Making Sense of the Supermarket: Part I, The Basics

You gotta eat and therefore you gotta have food.  While one of the joys of Paris is learning all the individual neighborhood shops for meat, produce, and cheese plus spending time at any of the wonderful open-air markets, it can all be a little intimidating at first, especially if your French is not that strong.    The supermarket is a much easier place to start but even so, it won’t be exactly like the one you are used to back in the States.  

If you are ready to shop and you want to use a cart, you will need a one-euro coin to liberate the cart.  To prevent their disappearance, carts are linked together.  Putting a one-euro coin in the device on the handle will allow you to pull out the chain connecting your cart with all the others.   When you return the cart after you’ve finished shopping, you reconnect the chain and you will get your euro back.  Some bigger markets offer plastic tokens (jetons) the same size as a one-euro coin that can be used in the same way.  You may be able to ask for one at the customer service desk; if you’re lucky, they may even have a bowl of them sitting right out in the open.  I like having a jeton in my change purse; I can’t spend it so it’s always there when I need it.

Every supermarket is a bit different so it’s hard to give good advice on where to find what.  But here are a few pointers:

  • The eggs are not in the refrigerated section.  You will find them on a shelf.
  • Sugar may not be next to the flour and other baking supplies.  In one store where I shop, the sugar is next to the coffee.  In another, the sugar is next to the bottled water.
  • If you don’t find canned tomatoes with the other canned vegetables, look next to the pasta sauce.
  • Canned chicken stock does not exist.  Make your own, use bouillon cubes, or better yet, powdered fond de volailles which usually can be found next to the bouillon cubes.

Perhaps the most dispiriting part of the supermarket experience comes at the end when you find that you have to bag your own groceries.  In some cases, you even have to bring your own bags or be willing to pay for the store’s bags.   You will likely find it very nerve wracking to try to bag and pay for your groceries at the same time.  Just a few tips here:

  • Take a deep breath and take your time.  If you look around, you will notice that many French customers bag all their groceries before getting out their wallets.
  • If you brought a grocery caddie with you, shop using the caddie instead of the store’s cart.  Take everything out of the caddie and put it on the conveyor belt, and then put it back in the caddie when the checker has scanned it.  If your store does not allow you to bring your caddie into the store (you may have to check it when you enter),  put everything back into the grocery cart after it is scanned, pay, reclaim your caddie, transfer the groceries from the cart to the caddie, and then return the cart.
  • Use the store’s free home delivery service which bags your groceries for you.  More on home delivery in a future post.
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4 responses to “Making Sense of the Supermarket: Part I, The Basics

  1. good tips! one of my most relied on resources when I moved to Paris was this website: http://lyon-eats.blogspot.com/2007/10/grocery-list.html.

  2. Ohhh yes! This is a really good tip: “put everything back into the grocery cart after it is scanned, pay, reclaim your caddie, transfer the groceries from the cart to the caddie, and then return the cart.” In fact, I do this *every* time I go shopping. I do a fairly decent shopping trip once a week — my fiancé’s kids stay with us every weekend and so I stock up a day or two before the weekend. I get too much to figure out how to get it all in the caddy and bags I bring from home right in line, so I just put everything back in the cart after it’s scanned and then work out the jigsaw of how to get everything home after paying. It’s a lot less stressful to me.

    Another tip, I have heard that the best times to grocery shop in France (this a tip from my friend in Antibes, who read or heard it somewhere and finds it to be true for her) are Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Mondays are busy after most stores being closed on Sunday, Wednesdays are when all the moms drag their kids to the store since little kids have the day free, and Fridays are the big rush before the weekend. Saturdays? OMG — I try to avoid shopping then unless I really, really, really need something!

    Thanks for this wonderful site!

  3. I remember the first time I went grocery shopping in Switzerland before I moved to France. The grocery store was in a Centre Commercial so I walked all the way inside and then couldn’t find a cart. It took me a while with my limited French to understand that the carts were back outside in the parking lot. I got there and had no Swiss franc coins to put into the cart to release it. So I had to go back into the CC to buy something to get change. By the time I finally got the cart, I was frazzled and I hadn’t even begun shopping yet! After several years I of course became a pro, but it is good to remind people because you don’t always remember to tell them!

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