Going Grocery Shopping in Germany – 20 ways it’s different compared to grocery shopping in the USA.

Grocery Shopping in Germany (Compared to the USA).

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.

 

Going Grocery Shopping in Germany | Photo by RHiNO Neal via Flickr.

Photo by RHiNO NEAL licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

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.

 

2| Transportation.

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.

 

3| Preparation.

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).

 

Shopping carts at Kaufland. | Going Grocery Shopping in Germany.

 

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.

 

The pfand symbol. | Going Grocery Shopping in Germany.

 

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.

 

Tomatoes. | Going Grocery Shopping in Germany.  Photo by Janine via Flickr.

Photo by Janine licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

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).

 

German vs. American peanut butter sizes. | Going Grocery Shopping in Germany.

 

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.

 

German pretzels. Photo by superscheeli via Flickr.

Photo by superscheeli licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; modifications made by My Meena Life.

 

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.

 

Checking out.

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.

 

16| Cigarettes.

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.

 

Cashier bags up a grocery purchases at a Gladstone, Mo. Walmart. Photo by Walmart via Flickr.

Photo by Walmart licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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?


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy how going out to eat is different in Germany.

Grocery Shopping in Germany (Compared to the USA). Click To Tweet

Going Grocery Shopping in Germany Compared to the USA.

 

18 thoughts on “Grocery Shopping in Germany (Compared to the USA).

  1. This was fascinating – I think I'd rather like shopping in Germany, mainly because of the bread and bratwurst! It sounds a bit like shopping in Australia although our supermarket staff sound friendlier and the stores are open later. I don't have a drivers' licence so I always walk to the store with my "grandma trolley" (best investment ever!) and usually get home delivery for heavy/bulky items. I wonder if they have online supermarket shopping in Germany?

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Sammie! There are a few stores that offer delivery, but only in the larger cities – none in the small town where I was living.

  2. Yikes. Sounds like an adventure. In many European countries people grocery shop daily and this is out of habit from the days before refrigerators. Perishables lasted only as long as the ice blocks. To this day one of my friends in Wales shops daily for yogurt and milk. In Canada almost every grocery store charges you 5¢ if you need plastic bags so most people bring their own bags. Recycling. Environmentally friendly.

    1. Yes, I do love how environmentally friendly it is. It was easier for my husband to pick up a few items daily since he passed the store while walking home from work, but it was certainly an adjustment for us. Definitely an adventure, too! 🙂

  3. So many of these things are true for me, too! I gave up on bagging my groceries at the register long ago and simply place them back in the cart unbagged, as you described, to bag later. I like that most grocery stores have an area after the register with little tables where you can bag your stuff in peace. I also totally know what you mean about it being hard to exit the store without buying anything. I always feel like a criminal when I do that, and yesterday when I went to the store to look for one thing I even made a plan for what I would buy if the thing I wanted wasn’t there, lol!

    Some of these things are different for me, though. I’ve always lived in a state in the US where there are bottle deposits, so that part isn’t unusual to me. The difference in Germany, though, is that the deposits cost more. In Vermont and Massachusetts the deposits only apply to carbonated beverages and are 5 cents per bottle, and here the deposits are on a wider range of containers and go up to 25 cents. Since I rarely ever buy any bottled beverages anyway (tap water all the way for me) I only deal with those machines like two or three times a year. If you don’t mind me asking, why did you buy bottled water? I know many Germans do but I’ve never understood why since the tap water is perfectly drinkable. (I think some claim that there are more minerals in bottled Mineralwasser than in regular tap water, but I’ve seen studies that refute that.)

    I’ve never noticed the produce being full of bugs… That sounds terrible! I shop mostly at Aldi and I’ve sometimes noticed some moldy produce that’s been on the shelf for too long, though. I think it’s because German grocery stores don’t typically have as many employees working as American ones do (this is a guess, I don’t have numbers to back this up), so things like culling produce can fall by the wayside. To be fair, though, I’ve noticed moldy or damaged produce occasionally at American grocery stores, too, just not as often. I think it’s also becoming more and more common to have things imported in from southern Europe and Africa, so there is often produce available that’s out of season here. For example, strawberries and blueberries (from Chile!) were available at Aldi all this winter. Since I don’t typically shop at Kaufland I also don’t have to worry about weighing the produce first. The few times I’ve been there I’ve forgotten to do that and it’s so frustrating! (I don’t like Kaufland in general, it’s too huge and confusing. Give me my cramped little neighborhood Aldi any day, haha!)

    Generally I’ve gotten used to the differences, and I’ve learned to not get too stressed about things like the rush at the check-out, people racing ahead in line, and the lack of space to maneuver the cart. I figure if people get annoyed with me for doing something “wrong” that’s their problem and not mine. They will survive if I take four extra seconds to finish loading my groceries into the cart before paying. I also really like that they don’t automatically bag stuff in plastic. I hate the bag-happy culture in the US, since it wastes so much plastic. People seem genuinely shocked sometimes in American groceries stores when you bring your own bag, which doesn’t bode well for a sustainable future. I like the less-waste attitude here much better.

    Thanks for this post! It’s interesting for me to hear about other Americans’ experiences in Germany 🙂

    Danielle | solongusa.blogspot.com

    1. I feel like I need to travel more within the US, because I didn’t know that there were stores with bottle deposits up north! How interesting. We purchased bottled water because the tap water in Schweinfurt was really awful. It was so hard (full of minerals) that it would leave deposits in our shower each week between cleanings. It was a problem in the area. I even used bottled water to make coffee, because that’s how intensely bitter the taste from the tap water was. Perhaps I’m just a water snob. 🙂 I wish we could’ve drank the tap water, though, it would have been much cheaper. My husband purchased a lot of fizzy bottled water, which was definitely more of a frivolous purchase but made him really happy. He misses that water a lot now.

      I think the bugs were more prevalent during the summer – maybe because we lived further south? Sometimes there would literally be swarms of gnats in the produce section. It drove me nuts. But now that I think about it, I don’t remember finding bugs in the produce outside of Kaufland. I never shopped at Aldi – maybe I should have! There wasn’t one within walking distance, unfortunately.

      Good point, other people being upset is really more a reflection of them than you. I think grocery shopping in Germany definitely gets easier over time, but I hope that maybe this post can help people be a little bit more prepared and so have less stress overall. I agree about the bags – it seems so wasteful. I almost always bring my own and it’s not always well received. But I am grateful during my spontaneous trips that I don’t have to pay for the few bags I might need.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for commenting! It’s always nice to hear your perspective, too.

  4. I've experienced a few of these, although some of them were new to me. We shop regularly when in Dinkelsbuehl since we can make full use of Oma's kitchen. Our food bill is generally really, really high, though, as we buy wurst from the metzger on an almost daily basis. Freshly-made weisswurst is not cheap at all!! (But oh my gosh, so good…. I am craving it heartily right now). There are some things you can buy in bulk, but you usually have to have a car or cart with you. We always buy our beer, sprudel, and water from Splett (a getrankevertrieb, or beverage store) in bulk. Cases and cases of glorious beer! Ah, it's like the Costco for beverages and cheaper overall than buying the same quality of beer here in the U.S. But we almost always have a rental car so stocking up was easy for us.

    1. Well, if you only get to visit Germany sparingly then you should be able to buy all the wurst you want to! 🙂 I haven’t really heard about Splett before – but I think my grocery experience could have been very different if we did have a car.

  5. Great article that really summarized what we found to be true when we vacationed in Germany! It was definitely an adventure to go food shopping and made us appreciate our U.S.A. grocery stores!

  6. Much of this is extremely accurate in my experience. I'm glad I'm not the only one who found grocery shopping in Germany super stressful at first! It's such a simple thing but it was really intimidating.

  7. Good tips! I have learned to bag my items as quickly as possible! It can be really stressful when the next person's items end up mixed up with yours and you feel like you are holding up the queue here! It can be hard finding certain things. Sometimes I look up the words in english first or have to try a few supermarkets to find what I want.

    1. Thanks! Yes, I totally understand! I remember when I visited The Netherlands there was a long piece of plastic across the counter that divided one customer’s items from another after they were rung up – and I was so grateful for it. I wish Germany had something like that. And I know how you feel about finding items – I used to make trips to Rewe just for spinach and the good peanut butter. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  8. This is the funniest thing I have read in a long time. I am a German expat in the U.S. and shopping here requires getting used to. I totally agree with this article; I had a good laugh. Us Germans are funny – and so are you Americans. 😉

    1. I’m so glad you liked it, Julia! Thanks for your sweet comment. The differences in grocery shopping between Germany and the USA can be quite funny at times!

  9. Hi there,

    my name is Caro – and I enjoyed your article very much and the comments, too! Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I'm a German who is always stressed out at the cashier so I really can rely wholeheartedly to what Danielle said:
    "Generally I've gotten used to the differences, and I've learned to not get too stressed about things like the rush at the check-out, people racing ahead in line, and the lack of space to maneuver the cart. I figure if people get annoyed with me for doing something "wrong" that's their problem and not mine. They will survive if I take four extra seconds to finish loading my groceries into the cart before paying."
    That's definitely the way I treat the whole checking-out thing, too. And since I'm nearly always paying "mit Karte" I simply say "Moment, bitte" while I finish loading the goods in my bag and only then I hand my card to the lady sitting at the cashier. That way the stress doesn't mount double while she waits for to sign whereas I'm still loading my bags.

    Well anyhow, a bit civil disobedience from time to time combined with kindness is the best way to resist. Even the stares. :-))))
    Thanks once again for sharing your experience, love from Munich, Caro

    1. Hi Caro!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my article! Thank you for your kind comment. It sounds like you have adjusted well to the check out situation in Germany. Indeed, they will survive waiting an additional four seconds!

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