, so f*ck off you whinging pom.

    No no, can we just back up a bit?

    The supermarkets in Melbourne were excellent.

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

    Besides, you’re right, the Coles/Woolworths duopoly *is* shit, and – when combined with generally high cost-of-living prices in Australia, it gets even worse.

  44. British supermarkets are certainly clean, bright, and well-run, but OMG the fresh produce is terrible. Is anything ever actually ripe? Does it ever get ripe or does it just slowly go mouldy? (Answers are “No”, and “the latter”, respectively.)

    After a few happy weeks shopping in Conad in various small Italian towns (let’s hear it for Aulla – the ugliest town in Tuscany!), I found it a nasty shock to come back to rock-hard peaches and tasteless melons, etc etc.

    Totally with you on French butchers, and I have found LeClerc’s hyper-stores very good, though the sheer scale can be intimidating.

  45. I’ve observed that Franch supermarkets vary considerably within chains depending on the area. On the Riviera the Grasse Auchan is great, for example, but I recall somewhere in the Rhone valley (Orange? maybe a bit further north) deciding to go to the Auchan instead of the Carrefour and regretting it.

    In addition to the wine & cheese (the aforementioned Grasse Auchan has 3 rows of each, plus the discount section plus the organic cheeses and the cheese counter) I love the selection of pates and sausages available. Also on the Riviera there are enough expats that you can generally get your fix of critical British staples like Marmite and Heinz Baked Beans as well as El Paso chips and Salsa and so on. Also plenty of N African stuff which I enjoy.

    My esperience with California supermarkets is that generally you want to go to Trader Joes for most things but shop somewhere else for the basic fruit’n’veg and staples. Oh and Costco now and again to get a months supply of meat

    The UK supermarkets seem about the same as French and US ones to me in general. Recently I’ve noticed them stocking a load of interesting gins as well as good bottled beers of all sorts.

    As for other countries? Japanese supermarkets sell lots of things in really small quantities so as to hide the price. But the quality is always excellent and some things are remarkably cheap, such as the fish caught the night before or (where I live) a lot of the seasonal locally grown fruit & veg. Anything rare and imported (like cheese) tends to be OMG levels of price per lb/kg and exotic things like marmite are practically impossible to buy. Fortunately as a globe trotter I can go to the UK and France often enough to satisfy my cravings for marmite, pate and cheese.

  46. Ah. yes. Australia. Frank Lowy of Westfield owns most shopping centre space in Australia, either through that or other vehicles. His relationship with Coles and Woolworths is, er, close. As you say, cosy duopolies are what Australia does. (Australia does at least now have Aldi).

    Spinner’s is interesting though.It was a British company that originally operated grocery stores in mandatory Palestine, and then spread out through the Middle East. The company was very well connected with parts of the British aristocracy and at some point in this it developed a cosy relationship with Waitrose, whose products it sells around the world. I think it is owned by an Arab company at this point, but the cosy relationship with Waitrose remains, right up to there being two franchised Waitrose stores in Dubai. I bet the staff in those ones don’t get profit share…

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