How to Win at the Grocery Store Wars

While I’m on the subject of stores, I want to talk a little about the grocery store. I had in mind that this would be a post on cultural differences that drive me nuts (what is up with the butting in line, Europe?? Seriously, knock it off), but this one actually merits a post all its own. Because if you plan to go to the grocery store here, you need to be prepared. And by “prepared” I mean, you should probably start working out. Like, now.

Viennese grocery stores (and elsewhere—the same is true in Italy) have a different procedure than is followed in the US. First of all, if you want bags you will need to buy them. They’re usually hanging in front of and under the counter. You will be paying around 30 cents for each one, so you won’t want too many. Ideally, you will bring your own shopping bag(s) with you. This is ecologically motivated, and it makes good sense. The problem is that it interacts with another feature of the European grocery, with devastating results.

This is a bag from a shoe store that in our house doubles as a grocery bag. Here you see it in its fully-packed state. It weighs probably 20 pounds and is on the verge of breaking.
This is a bag from a shoe store that in our house doubles as a grocery bag. Here you see it in its fully-packed state. It weighs probably 20 pounds and is on the verge of breaking.

That other feature is that there are no baggers. In the US, of course, your groceries are tidily packed in a bag, while you wait, by a person experienced in such things. In an earlier generation this was often a teenager. These days, with employment in the US being what it is, it could easily be the head of a family of 4. In Vienna, though, it’ll be nobody. Your groceries are going to come flying down the belt toward you with no one to help you stuff them in bags. Here’s where I return to the first issue I mentioned: this issue will be exacerbated by the fact that you tried to save money by getting too few bags, and by the fact that you have no idea what you’re doing. Your bi-weekly trip to the grocery store in no way replaces the years of experience of a professional bagger. You are going to crush the strawberries. You are going to squeeze the cheese.

Melee at the Checkout Stand
Here we see a poor soul in the throes of it at the Billa. You can almost feel the flop-sweat.

Worse yet, you are going to do it with the next person in line standing right on top of you, and the checker watching you scramble around because you can’t bag and get out your money at the same time. Bad times. Here are three basic strategies for surviving:

1. Bags first. Most people lay their groceries on the belt, and only then realize they’ll need a bag and grab one from the rack. By “most people” I of course mean me. Don’t be that fool. Get your bag on the belt first, so that you have it rung up first and can immediately start stuffing it with purchases. Game on!

2. Hold your ground. Look again at the above photo. I see something here that you may not: this woman is making sure the person after her doesn’t crowd her by putting her cart behind her in line—otherwise an inexplicable choice. A major factor in grocery store success is controlling your own sense of pressure. You can’t let the person behind you stand on top of you. Do what it takes—put your elbows, your cart, hell, even your body odor in their way.

3. Take it in phases. The grocery store is not evil, merely misguided. They know that no one can manage in this kind of pressure cooker, and so they always, always provide a shelf or counter just across from the checkout stands where you can dump your stuff and regroup. Do that. Consider your pass through the line merely the first stage of your checkout journey, and take a moment here to repack your bags, salvaging anything that was maltreated in your first, frenzied effort. Your strawberries, your cheese and your sanity all thank you.

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2 Responses to How to Win at the Grocery Store Wars

  1. Bridget says:

    Excellent advice. I wonder if this kind of pressure extends to the shopping, too (not just the checking out) as it does in Italy. Do little old ladies elbow you shamelessly while swiping the good cheese out from under your nose? And do they crash their cart directly into yours, head-on, with nary a facial twinge of apology, like a kid playing bumper cars? The French don’t do these things as much, but the check-out situation is, unfortunately, the same.

    • Lisa says:

      Excellent questions! In general, no, people are very polite at the grocery store, I find. There is none of that cart wars nonsense you get in Italy (also, much less use of carts overall, now that I think of it). The one thing you get is just outrageous butting in line. There is no respect for the concept of waiting one’s turn. That said, there’s less butting in line at the Billa than elsewhere in town. At the bakery? Forget about it. Start pushing or expect to wait allllll morning for your pastry. So actually, the grocery store might be something of a high point for manners, based on this unscientific survey. :)

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