Do Supermarkets In Germany Deserve All The Expat Complaints?
If Live Work Germany's Twitter feed is an accurate representation of things which expats like to have a good moan about, then supermarkets in Germany would certainly come in the top 10.
Whether it's the lack of choice, low levels of staffing, having to wait in line too long to pay for your stuff. Or maybe the old favourite; the initial shock experienced for the first time by newbies to Germany of the lightning speed the checkout operator scans your groceries, leaving you scrambling to pack everything and inevitably just giving up and scooping it into your shopping trolley to pack in the car park, or on the counter behind the checkout.
Now, I have to say, there are many things in Germany which mildly irritate me, and a few which really make my blood boil. But the thing is, supermarkets in Germany don't really get onto my radar when it comes to list of gripes. They used to when I first moved here, but I've actually grown to quite like them. Here's why:
They've massively improved over the past 10 years
Your local Lidl, Rewe or Edeka is a much different place to what it was 10 years ago. Even more so for the large, out-of-town stores like Globus, Kaufland and Real. Choice has improved dramatically, as has quality. All of them (except Penny for some strange reason) accept credit cards, and you no longer have to ask an employee to deal with your Pfand returns: They pretty much all have the automated machines now.
Supermarkets in Germany have come a long way. They have discovered that crisps come in flavours other than paprika. They now sell cheese which actually has some flavour to it and doesn't taste like plastic. The wine selection is much better than it used to be. They now sell decent chilli and barbecue sauce, as well as spices beyond the staples of basil, thyme, oregano and rosemary, Things like avocados and mangoes are now readily available, even in smaller stores. And finally, they sell other varieties of wonderful German beer which isn't Pils and Hefeweizen.
Things have massively improved since I moved here in 2006. OK, so they're still not open on Sundays, but that's beyond their control.
They don't use moronic terminology
British supermarkets are especially bad at doing this. “Extra special” or “chosen by you” are two of my favourites. The first is marketing speak for “slightly better quality and with some nice packaging, so double the price”. The second one is just drivel. It's not chosen by you, is it? It's chosen by one of their buyers, who has gone out on tender, done several rounds of negotiation, screwed the supplier to an inch of his life and then signed a supply agreement.
They also often describe products as “home made”. No they're not. The jam or biscuits or cakes you are buying are not “home made”, you morons. They are made in a factory. Your Aunt Mabel can't knock out thousands of jars of apricot jam every day, can she? Unless she's spent a hundred grand on an automated production line in her garden shed. And yet consumers buy this stuff thinking it's some kind of artisan product. Fair play to whoever works in marketing for these supermarkets. They're obviously the same people who did a sterling job of convincing Brits that Stella Artois and Peroni are both premium products (believe me, they are not).
Not in Germany, where common sense prevails and people don't care about the packaging or the fancy description on the packet. There's a cheap and nasty version of said product, with probably a bit more sugar in the jar and less colours and complexity in the packaging, which your average Aldi and Lidl shopper will buy. And then there's a deluxe version, which may, for example, have been made with organic ingredients, be packaged in a more ornate jar with a more catchy label, and sold at a higher price in places like Tegut or Alnatura. That's it.
German consumers don't seem as gullible or easily swayed by marketing BS as my fellow countryfolk do. I do like this straightforwardness, I have to admit.
Specialist stores have better products, and are much cheaper
Yes, it's a pain having to go to more than 1 shop to get all of your groceries. I understand that. Especially for anyone who has a young family, or has to work long hours, or doesn't have a car, or lives somewhere more rural.
However, a cursory glance around one of the wonderful Turkish, Italian or South-East Asian supermarkets in Germany which are common in all major cities just shows you what a fantastic range of products they have. Much better than you would find in Tesco, Carrefour or Walmart. And so much cheaper.
And you don't need to live in Berlin, Frankfurt or Munich to find this stuff. Any medium-sized city in Germany will have at least one Turkish supermarket and most likely also an Asian store.
Finding an Asian supermarket which sold all of my favourite curry ingredients from the UK was almost as happy a day as when the satellite TV man put a dish on my roof and pointed in at the angle to receive British TV.
One of my favourite things in life, up there with going to the beach, skiing, or drinking a few German beers, has to be my trip every couple of weeks to the Turkish supermarket. It's a wonderland of fresh herbs (and by that I mean huge sprigs of parsley, which are big enough to make a man's appetite-sized tabbuleh salad), Fladenbrot, which, sorry Germans, is nicer than your rock hard bread. All of the different spice mixes. Dried fruits and fresh olives. Lamb. No pork though, so back to German supermarkets for…
The Deli section
Admittedly, it's nowhere near as good as in Spain, but a glance around the deli section of any German supermarket is sure to make a cold meat lover like myself feel hungry. The “trying to eat less processed meat” voice in my head is overruled by the devil when I see Schwarzwälder Schinken, Krustenbraten and Kaminwurst, which are three of my favourites.
If you want to play a game with friends who visit, you could also go to the deli counter and spot the most disgusting looking product, Tongue, any kind of Sülze and Leberwurst are three where my openness to experimenting with new foods abruptly hits the buffers.
You can actually find what you need
Because German supermarkets are usually quite compact, they carry a much smaller range of products than the huge, out-of-town hypermarkets which many European and North American expats are used to. What this means is that on average, you will spend much less time in there doing your grocery shopping, because you won't be wasting time walking around aimlessly searching for different items, trying to figure out where something is.
Except for eggs. I can never find eggs, whichever supermarket I go to. Nor stock cubes. I have no idea why.
It's a shop, not a day out
When I go shopping here in Germany, typically I only spend 20 minutes in the supermarket, even when I'm doing a weekly shop. If I want to get coffee or have breakfast, I'll go to a cafe. If you want a kids' play area, go to the park. Or Ikea maybe if it's raining and you can cope with the whole “experience”.
I like the fact that German supermarkets are simplistic in their approach. Go there, buy some food, maybe get the latest random gadget they are selling in the non-food section, pay, then go home and do something more interesting. Go to a farmer's market if you want to have morning out with an experience of buying artisan food!
So, what do you think? Have I become Germanised over the past 11 years? Or is the complaining about supermarkets here justified?! Leave a comment or tweet #GermanSupermarketDebate to @liveworkgermany