One of the biggest challenges for me in adjusting to life in England is grocery shopping. It seems simple, right? You show up at the store, find what you want to eat, then pay for it and head home. But if you’ve ever been an expat in a foreign country, then you’ll know it’s not nearly as straight forward as that. So this month, the Dispatches from England column will focus on grocery shopping in Great Britain.
First up is a breakdown of who does it better. This will give you a sense of how different the experience is and perhaps a better appreciation of the transition I’ve made. Next week, I’ll cover the similarities. I’ll also write about the various stores there are to choose from, as well as some surprising finds and observations (at least to this American shopper).
Great Britain vs. USA Grocery Shopping Throwdown
-Shopping Carts: ADVANTAGE USA. If I could change one thing about living in Great Britain, I would change the shopping carts at the grocery store. I know this sounds extreme and completely ridiculous, but they are absolutely impossible to steer. All four wheels are on a swivel and I have so much trouble controlling them. It only gets harder as you add weight (like the 30 pound toddler who is always sitting in the front basket, not to mention all the food a family of four eats!) At first I thought I must be doing something wrong, but as I looked around, I quickly observed the locals struggle just as much as I do. I often end my shopping trip cursing under my breath and missing my American grocery cart. David Cameron, if you’re reading, I’d be happy to lead a committee about getting this situation rectified immediately!
-Ready-Made Meals: ADVANTAGE GB. The pre-made food in the U.S. is often nothing more than a pile of roasted chickens that have been sitting under a heat lamp for hours, or a pile of frozen pizzas crusted with ice. (I love you, America, but seriously.) Not here. You can find anything from amazing Thai curries to gourmet Beef Wellingtons. I enjoy cooking, but I hate having to do it 7 nights a week. I rely on these types of pre-made meals at least a couple of times each week. I’m convinced the U.S. would be healthier if we had these options, which are just as easy as a trip through the drive-thru.
-Online shopping and delivery: ADVANTAGE GB. The prevalence (and relatively low-cost) online ordering and delivery is amazing here. Nearly all the major stores offer it, and often, if you pay attention to deals and special offers, you can score the delivery for free. You simply hop online, order your groceries, and choose a delivery time. And then, voila! A driver shows up at your door during your chosen time slot with all your food. It is absolutely brilliant and I will miss it tremendously when we move back. I’m hoping the U.S. will get on board with this trend before that happens. (I know it exists in some big cities in the States. But I never lived anywhere that offered it, at least not for a reasonable price.)
-Frequency of shopping: ADVANTAGE U.S. For reasons I still can’t quite process, I find myself shopping much more frequently here. (Which I dislike… maybe some people enjoy grocery shopping? If so, teach me your ways!) In the U.S., I typically made one big run each week, and only occasionally had to duck into a store at one other point during the week to get a few things. Here, I typically either go to the store or order online twice per week, and sometimes I still have to make a supplemental trip to the village shop to fill in the gaps. One factor I think is the size of much of the packages of food here. They’re just smaller, understandably, as most people here have smaller refridgerators and cabinet space for storing food.
-Shopping Experience: ADVANTAGE GB. The grocery stores here are quite nice. Many have cafes or coffee shops. The employees, for the most part, are very professional and helpful. I find the produce quality and freshness to be outstanding. Aside from the grocery carts, going to the store is typically a more pleasant experience. Once I find what I’m looking for, anyway.
-Range of Product Options: ADVANTAGE U.S. Picky about a particular brand of x, y, or z? Better get over it. The number of options for each product is much more limited here. So no, you won’t find a hundred cereal options. Thirty or so will have to do. This hasn’t bothered me, as I think it simplifies the shopping experience, but I know for some Americans, it might be frustrating.