I love supermarkets. Well, ethically, I’m not so keen on their dominance of the marketplace and their ability to put small traders out of business in a flash, but from a sociological point of view, I find them fascinating.
On trips abroad I love wandering round the local hypermarché or supermercado to get an idea of how the natives like to live. And had I known that when I arrived in Perth almost five years ago, the big supermarkets were forced by law to shut at 6pm (a situation thankfully now changed) I might never have got on the plane. It proved to be a very accurate indicator of what living in Perth would be like.
I thought Australian supermarkets would be much the same as British ones, and they are. But as a new migrant, there are still a few things you need to know about shopping at Woolworths or Coles.
1. You’ll need to learn the lingo.
In Australia, courgettes are zucchini, peppers are capsicums and sweets are lollies (no stick required). Lollies are icy poles or paddle pops. And then there’s bitey cheese…
2. If you are a fan of M&S ready meals, prepare for disappointment.
An Australian colleague once informed me with a sneer that ‘British people eat nothing but microwave meals’. That’s not (entirely) true, but we certainly eat more of them than the Aussies. It’s hardly surprising, when in the UK you have easy access to the delights of the Marks & Spencer food hall. Here, decent, fresh microwaveable meals are a very recent arrival to the supermarket chiller cabinet, and the selection is still pretty small. If Marks & Spencer ever do make it to Melbourne, I hope they sell food as well as knickers.
3. It is possible to get some home comforts if you look hard enough.
Aussie supermarket bosses aren’t daft – they know that ex-pats have cravings and they do try to satisfy them. It is possible to find Irn-Bru and Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers in supermarkets, although you’ll pay over the odds for them. And depending on the demographics of the particular suburb, you’ll find a whole range of ‘foreign’ foods to choose from. Alas, they have not yet woken up to the delights of dark chocolate Bounty, which is why anyone who comes to visit us needs to bring a suitcase full of them.
4. You can’t buy your booze at the same time as your bread.
Australian laws mean alcohol is not sold on the supermarket shelves. If you want a slab or a goon bag, you have to go to a separate off-licence (known here as a bottle shop). Sometimes these are in the same building as the supermarket, sometimes not. And while it is apparently too dangerous to allow alcohol to be sold next to the cornflakes, it is fine to sell it to people in control of cars – there are lots of drive-through bottle shops.
5. But you might have the choice of two almost-identical supermarkets in the one shopping centre.
When we moved to Northcote in Melbourne, we were a little surprised to find two large branches of Coles in Northcote Plaza, our local shopping centre. Clearly rather than let the competition move in, Coles snapped up both ends of the building. On the upside it did mean if we went to one and forgot to buy something, you could go to the other to get it without being recognised by the staff and mocked for your absent-mindedness.
6. The checkout assistants will pack your bags for you.
When I left the UK, it was the norm to pack your own bags while the checkout assistant dealt with the business end – the scanning and taking your payment. Here, they’ll generally pack for you and do so with a smile. But I suspect the days of this friendly service are numbered, with the increasing presence of self-service checkouts which test your knowledge of point 1 above.
Have you moved to a different country? What do you find interesting or unusual about shopping there?