One of the first things Ausländer from abroad learn about German Supermärkte (grocery stores) is that they are not open on Sundays, a relic from times when Germans were (allegedly) more pious and kept Sonntag work-free (though this does not answer my eternal why the Christian Sabbath is not on Saturdays—but then I am just too faul, lazy, to google). Which is, zugegebenermaßen (admittedly), pretty überholt, very old-fashioned, not up to the times, and most of all paradox, as many people do (and did) work on Sundays, aber naja (alas). At least some Supermärkte are now open until 10 or even 12 at night. Still, it is worthwhile to consider going grocery shopping as quite a typical German experience–one type of Einkaufserlebnis.
There are grocery stores (Lebensmittelmärkte?) for jeden Geldbeutel, that is, you can choose from cheap Discounters to more expensive supermarkets, from Aldi and Lidl to Edeka and ReWe, with Penny, Plus, Kaufland, Globus, et al. in between. I’ll leave the nitpicky and detailed, and therefore very deutsch, differentiation between Discounter, Vollsortimenter, SB-Warenhaus, and the like to Korinthenkacker in the know (please don’t hit me, sis). Then there’s the question where you can find a supermarket in Germany. There are the tiny and narrow ones in inner city districts which are frequented by Laufkundschaft, passersby customers who do not use a car but travel about on foot and/or with öffentliche Verkehrsmittel (public transportation)—students, Rentner (retirees), and Anwohner (people from the neighborhood). Many supermarkets though can be found on the grüne Wiese, which means that they are often located in Industriegebiete outside of residential areas on the fringes of towns, especially the big ones like Globus or Real, but also Aldi and Lidl. This is where people do their Großeinkauf, their weekly grocery shopping, which necessitates having a car to pack all your Einkäufe into. This crowd usually consists of Mütter (mothers) and those Werktätige (people with regular day jobs) who do not have the time to go to a supermarket everyday just to buy the bare necessities that are needed—and that fit into a backpack or single Einkaufstüte (shopping bag).
So, when you have parked your car (yes, I know—German Parkplätze are not as generously spaced as American ones, but then most Germans do not drive pick-up trucks that consume half the daily oil output of Kuwait in one drive) and stepped out of it, you will see another Parkplatz—that of shopping carts, or Einkaufswagen. Beware: there’s Pfand on them, a 1 Euro deposit, so you should have a 1 Euro coin ready. Or you are really deutsch and have a little token the size of such a coin ready in your wallet or car. So why the Pfand? Some people not perusing car like to take their grocery shopping home with them in a shopping cart and not return it to its proper place … If you are slightly anal, you will take your shopping cart from the longest row of carts—and return it to the shortest one. This makes it easier for the Supermarkterangestellte (grocery store employees) to stack them.
Enter the Supermarkt (minus the elderly greeter found in U.S. Walmarts). If it is one of the more pricier ones, or one with a bigger selection at least, you will step right into the Gemüse- und Obstabteilung, the vegetable and fruit section. Clever sales analysts and psychologists have found out that this makes people want to buy etwas gesundes, something healthy, which makes them feel good—as well as wanting to buy more and rather unhealthy stuff later. Some Supermärkte require you to weigh certain foodstuffs in this section, ranging from bananas and apples to loose potatoes and onions, while others do this for you at the checkout. Speaking of loose veggies and fruit: some Germans are very discerning customers and will check their Äpfel for dents or the slightest discolorations, taking them up, turning them around, touching and feeling them, and selecting the ones they like best. When I was in Italy, I saw that people there do the same thing—but Italian supermarkets provide single-use plastic gloves for their customers before they start touching everything with their potentially unclean hands. Way to feel like an Ausländer yourself for once …
Some people say German supermarkets are like labyrinths where you can get lost and never find what you are looking for; others say that supermarkets are laid out in a way that you have to pass each section anyway, like at Ikea, therefore creating more opportunities to buy something because people spend time in every Abteilung. (I do not like Ikea. I do not know you, Mr. or Mrs. Salesperson, and I do not want to be addressed with “du” instead of “Sie,” at least not in the way Ikea people do. Ostdeutsche can do that—when Germans from eastern Germany address you with “du,” it is charmant, charming, and most of all comes natürlich, naturally. Ikea is neither charming nor natural.) Welcome to the soziale Marktwirtschaft, social market economy a.k.a. German capitalism. A similar sales trick is to put the Markenprodukte, more expensive brand name products, in your natural line of sight (I wonder if there’s a median for that—people at 1 meter 90 look at the world differently than 1 meter 60 ones …) while the cheaper Noname-Produkte or Hausmarken (products from the supermaket’s own brand[s], often made by brand companies), are found in the lower tiers of the Regale. This is not the case, for example, at Aldi. There you’ll find mostly “no name” brands—and less variety than for example at Kaufland. Short aside: there’s Aldi Süd and Aldi Nord. Depending on where you grew up and where you are now living in Germany, you either like one or the other—people used to Aldi Süd cannot find certain products at Aldi Nord and vice versa, making them not only nostalgic but pretty pissed off. By the way, Aldi in the States is Aldi Süd—and Trader Joe’s belongs to Aldi Nord. (The Aldi brothers sliced up the world equally in order not to sich in die Quere kommen—to not have to compete with each other.) I have only seen few products in American Aldis that I knew from the fatherland. And over here, you do not have to go to a “organic” or Bio place like Trader Joe’s to find Haribo gummy sweets and Ritter Sport chocolate—and they are less than a Euro for a bar and not like 2 or 3 Dollars … So head to a German supermarket to provide your siblings and family with cheaply-bought German (or Swiss, like Lindt) name brand sweets before you return stateside after your semester or stay abroad!
When you have finally made your way past all the different sections—from vegetables to pasta to frozen food to coffee to personal hygiene products—you’ll find yourself in front of the Kassen. Depending on how many of them are manned, you have the Qual der Wahl—which queue in front of a which cash register seems to be the quickest one? Possibly not the one with the two Hausfrauen in line who have two weeks of grocery in their shopping carts. Perhaps you’ll be cursing your Supermarkt of choice for not opening enough Kassen. Or it’s Saturday or the day before a Feiertag—expect gazillions of human beings doing last-minute buys. Well, there you go—it’s finally time to put everything on the Einkaufsband. If you have children, expect them to grab some sweets that are usually found at cash registers. Quengelnde Kinder, whiny kids that stomp their feet on the ground shouting “Aber ich will das haben!” (I want that!), are not uncommon. Or maybe you try to stop smoking—good luck with that, as there are conveniently placed cigarette pack disposal machines at the cash register that will throw eine Packung Marlboro or Lucky Strike right on the Einkaufsband. Hopefully you have also weighed your loose lemons … And don’t expect anyone to fill shopping bags for you. It’s best to bring your own bag (preferably a Baumwolltasche of cotton—Germans carried tote bags before Hipsters thought that was cool). If not, prepare to pay 15 cents or so for a plastic bag, du nicht vorausschauender Umweltsünder (you foresight-lacking, environment-polluting person, you)!
Of course there are also other grocery shopping experiences, or venues. You might come across a Tante Emma-Laden in some small village, often a bakery that also sells some canned goods and pasta plus the ubiquitous Bild “newspaper.” Many a Gutmensch lament the downfall of these small shops due to böse (evil) big corporations. There are also small grocery markets run by immigrants, such as Türken or Chinesen. The former is for if you crave some lamb and beef minced meat to make Köfte, the latter is your supply for Siuracha hot sauce. For others, it is their gateway to get a little taste of home in the new Heimat. The eco-conscious Deutsche with money in their wallets are patrons of the Wochenmärkte, farmers’ markets, found on—the Markplatz (gee, now we have that etymological question solved too!). The vegetables and fruit are pricier there, but you’ll buy local (at least stuff that’s home in Germany, from sausages to honey) and more or less organic (the coveted Bio).
In any case, the grocery shopping scene is varied and you’ll surely find your favorite(s). Well, some people only go to a certain Supermarkt because it is just plain and simple conveniently located. More discriminating others will find something here and something else there, driving from a cheap to a more expensive grocery store until they have finally found every item. It’s all about (not) being wählerisch, selective. Oh, wait—that might be problematic when you’re German, if you know what I mean …