Grocery Shopping In London

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Every evening at about six-thirty, I walked through the doors of  the local food store on Muswell Hill Broadway.  During my extended stay in London,  it was my evening ritual to pick up something for dinner and a snack for the next day. While I fell into the groove of a London grocery store rather quickly, the first few days were an interesting experience of learning the norms of a different culture.

Back home, grocery shopping is usually a once a week thing, but I realized very quickly that weekly shopping in London does not work.  First, like many Londoners, I relied on walking and public transportation to get around town, which makes carrying a week’s worth of groceries next to impossible. Second, the house where I was staying had a teeny tiny refrigerator that I had to share with another roommate and the homeowners. It was about the size of a mini bar, so I had no choice but to adopt the London lifestyle of daily market trips.

There were two grocery stores in the Muswell Hill area: Marks and Spencer’s and Sainsbury’s. I went with M&S mainly because it had a large array of fresh produce and a healthier variety of food products. And it was cleaner.

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My “local” grocery store on Muswell Hill Broadway
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

My budget constraints left me with about £10 a day for food, which  included my daily Cafe Mocha, (£2.90).  Breakfast and lunch were a snap –  a bagel smothered with Nutella in the morning and a fresh apple in the afternoon. Those two meals together cost me about £10 a week.

Dinner, however, was a bit trickier.  All I had to cook food was a microwave and a toaster, which was actually more restrictive than the budget! Thankfully, Marks and Spencer carries a wide array of frozen prepared meals that are reasonably priced and somewhat healthy (few preservatives or artificial ingredients). If I could get to the store before 6:00 p.m. I picked up a freshly made sandwich or salad. They were just as inexpensive as frozen dinners, but they were in short supply! Just ten minutes past six meant an empty shelf.

I think I tried just about every variety of the single-serve frozen dinner. The store brand chicken casserole, bangers and mash, and shepherd’s pie were my favorites, though I’d stay away from anything Italian (the noodles never cooked right). For £2.29 – £3.29, I got a pretty decent meal with enough left over to get a little dessert.

The candy rack is usually where I found that dessert. Candy bars are typically Cadbury or Mars, but in varieties that were totally foreign to me, (see The Junk Food Tourist for a complete rundown on my candy adventure).  Depending on the brand or size, they go for about 55p or £1.00.

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nom-nom-nom . . . The Double Decker is my favorite!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Shopping in the store is about the same as it is in the U.S. It’s crowded, people don’t always move, and it has that urban food smell that dominates all grocery stores. However, things get interesting when it’s time to wait in line and pay. British people take waiting in line (or queuing up) pretty seriously. There is no whining, line cutting, or standing too close to one another, nor is there tolerance for obnoxious conversations on a mobile phone. If any of these unspoken rules are broken, the British are not shy about voicing their disdain.

What I found most fascinating was the courtesy of placing the conveyor belt divider for the person standing behind you. Whether I was carrying one item or five, the person in front of me never failed to  place the divider. It didn’t take me long to adopt the policy both in London and back home. A little kindness goes a long way.

The cashiers sit instead of stand as they scan purchases. They sit on ergonomic stools that actually looked really comfortable!  People either bagged their own groceries or the cashier took on bagging duties once money changed hands. Bags are not free, but rather optional and for a fee, (5p). It didn’t take long for me to wise up and bring my own bag in order to avoid being charged extra.

After a while, I got to know the cashiers and I no longer got lost trying to find the snack aisle. I knew the left door always got a little stuck when it slid open and there was always a huge puddle in front of the exit after it rained.  I’ll bet if I went back today I could still find the Nutella and the best frozen bangers and mash a girl could ever want. This little store, along with so many other things became part of what I call my “new familiars.”

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Just curious:

As this series progresses, I’ll being using this section to ask questions to clear up my own curiosities. However, please feel free to leave your own questions and comments below.

Are small refrigerators common in London homes?

What’s the story behind having to pay for a bag?

How would locals describe food prices – high or reasonable?

Londoners, what did I get wrong?

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c.b.w. 2013

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27 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping In London

  1. Hi there! I’m having the exact same experience as you describe here, but in reverse, as I’m having my own extended stay in the U.S. :P The 5p bags are an environmental thing – if you have to pay even a small amount for a plastic bag, it makes you more likely to either pack more food into one bag or to bring your own. Judging by your post, in your case it clearly worked!

    Grant and I forgot our reusable bags again when we hit the local store yesterday, and I was astounded by how many bags the packing guy deemed it necessary to use to pack our $40 worth of groceries! One of the bags had one bottle of apple juice in it and that was it! Another one had like two apples and two bell peppers. I couldn’t believe it! In the UK, you usually pack your own bags and when you have to pay for each one, you get as much stuff in each as you possibly can! It just means less waste, and less plastic production, hence less pollution. Not all shops charge for bags, but more and more are doing it, and I imagine it’s particularly a concern in London. You’ll also find places like Tesco not charging for bags but offering a reward in the form of ‘points’ for each of your own bags that you use.

    So there you have it! It’s funny how little things like grocery shopping can really reveal the differences between nations. I always used to laugh at the sanitising wipes they provide in U.S. supermarkets to wipe your trolley handle with, because it seemed so paranoid, but now I know that when I go back home I’m going to have to bring my own because without it, my hands feel dirty now after a trip to the supermarket :P

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    • How cool is that! :-)

      I totally agree with you on the bagging situation. I will never understand why they put two only things in a bag instead of filling them up with as much as possible. It’s so wasteful. We typically go through the self checkout lane so we can bag things ourselves. :-)

      I really liked how London stores got you to think twice about reusing bags or bringing reusable bags. It’s such a simple thing that can reduce how much we throw away.

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  2. I’ve never had a mini-bar sized fridge, but have had a lot of tiny freezer compartments. Depends on the size of the flat really, but in general fridges here are smaller than what we would call ‘American style’ fridges! (and rarely have any of the fancy ice making equipment)

    Carrying stuff home is always a nuisance so using supermarket online shopping is something I’ve found myself relying on more. That, or you quickly develop a lot of neck/arm/back muscles :)

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    • I’ll bet online shopping is a savior in London! If I lived there, I’d probably use it, too. :-)

      Thanks for the insight into refrigerator size. It makes sense for fridges to be smaller in what are certainly smaller flats in the city. I do wonder, however, do fridges get bigger outside the city?

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  3. This is a perfect start to your new series! It’s amazing just how different grocery shopping is in London (or apparently in New York City, according to my parents) compared to suburban/rural America. I just stocked up a week’s worth of veggies and two week’s worth of meats and non-perishables. It’s hard to imagine taking it one day at a time.

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  4. I liked Marks and Spencer when I visited England a few years ago. The 5 cents/bag is also being charged in some stores in Ontario. Great post…looking forward to more.

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  5. *g* It sounds rather like shopping at Aldi here, with the exception of people not always putting the divider on the conveyor belt.

    But yeah… supposedly, paying for your bags at the register (at least at Aldi’s here in the US) cuts down on overhead costs as well, because they don’t have to cover the cost of the bags somewhere in the cost of the product. My cloth shopping bags have more than paid for themselves at this point.

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  6. Bags aren’t free? Interesting! I wish the U.S. would adopt the sitting policy at jobs, this is a real problem for so many people… including me. Eight hours on your feet is just expected almost everywhere outside an office job. Great post I really enjoyed it! :)

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  7. Interesting post! If I ever get to London, I’ll have to remember your tips, although I’ve been in the habit of bringing my own cloth bags whenever I plan on a huge shop and I know which stores charge for bags, here, and which ones don’t. Maybe it’s a British/Canadian thing, but I always put down the bar at the end of my groceries, although not everyone here does that. To me, it’s just a courtesy. Thanks for sharing your overseas experiences. :)

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  8. Cindi

    When we were in Israel, there was a little shop below my brother-in-law’s apt. that had fresh fruit and veggies and nuts and on the corner there was a grocery store, tho very small, like an AM/PM size place. Their fridges were quite small and so were the apts. so daily shopping was a must. When you’re visiting, it seems like a perfect thing to do since everything is within walking distance. But in our world of Costco and stock up sales, we could have a mini food bank!
    It seems that more stores are giving credit for bringing your own bags and it’s interesting to see the differences in how countries are responding to wastefulness. I REALLY like that the cashiers are able to sit. I’ll bet they have less absences due to the health problems of all that time standing in one place. Thanks for the insightful post, as always!

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    • It seems daily market trips are common all across Europe and Asia. It makes me wonder why it really never caught in the U.S. I think we’re missing out on eating better, fresher food by relying on the “stockpile” method.

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  9. I really enjoyed this post CB…it is interesting how different habits and practices surface in different places. We do the grocery-divider thing here in Oz too. I live in the Northern Territory and the govt legislated against provided bags for shopping a couple of years ago….we’re all pretty much in the groove with it now, and when we forget the bags still get recycled with other purposes. When I travel interstate I’m quite shocked to be given bags at every shop.

    We tend to shop more often here too because many of our veg are freighted in via airconditioned trucks so they don’t last as well. It does tend to induce you to spend more sometimes but it’s also very much the European way to buy fresh on the day.

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    • I’ve recently made an extra effort to get in the habit of bringing my own bags. It’s a nice feeling to put bags away, instead of tossing them out.

      I’m so glad the divider courtesy exists in more than one place! :-)

      Buying fresh each day seems so much less wasteful. Even though I’m really good about eating all the fruit I buy in a given week, there are some weeks where an apple gets away from me. I always feel bad for not eating it!

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