Monthly Archives: January 2015

Better, Worse or Different? Grocery Shopping in the UK

Christmas grocery shopping is a challenging task at the best of times. Imagine what it is like when you can’t find or recognize any of your usual ingredients. I have recovered and after a month and a half and I am getting pretty comfortable grocery shopping in the UK. So far I have visited three different grocery stores:

The Co-operative is a small neighborhood grocery chain not much bigger than a 7-11 but it is much better stocked and better priced.

Sainsbury’s has small local grocers and large stores which offer a wider grocery selection and housewares, clothing, pharmacy, and of course a very large alcohol section.

ASDA is a larger grocer which is very similar to our Superstores/Extra Foods retailers back home.

Pricing, Sizing and Packaging

One feature that I like about UK grocery shopping is many items are priced in round numbers making it easier to track what you spend. The English Pound is worth fairly close to two Canadian dollars. When I examine my grocery budget here versus at home, I am spending about the same amount per week.

In direct price comparison £1 pound for three bell peppers is cheaper than $3.49 for three bell peppers. That is a savings of almost $1.50 on the same item. Canada stores are 50¢ cents cheaper on a 5lb bag of potatoes. My pancake mix is $7.99 for 4.53 kg which makes about 240 pancakes at about 3¢ each. My UK family size package is 400g and it makes about 24 pancakes at a cost of 16¢ each. On the surface, costs seem to be pretty comparable. The difference is that at home my cupboards and pantry and deep freeze are full. Here they are too, but these cupboards and fridges are much smaller.

Fridge and freezer. The fridge is about the same size as the one in my camper. I was shocked but I have adjusted.

Fridge and freezer. The fridge is about the same size as the one in my camper. I was shocked but I have adjusted.

The UK grocers I have visited don’t have bulk pricing. You can buy 2 rolls of paper towel for £2 two pounds or you can buy 4 for £4. There is no price break for buying in large lots. That is weird to me. Weirder yet, smaller lots are sometimes cheaper for the same brand! For example I saw 2 paper towel rolls for £1 pound and fifty pence but the 4 pack of the same brand was £4, same number of sheets per roll and everything!

Everything comes in smaller sizes and portions here. I love the teeny little bags of potato chips of 130 calories each. Slivers of cheese, different pates, dairy creams in various fat contents all come in tiny little containers which result in less waste. However sometimes the small sizing is a pain when you are buy items you use in larger amounts.

This is big container of flour.

This is a big container of flour.

Another example, I usually buy my chocolate chips at Costco in a 2.4 kg bag. Here my only option was a 100g size.

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I bought four packages just to make one batch of cookies.

Brands and Product Competition

When I entered the grocery store it was comforting to see familiar brands like Cheerios, Oreo, Dairy Milk, Old El Paso, Philly cream cheese, and Doritos. It is frustrating when my brand or a particular flavor of a brand doesn’t exist. Lyric wishes for more than the two flavours of Doritos but I couldn’t care less because the potato chips (crisps) more than make up for it. Have you ever heard of Prawn Cocktail or Worcestershire?

Lyric was not feeling well for a few days and when she is sick she wants Lipton chicken noodle soup. The closest I could get was Cup-A-Soup which had nothing for flavour or noodles. It took a bit but I finally found Campbell’s mushroom soup but saltine/soup crackers don’t exist here at all.

Overall, within each product you are buying I find Canada has more variety in brand selection and sizing.  This does not apply to some categories of products. When it comes to baked beans, breakfast sausages, gravy flavouring and toilet bowl cleaning, the UK has Canada beat. Seriously! Toilet bowl cleaners have a full aisle.

So Better, Worse or Just Different?

Worse

The health food craze has not hit here quite like it has back at home. There are gluten free sections but  products like quinoa, kale chips, coconut oil, and agave nectar are not on regular store shelves. They also lack things I would define as basics. White vinegar is a scavenger hunt item still on my list. They have fifteen types of malt vinegar and a gazillion balsamic but no plain white. I think this is because there is so much focus on the pre-made and prepackaged food. Why make it yourself when you can buy it? This is not surprising because they have been “civilized” for longer. The UK had take-away food before Canada was even a country. There is a London fish and chip shop that has been going since 1860.

Better

I have always wanted a herb garden windowsill and here I do.

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The store I shop at has potted growing herbs. It’s wonderful to make bruschetta with fresh basil in the middle of winter. I also love the focus on socially conscious products. There is a wide selection of clearly labelled fair trade products. Greater standardized packaging makes for more efficient recycling. All cardboard, hard plastic containers, cans and glass are recyclable. Plastic wraps are not. Another big plus is that they sell alcohol in all stores. No separate stop at a different store required to buy a bottle of wine or vodka, or a case of beer.

 

The Verdict

The sale of alcohol in grocery stores won it right off the bat but the biggest positive of grocery shopping in the UK I haven’t even mentioned yet. Online selection and home delivery is the greatest invention in food since the arrival of the grocery store! I do not miss pushing a loaded shopping cart, in minus 25, through snow packed parking lots, as fast as possible, so my lettuce does not freeze. Instead I click my mouse and sit back and wait for the delivery person to knock at my door and carry it into the kitchen for me.

Better, Worse, or Just Different?

It hard not to judge and compare. I’ve never lived anywhere other than Alberta, Canada and one of my greatest curiosities about living abroad was whether I would like the experience. Would I find it better, worse, or just different? I used to be a bit of a travelphobe, and I also had been conditioned to believe Canada is the greatest country on earth. When I left on this extended trip I had no expectations in place. I left with an open mind and a question of whether I my unchallenged belief about Canada would still hold up by the end of my trip.

Living somewhere is different than vacationing. You stand a greater chance of getting up close and personal with a culture, then when you are simply hitting a destination’s high spots. I didn’t expect to experience huge amounts of cultural shock in England because Canada, after all, is a former colony. We are close allies and we share a queen. Next to the American’s I’d say no other country means as much to Canada as the United Kingdom.

I was right. No huge amounts of culture shock but there are differences to be sure. Some are better, some are worse, and others are just different.

The holidays in the UK

My first Christmas away from Canada and all my family and friends was very surreal. I had barely recovered from jet lag when I had to get into the spirit and celebrate Christmas. My family has taken to celebrate solstice but as we were all scattered to the winds this Christmas, Lyric and I decided that when in Rome) we would do as the Romans do (or in this case, the English).

Christmas in the U.K. is a much more subdued and secular affair than Christmas in Canada. It is similarly commercial. The stores (shops) are crazy but religion/Christianity is not as highlighted. There are carols playing in the stores, and simple light displays in town centers and main streets. There are no garishly, over-the-top, crazily decorated houses. Not a one. A single string of outside lights is about all you’ll see. If the living room curtain is open when you pass by you might get a peek at a tastefully decorated tree. No blinking musical lights and not a single mechanical singing lawn ornament anywhere.

Christmas Eve is a non-event. In our family Christmas Eve is just as important, and in some parts of our family even more important than Christmas Day. Mass is attended, gifts are opened. Company arrives. Christmas Eve is England was simply just the day before Christmas. All the stores were closed earlier than I expected. By 5:30 everything was shut down. Strangely, though, some pubs are open on Christmas day. They have shortened hours, but they are open. A quick trip off to the pub is not an uncommon event, especially for the men. I guess that is a similarity to Canada. Men have their Christmas traditions and they are seldom about the cooking and the preparations, and more about the socializing and relaxing.

The Boxing Day shopping frenzy is present here and the newspapers and radios were buzzing with talk about the sales. I never made it to any but I find the January prices on clothing to be super affordable. I’m finding great deals when I am out and about.

New Year’s Eve is all about the pub you wish to visit. We stayed in and watched the English version of the countdown, called the Jools Annual Hootenanny, done by Jools Holland. It was a great show and filled with tons of great English performers. At the end there are fireworks and Auld Lang Syne is sung just like at home. Out in the neighborhood plenty of fireworks were set off from backyards.

Overall we had a nice Christmas. It was lacking in people and snow but it was similar enough to get into the Christmas spirit. It was strange not cross-country skiing or sledding during the holidays but after stuffing one’s self with food, it was very cool to be able to talk a long walk outside and work off some turkey.

As far as whether Christmas is better worse or just different in the UK than in Canada I think I’d have to say celebrating in your own home, with your own traditions, and your own family and friends is always going to be better but you’ll never really appreciate it if you never try anything different. Lyric and I found out it wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be and it was fun to experience and discuss what we do differently.

Next posting- Better,Worse or Different- Grocrery shopping in the UK