What I Wish the Internet Had Told Me About Grocery Shopping in Europe

As someone born and raised in America, I found that grocery shopping in Europe was quite different.  Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

Before You Go to the Grocery Store

Before you even leave to go grocery store you need to make sure you have a few things with you.
First is grocery bags, you need to provide your own.  If you don't have any, you can buy some at the store.
Second, are coins. (I'll explain why later)
Third, is a back up form of payment if you plan on paying with a credit card (I'll explain later).

You also will want to make sure the grocery store is open.  I've noticed that store hours vary significantly from day to day and from store to store.  Just because one Carrefour is open at 8:00 a.m. on one street, doesn't mean another Carrefour opens at 8:00 a.m. another street over.
Some stores close in the middle of the day as well.  Again this varies, but usually they start to close around 12:15 p.m. and open again around 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Entering the Grocery Store

If you are going to do quite a bit of shopping, you most likely will want to use a grocery cart.  This is where your coin comes in.  In order to use a cart, you need to insert a coin in the handle bar, this pushes the lock out and frees the cart.  When you are done using the cart, return it to the cart corral and put the lock back in (use the lock from the cart in front of it) and your coin will pop back out.  This is such a cool way to get people to return their carts.

If you have made other purchases from other stores and are bringing them into the store with you, look for a security guard at the entrance.  They will seal your bag so that you can't shoplift items and put them in the bag.  They will seal your bag either with a zip tie or by melting your bag shut.  Either way, it pretty much ruins the bag, so don't bring in purchases from other stores in a bag you care about.  

If you don't have a cart, you might want to look for a basket that they have close by.  I saw lots that roll with a handle.  They are larger than the ones at my local grocery store and I found them to be great.  (Especially since I didn't figure out the coin thing for a while.)

Buying Produce at the Grocery Store

Buying produce reminds me of what it was like when I lived in Austin, Texas and shopped at the HEB.  Any produce you purchase that is price per kilo needs to be weighed before you leave the produce area.  Thankfully all the scales I saw used pictures so that I didn't have to figure out the Dutch, French, or German words for the food I was buying.  The scale will spew out a bar code that your cashier will scan when you check out.  Don't forget that a kilo is about 2.2 pounds so the prices will seem really high until you weigh it.  

Bio means organic.

Don't refrigerate the tomatoes.  Actually that is good advice in America too.

Those funny looking flat peaches, are really good and an easy way to eat a peach.  The pit is small too.

Buying Dairy Products at the Grocery Store

If you are anything like me, you'll find the selection of cheeses to be overwhelming, especially in France, they have a whole section just for Camembert.  Cheeses aren't separated by flavor, they are separated by how they are packaged.  So if you are looking for swiss cheese, you could find it 3 or 4 different places depending on how you want it, sliced, shredded, soft, block, etc.

The yogurt selection is also amazing.  When you pick up a package of yogurt, know that some come in glass containers not plastic.  Touch the container to make sure you know what you are getting.  My favorite is the Bonne Maman variety pack because it comes with rhubarb, yum!

Milk.  What can I say?  It's not like in America.  The first time I saw milk at a grocery store in France it was next to the cleaning products.  Most milk is not refrigerated, but is in the aisles with other canned items.  The expiration date could be weeks away, but once it is opened, it can expire quite quickly.  Same with the refrigerated milk, it doesn't last as long as it does in America. 

Eggs.  Again, not refrigerated.  European eggs don't have to be like American eggs do.  It's not uncommon to find them in half dozen packages.  

Buying Bread Products at the Grocery Store

Like the milk, the bread won't last as long as it does in America so only buy what you need for a couple of days.  Look for an automatic bread slicer.   I really liked using them although I was always afraid I'd cut my finger off. 

Buying Chocolate at the Grocery Store

This is one of my favorite parts about living in France.  Chocolate gets its own aisle.  Again they aren't separated by brand but by how it is packaged.  All the big bars are together, the mini candy bars, chocolate covered biscuits (cookies), etc.  My favorite brands are Milka and Rittersport, but have fun trying out different kinds and brands.  Keep in mind they European chocolate doesn't have the parafin wax to hold its shape (that's why it tastes so good) so it melts very easily and quickly.  Even setting the chocolate on top of the fridge will make it melt. 

Buying Orangina at the Grocery Store

Don't do it.  Seriously, never drink Orangina.  It is the best drink in the world and you will become addicted to it and miss it when you get home.  Then you'll find it at your local grocery store for 3 times the price and pay it anyway because you miss the stuff so bad.  So don't even start down that road.  You're better off if you never discover how wonderful that sweet nectar tastes.

Checking Out at the Grocery Store

In all the grocery stores I went to, the lines were long, always.  Don't wait for the lines to die down, they never seem to.  Make sure you get in the correct line.  Some registers are for those credit cards with the gold square on them.  If your credit card doesn't have one of those on it, don't get in that line.  Some lines might be for the elderly or young mothers.  You can get in a line like that, but they have priority, so be respectful and don't go in that line if you see mothers or elderly ready to make purchases.  Some lines are cash only, and some are express.  Just pay attention before you get in a line.

When it is your turn to check out, I find it is helpful to greet them with a "Hello."  This is a quick simple way of saying, "I speak English."  As they are scanning your items, get out your shopping bags.  If you purchased them before, show them the bottom of your bag where the bar code is because it will be marked with a marker.  If you are purchasing the bag, put it first on the conveyor belt so that they can mark it and you can use it right away.

You are going to need to pack your own groceries.  Don't feel like you need to pack the groceries as they are scanned.  The cashiers are really fast, and they want you to pay as soon as they are done scanning.  If you are loading your bags when they give you the total, they will be irritated.  Just move your items to the side so that you can bag them after you have paid for them.

Paying for Your Groceries at the Grocery Store

If you are paying in cash, keep in mind that they don't like to break 50's.  They also don't like to give lots of coins back.  So if your total is 4,07 Euro, try to find 7 cents.  They don't want to have to give you 93 cents back.  

If you are paying with a credit card, try to use your Master Card or Visa.  They don't like American Express because of the high fees.  Also tell them in advance that you have a card that slides.  They usually need to press a button before you slide your card so that it will work.  Also, know that it is not common for customers to have to sign a receipt like it is in America.  There is a chance they will not have a pen on them or one close by.  You might want to keep a pen with you so that you can sign the receipt.  Some of their credit card machines are not set up to read one that slides which is why I recommend you have a second way to pay for the groceries, a different card or cash.  

If you used a grocery cart, be sure to return it and push the lock in so that you can get your coin back.  Enjoy your groceries from a European grocery store!