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.
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.
Another example, I usually buy my chocolate chips at Costco in a 2.4 kg bag. Here my only option was a 100g size.
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?
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.
I have always wanted a herb garden windowsill and here I do.
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 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.