Going grocery shopping in Germany has always been a stressful event for me. On my first visit to Kaufland, a few days after moving to Germany, I unintentionally made a cashier very angry because I didn’t weigh my bananas before checking out. Even after living in Germany for 13 months, it seemed like I always managed to do something wrong on each trip to the grocery store. So I’m sharing 20 ways that grocery shopping in Germany is different so that you can be more prepared for what to expect.
Grocery Shopping in Germany (Compared to the USA).
Going to the store.
1| When you go.
Grocery stores in our small Bavarian town were typically open from 7am – 8pm on Monday – Saturday and closed on Sundays. When I complained to some long-term expats about this, they informed me that just a few years prior the shops had closed at 6pm on weekdays and 2pm on Saturdays! I can’t imagine how much harder that would have been, as Mr. Meena and I struggled to make it to the store before 8pm.
We didn’t have a vehicle during our year in Germany, so we usually walked to the store. I’m not sure that I’ve ever walked to a grocery store in the USA – it’s usually not safe or feasible unless you’re in a large city. But in Germany it was very common for people to walk, bike, or take the bus to the grocery store instead of driving.
There were three grocery stores within walking distance; however, walking to the grocery store means you have to carry your purchases home. This is when I realized that groceries are quite heavy – especially bottled drinking water. Since we could only carry so much per trip, we went shopping often and purchased a minimal amount of items on each trip. Many Germans use roller carts to transport groceries home, but we never invested in one.
You’ll want to make sure you have a coin with you every time you need a shopping cart. Alternatively, there are plastic key chains you can purchase that will unlock the carts (although we were never able to figure out where you can buy them).
Many times I went to the store without a coin and had to resort to comically balancing items in my arms.
Preparing to go grocery shopping in Germany also means you’ll need to compile a list with German key words and ingredients – I quickly discovered that most of my recipes were impossible (or very difficult) to make in Germany because the ingredients were not available. Before heading to Germany you may want to practice making a few German meals so that you’re better prepared to cook with what items are available.
At the store.
4| Pfand return.
The first part of going grocery shopping in Germany is typically returning your beverage containers – almost every container you purchase will have the pfand symbol on it.
When you purchase a container you pay a pfand, or deposit, on it. These vary in worth, usually from five to 20 cents, and you get your deposit back when you return your empty containers to the store. This encourages people to recycle (and to annoy you at the train station by asking if they can have your empty bottles). It can be complicated, however, because you’ll need to remember which container came from which store as you can’t always return them to different places.
Soda bottles, water bottles, energy drink cans, beer bottles, etc. – you’ll get used to there being a pile of bottles somewhere in your living space. There are pfand machines at the entrance of most grocery stores (although sometimes they are inside the store) where you exchange your bottles for a receipt that you can use when paying for your groceries. We returned our bottles biweekly and usually had around two euros in pfand credits each time.
5| Price differences.
Grocery prices in Germany were cheaper overall compared to the USA. We could purchase fresh bread for 15 cents, a large package of bratwurst for 2.50 euros, and quality beer for 70 cents. If you eat what the Germans eat (sausage, bread, seasonal items) then you will definitely pay less than in America. However, when I reviewed our cost of living in Germany, I was surprised that we were only spending about $50 less on groceries each month. (This was partially because we purchased a lot of bottled water in Germany – something we almost never do in the USA – and we tended to seek out specialty foods that were less common in Germany and therefore more expensive.)
6| Produce selection.
I can purchase strawberries pretty much any time of year in the USA (although it’s not always financially wise to do so). This is not the case in Germany, as produce is typically only available when it is in season. Germans love local, organic produce, and many Germans prefer to buy their produce at the local farmers market instead of a chain store. However, the focus on organic, non-GMO, and low pesticide use farming policies in Germany results in produce that is very small in size, doesn’t taste very good, and is often full of bugs. I really missed the abundant produce selection from home.
7| Weighing and tagging your produce.
In some German grocery stores, such as Kaufland, you must weigh your produce before checking out. A good indicator that you need to weigh and tag your produce is the presence of scale machines with digital screens in the produce section (and people using them). If you forget to weigh your produce this causes a big problem at checkout because the cashiers don’t have built-in scales. And even if they do have a scale nearby, the cashiers tend to get angry if you haven’t tagged your produce or if you’ve tagged it incorrectly.
8| Nearly everything is smaller.
One of my favorite things about grocery shopping in the USA is that I can buy things in bulk. But I quickly learned that was not possible when grocery shopping in Germany. For example, look at the difference in size between peanut butter from Germany (left) and peanut butter from the USA (right).
Peanut butter can be hard to find in Germany and tends to be in small, expensive containers. However, Germans are hopelessly obsessed with Nutella, which you can buy in large containers. But in general, there aren’t very many large or bulk food items in your typical German grocery store.
9| Forget “American Items”.
No, seriously, forget them. After a few months of living in Germany, I went on an American food item scavenger hunt where I sampled and reviewed food items marked as American. Most of these foods were unsavory and downright confusing.
Even if you find an American specialty store, it’s unlikely the food will be exactly the same as in America. For example, in Germany soda is made with sugar instead of corn syrup. When we ordered some American soda from Amazon, it was actually the exact same soda made with sugar from the grocery store – with a higher price tag. So, unless you are willing to order a care package from home, stay away from the so called American food items in German grocery stores.
10| Out of stock items.
I distinctly remember being confused when Kaufland ran out of bananas on a Saturday afternoon; it was the first time I’d ever seen an empty banana section. This turned out to be a regular occurrence – with the bananas as well as other items. The only explanation I’ve come up is that the stores don’t want restock fresh items late in the week. Since they are all closed on Sundays, perhaps this is a way to keep items from spoiling in the meat, produce, and dairy departments.
In the USA, empty food shelves are usually only seen when there’s a big storm coming (or there is a hint of snow in the south).
11| Physical space issues.
I frequently encountered someone barring an entire aisle with their cart while grocery shopping. A loud “Bitte” or “Entschuldigen” is generally effective in this situation, although you might want to prepare for an angry glare. Mr. Meena and I eventually got to the point where we would gently push people or their carts aside – which is normal and acceptable behavior in Germany.
Most of the time, I found grocery shopping in Germany to be a physically intimidating experience. People will rush towards you while browsing – expecting you to move for them – and cut in front of you in line without hesitation. While checking out, other customers tend to stand only an inch or two behind you and will actually push you if you don’t move fast enough. I was even pushed by an elderly lady once. This was very difficult for me as I am from the southeastern USA, where people are painfully polite.
12| Asking for help.
Unfortunately, good customer service is not really a thing that happens often in Germany. Don’t be afraid to ask if you need help finding something – the worst that can happen is the clerk will say that helping you is not in their job description.
13| Ripping open packages.
Have you ever gone to the store and only wanted to purchase two or three bottles of water, coke, beer, etc.? Then you will love grocery shopping in Germany. At first it felt downright criminal to rip open a six pack and only take a few out. But we quickly got used to this convenience, especially since we had to carry everything home – two waters are much lighter than six.
14| Fresh bread.
Fresh bread is my favorite part of the German shopping experience. Usually there is an entire wall devoted to bread in the store, and our local Kaufland even had a slicing machine for the loaves. There is so much bread to choose from and it’s all very cheap – which is useful if you’re indecisive. I love watching the store clerks bring out the fresh bread and put into the self-serve boxes.
The main differences between fresh bread in German grocery stores and bread available in the bakery section in US stores are that the bread is fresher, cheaper, not very sweet, and it’s available in a large mix and match variety.
15| Exit strategy.
German grocery stores are difficult to exit if you are not purchasing anything. The space is tightly controlled and you can typically only exit through the checkout line. Most of the time you can squeeze past customers but sometimes the lanes are too narrows and the carts make it impossible to pass. Several times I’ve purchased a small item or candy bar so that I won’t feel like a criminal as I’m trying to leave.
While cigarettes are normally locked up behind a service counter in the USA, Germany has a more convenient system. At many stores the cigarettes are located right above the conveyor belt behind a plastic barrier that can be raised and lowered by the cashier. And, considering how many Germans purchase cigarettes, this barrier gets raised pretty often.
17| The cashiers get to sit down.
I love this. I worked as a grocery store clerk for years, and I remember how difficult it was to stand on my feet for six to 10 hours at a time. The German clerks always look comfortable, especially since they don’t have to bend to unload the carts (or bag groceries).
18| No small talk or joking, bitte.
Grocery transactions in the USA (at least in the southeast) usually start with “How are you doing?” and/or “Did you find everything you needed today?” and progress through a variety of small talk until finally asking if you need help taking your groceries out to your car. This is not the case when grocery shopping in Germany. Our transactions started with a “Hallo” and, forgoing any issues with produce (see point #7), ended swiftly with a “Schönen Tag” and perhaps a glare from the next customer in line. There were a few times when Mr. Meena attempted to joke with the cashiers (he can’t resist) and those conversations usually did not go very well.
19| Bag it yourself, and quickly.
You will likely be overwhelmed by the bagging process in German grocery stores during your first few visits. The cashier will ring up your items at a blazingly fast speed since they do not have to unload them or bag them – simply slide them across the scanner. In some stores they don’t need to pause to key in your produce, either, as you tagged your produce when weighing it.
This is certainly an adjustment since nearly all US grocery stores bag your groceries for you and provide bags for free.
In Germany, I almost never finished picking up my scanned items and placing them, unbagged, back in the cart before the cashier was done. Often I’d still be frantically trying to pick them up after I had paid – while items from the next customer were flying towards them on a collision course. This is part of the reason why Mr. Meena and I tried to grocery shop together, as two customers can usually keep up with one cashier.
We usually bagged our items after checking out and moving away from the cashiers. If we forgot a bag or didn’t bring enough of our own reusable bags, then we’d have to purchase a plastic or paper bag for 10-30 cents each from the store. In the US, you almost never need to bring your own bags and some stores will even give you a discount for bringing reusable bags.
On the plus side, you are in complete control of your items – no one will ever put batteries with your milk in Germany.
20| Paying mit karte.
If you pay with a debit or credit card then be prepared for the cashier to snatch it out of the chip reader once the transaction is approved. They will hold onto it for dear life until they can heavily scrutinize your current signature and the one on the card to make sure they match. Make sure you’ve signed all your cards before going grocery shopping in Germany (or shopping anywhere in the country) or you will be harshly reprimanded by the clerks.
Have you noticed any differences when grocery shopping in Germany vs. the USA?
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