When you move to a new country it isn’t the huge cultural differences that catch you off guard, but the day-to-day tasks that are seemingly the same but secretly aren’t. Food shopping in Sweden seemed easy enough whenever I tagged along during my short visits, never paying close attention to the details, but when I started solo shopping I started to notice differences.
These are observations and experiences beyond the obvious language barriers, currency/prices, and metric differences that I wrote about here when I first arrived.
Tubes: In Sweden, tubes aren’t only for toothpaste, apparently. When you walk around the supermarket you will find tubes everywhere. Mayonnaise, tomato paste, but most of all caviar and many many different flavors of cheeses! These soft cheeses have flavors ranging from ham, turkey, shrimp, lobster, bacon, reindeer meat, to mushroom or onion. Even the tubed caviar has started to branch out into new flavors such as caviar mixed with cheese, dill, or even diced up boiled egg! You can spend a lot of time browsing these tubes! Seems strange to me, but completely normal in Sweden!
Quantity: Unlike in my hometown you will never see anyone shopping for a months worth of food in a single trip. Where as people often take hours in the supermarket, shopping in bulk, with food piled high in the cart, creating long lines and general chaos, it has been the exact opposite experience in Sweden. In the five months that I have lived here I have only seen the large push carts used a few times, and never even half full, let alone filled to the brim. Most use the small hand baskets, (or none at all) only walking out with one or two bags of food. (This is based off of living near the center of a small town, which to me is similar to living back in Queens, NY. I’m sure some things vary if you live in the country or a large city.)
Frequency: Shopping for less at a time means more trips to the supermarket. Instead of going two or three times a month, I now go food shopping at least two or three times a week. At first I thought this was a pretty annoying inconvenience, but I have grown to enjoy it. Each trip is quick and easy.
Freshness: Part of the reason shopping this way makes sense in Sweden is that the food does not last as long. If you buy vegetables, fruit, or bread, do not expect them to last for weeks. This took a long time for me to adjust to, constantly buying too much food only to have to throw it away later in the week. The amount of preservatives is much lower, the fruit ripens faster and goes bad faster. We buy our bananas green and we look for the firmer peaches, avocados, mangos, and nectarines. The next day or two they will be ready to eat, unlike the agonizingly slow week I used to wait for my fruit to ripen, which then stays ripe and ready to eat for at least a week or two- which I now see is just far too long. Our bread must be freshly baked; I’ve never paid such close attention the the best before date before – it turns out that mold forms quite quickly, who knew? Until now I never understood why my husband was scared of American bread after seeing it stay fresh for weeks. I have thrown out way too many loafs of bread and far too much fruit by refusing to believe things here don’t last as long as back home. Buy only what you need for those few days, then its back to the store for more.
Look for the Green Keyhole: No, that was not a riddle. Sweden marks healthier food alternatives, lower fat and/or higher fiber, with a green keyhole on the packaging (since 1989). How convenient, too bad I didn’t know about it for a long time. Use it.
Lösgodis: On the other side of being health conscious, a staple in every Swedish supermarket is the colorful wall of sweet and salty lose candy. This sets Grocery shopping in Sweden apart from anywhere else. More details about the Swedish candy craze here.
Bag it: In Sweden the line doesn’t stop moving because the cashier needs to hold your hand. I haven’t been in, or ever heard of, a supermarket where the cashiers bag your groceries for you. It’s not their job, so don’t expect it. Instead there is a longer split conveyer belt to give each customer time and space to pack their bags. In New York most supermarkets bag the groceries for you, (or you will you find a youngster waiting at the end of the conveyer belt packing your bags for you in hopes of a tip). Many times only to be repacked by the customer afterwards because they are unsatisfied with how they were packed. Some stores have special “Bag your own” lines that some people use, but usually only when other lines are too long. As an ex-cashier, I can say that bagging everyone’s groceries is a stressful waste of time, especially when there is a huge quantity and the customer sits back and watches instead of speeding it up by helping. I think Sweden has it right to have everyone pack their own groceries, it makes the line move faster and it can be packed the way the customer wants.
Bags: In Sweden you have to buy your grocery bags along with your purchase. Nice, quality, no-need-to-double-up, can-fit-a lot-of-stuff, won’t-break, bags. Instead of paying the 2 Kronors for a bag you will sometimes see people use the free produce bags for smaller/lighter items and carry things like soda by hand. Many people use other bags that they have from other stores, or backpacks, or purses. So, it’s not completely odd to see cheese, milk, and chicken sticking out of someones purse.
Barcodes: In Sweden instead of your cashier helping you bag your groceries, we help our cashiers. Instead of carelessly piling your items on the conveyer belt, Swedes are more thoughtful and organized. No piling. No mess. Instead, it is common to try to place items with the barcode facing the scanner so that the cashier can swipe quickly and easier. This speeds up the line significantly and is appreciated by everyone.
Sssshhh: I can tell you first hand that in New York people love talking to the people ringing up their groceries. We know customers by name, what days of the week they came in, what they always buy, we knew about their family, their neighbors, and the latest gossip. Some customers even get on longer lines just to talk to their favorite cashier. Spending our work hours talking to and laughing with different people was the best part of the job, it kept our mind off the long hours of standing and repetitious work. I have never seen any of this in Sweden. One likely reason is because of the quantity and efficiency differences. Cashiers are often only ringing up a max of 20 items instead of 50-100 and spend much less time with each customer (especially with not having to bag or look for a barcode), so there is not as much time to make conversation. Another is that talking too much to customers slows down the line in itself, which wouldn’t be appreciated. In Sweden it is normal to smile and say hello, then continue to place your items on the belt and wait for the total. Everything is very friendly, but nothing beyond that. One stereo type of Swedes is that they are not great at small talk, which this truly showcases.
Cheese: Before I met my husband I never enjoyed cheese. When he came to New York he searched all of the local supermarkets for a decent selection, only to be disappointed time and time again. There is a very strong love of cheese in Sweden, from frukostsmorgas topping (Open breakfast sandwich) to evening crackers and cheese, so you will always find a huge selection.
What differences have you noticed in your new local supermarket?