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A Guide To A Global Supermarket

The supermarket is surely one of the most ubiquitous aspects of globalization, but within this ecosystem, customs still differ from country to country. If there were such a thing as a truly globalized supermarket, how would we all behave, and which niggling customs and malevolent manias would we each have to curb?

Illustration by Elena Lombardi

Once upon a time many years ago, supermarkets didn’t exist. People went to pharmacies and small stores that smelled of herbs and spices and mints. They’d prop themselves up on the counter and, shopping list in hand, calmly recite everything they required while the shop assistant collected everything.

The assistant, who I like to imagine sporting a sumptuous moustache and an apron, would move with grace and panache from one shelf to another while preparing the shopping bags and effortlessly holding a pleasant conversation with his customer.

Ah, the good ol’ days, right?

And now cease your sentimentality and return to the well-ordered reality of the modern-day supermarket. Visualize yourself inside; aisles replete with every type of product imaginable, colors and logos and promises jostling for our attention, shopping carts veering off disobediently on helter-skelter trajectories, arbitrary beeps and tiny tanoys merging with the not-so-latest hits that have just slipped out of the charts, people in a hurry and people not in a hurry, inquisitively prodding every bit of glistening fruit…

All these things are likely familiar to you regardless of where you are in the world right now. Everything’s the same everywhere nowadays; there’s a Burger King and a Starbucks on every corner, striving to serve the same food in the same way the world over. The same goes for the supermarket; you can get your authentic French bread or your genuine thick-crust Italian pizza just about anywhere. Somehow we expect a certain familiarity, a certain safety when we enter a foreign supermarket. We expect to be able to adopt the sense of choice and autonomy that all supermachés offer. Anyone who has ever entered a supermercado in Spain or a Supermarkt in Germany will know, however, that this modern institution is not the same the world over; “They still weigh their own food?!”, “Where’s the self-service checkout?!”, “Why is everyone inserting dirty plastic bottles into that machine?!”

These nuances of glocalization intrigued us, so we did a survey to find out all about how people in different countries behave in the supermarket, and in particular the kind of behaviors that most frustrate fellow shoppers. We then developed an image of the truly globalized supermarket. Take note Tesco, Costco, Carrefour, Gadis, Rewe… we’ve plotted your route to planetary domination.

You enter the global supermarket and the first thing you see is the fruit and vegetables. This puts you in a good mood by setting a tone of freshness, inviting you into the store. Before selecting your preferred avocado, you’ll probably give three or four a light squeeze. If you’re in Italy, you’ll incur the wrath of your fellow consumers if you fail to don the plastic gloves before caressing the greens. Moving onto the meat counter, which will be located between the vegetables and the bread, you’ll probably be used to forming an orderly line and entertaining your senses with whiffs of preserved animal. In Spain, however, you’ll be expected to take a number and loiter with your superior, wheeled basket until your number appears.

You’ve packed your meat and veggies and a few random things which you didn’t realize you needed. You’ve traversed the store to pick up some locally sourced, organically produced milk and some own-brand butter (made, incidentally, from the sour milk of incarcerated cows), but you feel good about yourself. It’s almost over. Only the checkout now lies between you and your freedom.

There are nine people in the line. The man in front of you is German. He’s getting impatient because there are more than five people and none of the shop assistants appears prepared to open a new checkout. The most recent addition to the supermarket team has been left to his own devices and now he’s frantically requesting that another Kasse be opened. Unfortunately, his team is hiding in their secret chillout area behind the bottle collection point. Customers are shuffling nervously and wishing they’d picked up a basket on the way in — fingers are straining to cling onto netted mandarins and chunks of cheese are teetering precariously on loaves of bread.

In some German supermarkets there’s a little bell you can ring next to the checkout with a sign reading: if the queue reaches this point, please ring the bell to open another checkout.

In front of the German, there’s a stern Englishman who’s spotted a spritely Spanish señora who almost certainly has the intention of jumping the queue. He’s twitching nervously. The English get uppity at the mere thought that some chancer might squeeze surreptitiously into a gap left by an inattentive day-dreamer. The Spanish señora successfully inserts herself second-in-line, and the Englishman exhales a puff of pure fury, unable to say anything for fear of creating a scene.

The checkout next door has now been opened. A Brazilian is becoming increasingly irate; “Please explain why it says “express checkout — maximum 10 items” if the entire world is shifting their monthly shoping through it!” “Relax!”, says the Italian, who has long disposed of her plastic gloves and taken her place in the express line. She suddenly spies a Swedish man peering at the contents of her shopping cart; “Uh huh, are you trying to steal the ingredients of my secret recipe, passed down through generations from my great great great grandmother?! Sacrilege!” She piles the produce onto the conveyor belt of culinary destiny, and the Swedish man’s curiosity turns to consternation. Outwardly imperturbable, inwardly distraught, he places his items in single file, respecting their inalienable right to personal space.

The German, convinced he would escape from this consumerist hell more quickly in the express lane, has switched lines and is now standing, exasperated and dejected, behind the Swedish man. His insistence on single file doesn’t calibrate with the German. He glares longingly at the Warentrenner (any idea what you call this item in English? The grocery bar, the checkout divider… we need a better name) unable to put a single item down until zones of ownership have been clearly demarcated. This is the sole responsibility of the shopper in front, even if he doesn’t know it.

The Englishman has finally arrived at the front of the checkout. He withdraws his fifteenth bag for life, and briefly considers the societal good he is performing by not using the self-service checkout. This is a protest against the mechanization of the workplace and an advocacy of human interaction. He is then addressed as “sweetheart” or “love” and asked to show his driving license as proof of age, despite clocking in at well over thirty. The cashier, who has just turned eighteen, has subverted the rules of diminutive pet names and provided ample reason for the continued mechanization of the workplace.

A French lady who’s been unceremoniously expelled from the end of the checkout is frantically packing her bags. The Englishman’s shopping items are marching towards her and there’s a clear and present danger that the goods could become mixed up, leading to awkwardness. She needn’t worry, however. Despite being in a dreadful rush, the Englishman is slowed down as he’s asked whether he’s part of the supermarket-bonus-points-and-your-data-for-life club, offered some free football stickers, and considers some cashback. Cashback always makes him feel special.

All packed and ready to leave? Still in one piece? Well then you can breathe a sigh of relief, because this supermarket, fortunately, doesn’t exist. Now that you have an appreciation of the various manias of each nationality, however, you can consider yourself prepared for them all. Give Malcolm a wave and get ready for your next adventure: the globalized car park.

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