Thursday, January 20, 2011

User’s Guide: Adventures in Grocery Shopping

Last weekend, I braved the masses on Saturday to go grocery shopping at Auchan. Auchan one of the biggest stores in town (read: country) and is pretty much a megamarket of the kind that rivals the biggest Target Greatland or Super Wal-Mart you’ve ever seen. In fact, since there are no department stores in Luxembourg, mega grocery stores like Auchan are actually anchors for the few indoor shopping malls in the country, believe it or not.

Anyway, I enjoy buying bread from the boulangerie up the street and flowers and vegetables from the farmers’ market when I can, but I love, love Auchan. This place has helped me to not only improve my work-in-progress French (via puzzling over labels and trying to decide if the product I’m eyeing is actually the product I want), and it’s the only place in town where I can buy an 18-pack of Diet Coke and a family pack of chicken breasts to trim and keep in the freezer in one stop…so, it’s like a little slice of the USA, right here in Luxembourg. So, if you’re new to town and are overwhelmed by the price of meat (so expensive) or underwhelmed by the over-picked produce selection at the grocery stores in town, hop on the bus and head to Auchan. Just make sure you’ve got a sturdy rolling grocery cart and keep a few of my following tips in mind:


1. Never go on a Saturday.
Auchan on a Saturday.
This is actually a rule that applies to every large grocery store everywhere on the planet, except that I actually think the Saturday crowds are even worse here, where shops are typically closed on Sundays (and other grocery stores close at 6:30pm on weekdays, a tight fit schedule-wise for homes without their own House Frau). Saturdays at Auchan are complete insanity: you’ll fight your way through abandoned grocery cart blockades, maneuver through families of seven who take up entire shopping aisles to determine what brand of paper towels to buy, and you’ll need to keep a close watch to avert crises caused by shoppers who take their chariots (grocery carts) on the escalator inside the store only to find themselves suddenly overwhelmed when they get to the end of the line and have to make the decision to go straight, left or right – while you stand behind on the still moving escalator, hoping they will move out of the way before you crash right into them. In reality, you’ll see this behavior any day or time of the week, but truly is exponentially worse on Saturdays. So: make sure you have a very good excuse if you are going to brave the Saturday crowds, i.e. you have access to a car for the day that can transport your three 18-packs of Diet Coke home so you don’t have to fit them in your portable shopping cart… 
Insert coin here.

2. Have a 50 cent or 1€ coin at the ready.
Chariots (grocery carts) are not free in Luxembourg, they must be rented. You are given the choice to pay 50 cents or 1€ for your grocery cart rental, so it’s always a good idea to keep a coin in your coat pocket for handy access. But the nice people behind the customer service desk will also make change if you need it. To get the cart, simply insert your coin in the hole and - voila! - the chain connecting your cart to the other grocery carts will be released and you can wander freely around Auchan (and throughout the rest of the shopping mall) to your heart’s content. To return the cart, simply stick the chain in the slot at the top of the coin box and your coin will be released from the hole at the bottom.

The amazing cart-locking escalator!

3. Prepare to be amazed by the escalator.
There are two escalators in Auchan that will whisk you from the appliances, toiletries and household items on the top floor of the store down to the grocery section on the ground floor. When you get on the escalator, don’t worry about having to hold your heavy cart in place; the clever buggers who designed Auchan have designed a flat escalator with floor grips that lock your grocery cart in place so you can focus on more important things, such as not hitting the aforementioned suddenly directionally-challenged person in front of you at the escalator exit.

4. You’ll experience the 3 Stages of Auchan.
When you first start shopping at Auchan, you’re going to go through three stages: intimidation, annoyance and acceptance. You’ll be intimidated because you’ll feel like everyone else in the store knows what the deal is but you: they know how to choose between the hundreds of types of goat cheese available, how to not only identify but also understand how to cook the scores of fresh fish available, and they how to order cheese, fish and deli items in kilos - and they do it all in French! (And they can probably do it backwards and in heels, too!) You’ll be intimidated as shoppers park right in front of you or push right past you, and, while you politely wait your turn you'll realize that you’ve been waiting to turn left into the pasta aisle for ten minutes. This sparks the annoyance stage, when you wonder why you are the only polite person in the entire store who pays attention to the people around them and seems to wait their turn. This is when you finally realize that everyone else wants to get out of Auchan just as badly as you do. So, you accept the fact that you need to buck up and just go where you need to go and not wait politely for others to move – just the way everyone else does – and you’ll find that this chaotic approach actually works.

5. Peanut butter eaters: rejoice!
Rest assured, Auchan carries many products that you’ve heard horror stories about not having access to after leaving the US, such as peanut butter, salsa, tortillas, barbeque sauce, coffee grounds for an automatic drip coffee pot and more. You'll be happy to know that there is a surprisingly nice selection of these foreign items and other delights that are British, American, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Spanish, Japanese, and more! While it takes a little time to decode labels (you’ve never seen more kinds of cream or yogurt than you’ll see here), it’s fun to explore a new world of European groceries. In fact, the choices are so terrific that I can only think of three things I miss from home: chicken broth (here, you'll only find bouillon cubes or “fond,” a goopy, gelatinous liquid you add water to and stir until it dissolves), Ken’s Steakhouse Light Ceasar salad dressing and Starbucks coffee. (I know. Sorry, I am American after all.) All in, I have to say that I don’t even miss those things that much...probably because I've been fortunate to have friends and family send those things to me when our stash runs low.
The foie gras section.

6. Get ready for a few surprises.
One of the things I love about living here is that everyone (including me!) gets so excited about eating seasonally. It’s the new, seasonal stuff that gets the biggest, most exciting displays at Auchan. In spring, it’s white asparagus; as the winter comes on, it’s fresh truffles, in the fall it’s mushrooms and then mussels, and at Christmas and New Year’s it’s oysters and foie gras, just to name a few. 

(Honestly – how incredible is it to have access to an entire section of the store dedicated to foie gras? And the photo to the right is nothing compared to the massive foie gras display at Christmas!)
 
In addition to seasonal delights, you’ll also find fun new names for things you’re used to seeing in English. On Saturday, I learned that pomegranates are called “grenades wonderful” here – I love that name!

And then you’ll find a few other surprises, like a horse meat section and cooked pigs’ heads. I’m not really sure how to prepare or eat either, but perhaps on your next visit I’ll have forayed into these delicacies…

7. Find a place to park.
Line of parked carts.
As you arrive at each section of the grocery store, it’s a good idea to just find a place to leave your shopping cart while you search for the items on your list. Parking is also a good strategy when you’re not sure where you’re going and people are pushing past you; much easier to leave the cart and go find the section you’re looking for on foot, rather than bringing the entire cart along for the stressful ride. And don’t worry, nobody will take your grocery cart. This is one of the safest countries in the world after all.


8. Do not leave the produce section without weighing your produce.
At the produce scale.
As you shop for produce, you’ll see items marked la pièce (sold by the piece and does not need to be weighed) or le kilo (produce that is sold by weight…and a kilo is 2.2 lbs for handy reference). You must weigh all of your le kilo produce before you leave the produce section. Just walk up, deposit your item on the scale, and the friendly Auchan employee will weigh and print a price sticker to place on your bag of produce. There is one large station (pictured) that is always open, and sometimes there is a second, smaller station open.

I once made the nearly catastrophic mistake of setting a bag of apples and a bag of red pears on the scale at once; they were the same color and I grabbed them together by mistake. I didn’t notice until I got to the register, where the checkout lady made me return all the way to the produce section of the store (and this is a megastore, remember) to have the pear weighed and the apples re-weighed. They are not able to weigh produce at the register. Thankfully, she was about to change shifts and I was her last customer before the line closed, because it would have been so embarrassing to have had to make a long line of people wait for me, just because I forgot to weigh my pear separately!


9. Check-out time.
When you’re ready to pay for your groceries, you can check out either on the grocery floor of the store or upstairs in the household goods/appliances part of the store. The lines on the grocery floor are often much longer than the lines upstairs, so this is a handy tip… Also, at each register you’ll see a few small flags. These flags denote the languages that the cashier speaks. There aren’t too many British flags but there are a few, so look for that if you want to check out with a cashier who speaks English. Other languages spoken are French, Luxembourgish, Portugese and German.

If you do not have your own rolling shopping cart, you’ll need bags. You can buy a re-usable bag for less than a Euro, or you can buy plastic bags for three cents each. If you want a bag, just say un sachet s'il vous plait and the cashier will scan a plastic bag for you to fill.

Because essentially all cashiers speak French, this is the language in which you’ll most commonly be addressed. After scanning your groceries, the cashier will first ask you if you have an Auchan loyalty card: Avez une carte Auchan? To which you will respond oui (and hand them your Auchan card) or non. Then they will tell you the price and you will pay and high tail it outta there.

Should you get an Auchan card? It’s up to you. The savings are not that great since you are only credited 5% of what you spend on Auchan brand products (or 10% on Tuesdays), but in my opinion, it all adds up. After a few months of shopping, that 4 Euros you’ve earned might buy you a bottle of wine, after all.

A few final tips:
  • If you do have a car, parking is free at Auchan for up to three hours. Just be sure to validate your ticket in the machine on the way to your car.
  • If you need a place to eat a fast lunch and all other restaurants in town have closed (lunch is served from 12-2pm here), the restaurants in the Auchan mall serve food all day.
  • If you need to get rid of clothes, towels or other fabric items but want to donate them instead of throwing them away, there is an orange receptacle marked “Textiles” on the first or second floor of the parking lot, near the escalator that takes you into the mall, where you can leave your clothes and know they’re being recycled for a good cause.

Congratulations! You’ve finally reached the end of this blog post! If you’re new to town, I hope it was helpful. And since chances are more likely that you’re my friend or relative: please let me know if you’ve read this entire post so I can plan to send you grocery shopping for us the next time you visit!

6 comments:

  1. Because I am an experienced Auchan shopper who you initiated during the Christmas holidays, after reading these tips I feel very confident about being sent on a mission to purchase items for another wonderful meal that you will prepare for us on our next visit. However, since I was blown away by the wine selection in the store, I may not make it out of that section on my next visit to the store and the ingredients I purchase for our meal may be entirely liquid!

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  2. Wow! Only you can make a blog about a mega grocery store entertaining - I laughed (carts on escalators); I cried (a beautiful display of fois gras); it was better than CATS. :) I can't wait to come back to visit and have you take us there so we can weigh some "grenades wonderful." It sounds better than the Grand Epicerie!

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  3. Mom and Ana - get ready, because I've already started a shopping list for you two!!

    Jen, we'll work on the score to "Auchan: The Musical" on your next visit.

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  4. Hi Jessica: "If you do have a car, parking is free at Auchan for up to three hours. Just be sure to validate your ticket in the machine on the way to your car." - Validating your ticket in the machine on the way to your car is NOT necessary if you drive out of the Auchan within the three hour limit ;-)

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