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?
June 4, 2012 at 1:09 pm
Very interesting and thorough post about some unsignificact very significant differences in the day to day life
June 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm
Grocery shopping is my favorite thing to do these days! Haha. But I do have to always remind my husband to not pile stuff on the conveyer belt, it’s just not done here. Good to note on the barcode thing too, I didn’t know that!
June 10, 2012 at 10:33 am
Not everyone does the barcode thing, but I see it often (really only works with cans and boxes, anyway) I try to, but only if I know where the barcode is, searching for it feels strange 😛
June 4, 2012 at 5:40 pm
Great perspective. I have found the same things in my shopping. Shopping by yourself can be an adventure if you can’t read the packaging, though. Try the vegetable market in Stora Torg for great fruits and vegetables. We lived near a produce market in the U.S. called the Milk Pail that was voted the best produce market in the U.S. by the Food Network. We really missed it when we moved until we discovered the market at Stora Torg. It is very, very good.
June 10, 2012 at 10:36 am
Yes- I do most of my produce shopping in Stora Torg! Much cheaper and great quality (Aside from their bags)
June 4, 2012 at 6:03 pm
I agree. Grocery shopping is one of the most exotic changes we experience at a new place. It seems so little, yet it has such strong impact on our lives! Shopping in Seattle was always so much fun, just like you said: with all the chitchat and the people who bag your stuff for you… When I visit my family in Germany, I feel that it is a lot less friendly and I feel quite pressured by having to bag my groceries in an efficient manner so nobody has to wait.
And I have to say, that this tube thing grosses me out! Especially those flavoured cheeses… yikes! Good thing you have all the pretty candy to make it up to you!
June 10, 2012 at 10:43 am
I’ve always found food shopping to be fun and relaxing, even in Sweden where I sometimes have to call my husbandd or google on my phone to find out what some food is called or if I’m buying the right thing. The no chit chat thing is different but I’ve never felt they were being rude or unfriendly, just efficient. Thankfully the conveyer belts are pretty long and split in two so two or three people can pack their bags at a time, I am happy to have gotten quicker at it though.
The cheese thing is still a bit strange to me, but only because I’ve never eaten much cheese, let alone soft flavored cheeses from tubes!
June 4, 2012 at 9:19 pm
I love going to grocery stores in different countries – checking out their goods and things. It sounds like Sweden and Germany are very similar in their stores… except for the tubes and wall of sweets – though we do have aisles of chocolate – and quite the assortment too! Great post!
June 10, 2012 at 10:46 am
aisles of chocolate sounds great to me! Many people from Germany come to Sweden for summer vacation, maybe one day you will get to explore the similarities in person! 🙂
June 5, 2012 at 3:43 pm
I find grocery shopping in a new place sort of intoxicating. I even try to do it on vacations now! My husband and I went into a supermarket on the first day of our honeymoon in Paris, and it just gave me a better sense of the everyday life of Parisians than any stroll down the Champs Elysees could. And I love noticing the subtle little differences, like you describe here.
Thanks for the beautiful post! I feel like I’m getting to inhabit Sweden a bit with you 🙂
June 10, 2012 at 10:48 am
Exactly! It does give you a better sense of where you are, the culture, and how they function or live just by seeing what they eat and how they shop. I think it is a very easy and fun way to learn about a place. I’m glad to share Sweden with you!!
June 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm
I’ve nominated you for a blog award at the following link for such a positive and inspiring blog you started since your move to Sweden 🙂
Good luck! 🙂
June 10, 2012 at 8:58 pm
We spent a few months cycling across Sweden some years ago and we still miss some of the goodies which we found in the supermarkets. Mordegskeks were our favourite biscuits, the Bob jam in a tube was a hugely convenient way of carrying this preserve and we liked the ‘live’ lettuce growing in pots. The best thing was the fil yoghurt, lovely and runny to poar over cereals. We can’t get it here in the UK so we have bought a yoghurt maker to continue our Swedish style breakfasts.
January 7, 2013 at 8:16 pm
I’m going to Sweden to study for a few months and I was wondering about toiletries. Do they have the same ranges that we have in the UK and the US? Would it be better for me to bring my favourites?
January 7, 2013 at 8:25 pm
Hej Zoe! I think it would depend where you are moving in Sweden, as different stores might have different selections. Some smaller towns have much fewer stores, so it would be hard there for example. I would say that I’ve found the selection to be slightly smaller, but I can’t say 100% without knowing exactly what you are looking for. For example, I find that everything related to beauty care (make up, nail polish, etc) is expensive and worth bringing. Hope that helped, feel free to follow up!
January 11, 2013 at 6:43 am
We are planning to visit Sweden this year, hopefully in late May to early June visiting the birthplaces of my Swedish ancestors. Your article was very informative and helpful. Because we will be camping in a caravan I was interested in whether we could find marshmallows and graham crackers as we love to make S’Mores when we camp. I’m sure chocolate will not be a problem.
Do Swedes eat fresh green salads? Do the greens come mixed in bags or do you need to purchase lettuce, etc., and cut them up yourself?
January 11, 2013 at 9:00 am
Hej Jackie! You won’t have any problem finding the marshmallows, but the graham crackers might be tough. There are tons of different types of crackers, but I can’t say that I’ve seen those.There are also “American” or “world wide” stores in the bigger cities or sections in some of the larger stores, where you might find graham crackers. (Chocolate will certainly not be an issue! hehe) You will find salad bags in supermarkets. If you have any other questions let me know! Good luck on your adventure!
May 21, 2013 at 9:05 am
Hello, i would like to ask, what swedes usually buy from a supermarket, what is the stantard things that a swedish citizen will never miss buying in the supermarket?
August 21, 2013 at 5:12 pm
Let’s see… I can’t speak for ALL Swedes, but if I were to make some really quick generalizations here, taking out the more average things, I would say: Block of cheese to slice up and eat on a sandwhich, knäckerbröd (hard bread), filmjölk (Like a sour yogurt type of milk, sometimes eaten with cereal instead of milk), tubed caviar, coffee, lösgodis (Loose candy). Hard question!
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June 9, 2015 at 3:33 pm
THANK YOU. I stumbled across your blog while doing research for my trip to Motala at the end of June, 2015. Super useful for this travelling Canadian. Kudos!