What a Trip to the Supermarket Will Teach You about German Society


Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about supermarkets. Yes, you read that right. Supermarkets. German supermarkets.

Now, I know a trip to the local grocery store isn’t always the highlight of everyone’s day. At least it’s not often a highlight for me. In fact, if I could have any superpower I wanted, it would probably be the ability to restock my fridge just by winking my left eye. Yep, that’s how much I detest grocery shopping.

So given the fact that I’ve decided to dedicate an entire post to this seemingly mundane task, I won’t be offended if you decide to click on the little “X” in the upper left-hand corner right now.

I’m being serious. There won’t be any hard feelings from my end if you leave.

Oh, you’re still with me? Alright, well then. I guess we’ll continue.

So as I was saying, grocery stores can be pretty dull places. But as uneventful as a walk through the dairy aisle can be, have you ever stopped to think about how a trip to the supermarket can also serve as the perfect sociology lesson? I mean, seriously. You get to see how people interact with each other in public, how money is dealt with, and what sort of foods are popular.

Now, perhaps I’m just overanalyzing things (just like how I spent the last three minutes deciding whether or not I should go ahead with this post). But when I was at my local grocery store here in Frankfurt just a few days ago, I realized that it teaches you an awful lot about German society.

In fact, I’m pretty sure you could write an entire manual on German social do’s and don’ts based on just one visit to REWE, Aldi, or Lidl. But don’t worry, I’ll spare you the agony of reading a 50-page manual and stick to a list instead. After all, we all like lists, don’t we? Well, everything but shopping lists, that is.


1. Small talk is pretty much non-existent.

“Did you find everything alright today?”

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not a phrase you’re likely to hear very often from a German cashier. First off, small talk plays a much smaller role in most social interactions here in Germany. And secondly, most Germans – being the sort of direct folk they are – would probably be puzzled and think to themselves, “Of course I did. Why else would I be standing in line here?”

Now, for many Americans, this lack of jovial chitchat can be a bit off-putting. Unless you know someone, you never really ask how they’re doing. Period.

Harsh, I know. But I like to think it has something to do with respecting everyone’s privacy, rather than being cold and standoffish.

Sure, sometimes it’s nice to have a small chat while waiting in line. But at the same time, I’ve also been caught up in situations in the U.S. where I’m asked to divulge my weekend plans to a complete stranger. And trust me, sometimes that can be just as awkward as hardly any conversation at all.

2. Being environmentally-friendly pays off. Literally.

Germany is green – and not just in terms of landscape. A trip to the German supermarket shows just how deeply engrained the concept of eco-friendliness is in society.

Not only do a lot of people ride their bikes or take public transit to get to the grocery store, they also bring their own bags. (If you forget, don’t worry. Just get ready to fork out 10 cents on the spot.)


What’s more, nearly every decent-sized grocery store has a recycling machine for all the plastic bottles you’ve accumulated since your last visit, and you can get upwards of 25 cents for depositing each bottle. So that basically means you can buy a chocolate bar a day with garbage. Pretty cool, huh?

3. Industriousness and efficiency are the glue that holds German society together.

In contrast to the States, there are no baggers at German supermarkets. That means that every customer – no matter how young or old – is required to bag his or her groceries, and they’re expected to be done just seconds after the cashier hands them their receipt. What happens if someone isn’t that fast, you ask? They will never be allowed to return to that supermarket again.

I’m just joking. You won’t get kicked out of the grocery store for bagging things too slowly. But you will get stared down by everyone behind you until you hurry up and get out of the lane. That’s because if there’s any country that tries to minimize waiting time the most, it’s probably Germany.

The one exception to this rule – any Behörde, or German government office. Oh, and I guess Deutsche Bahn likes to test people’s patience on occasion, too.

4. Society takes a skeptical approach to new technology. But once the pros and cons have been weighed, the Germans will probably master it.

As inventive as German society is, it also takes a cautious approach to new technology and change. One example from our supermarket analogy: Aldi and Lidl – two of Germany’s biggest discount grocers – just announced that they would finally start taking credit cards last summer. So if you thought that VISA card in your wallet would get you through a bind at all the grocery stores in Germany, think again. This isn’t the place for plastic.

In fact, there’s even a German saying – “Nur Bares ist Wahres” – which means something along the lines of “only hard cash is the real thing.”

Now, I do have to say that this sort of approach does have its advantages (we are, after all, trying to take an unbiased stance in this post, right?). That’s because once people here decide that the benefits of something new outweigh its disadvantages, they’re pretty much guaranteed to perfect it given all the thought they’ve put into it.

5. Religion is institutionalized, even if a lot of people don’t remember why.

In the U.S., Sunday is pretty much grocery shopping day. After all, who wants to spend their whole Saturday morning deciding whether they want skim milk or 2% fat?

But try to go to the supermarket on a Sunday in Germany (or do anything for that matter), and you’ll quickly realize that everything except for the local bakery and maybe a nearby cafe is closed. So that means no clothes shopping, no going to the bank (unless it’s to an ATM), and most certainly no groceries. In fact, the streets are so dead on Sundays that you’d think it’s some sort of holiday.


Speaking of holidays, Easter Monday, Pentecost Monday, Ascension Day, and Corpus Cristi are all public holidays (at least here in Hesse), even if few people could tell you why. But since you don’t have to go into work anyways, why change it?

6. Quality over quantity is the rule of the day.

In Germany, it’s quite common to go to the grocery store two or three times a week. One reason, of course, is that it’s hard to transport a month’s worth of groceries on the back of a bicycle. The other reason is that a lot of value is placed on fresh produce.


Whether it’s regional specialities from the butcher or just fruits and vegetables, most food is bought as fresh as possible – if not at the supermarket than at the local farmer’s market (which happens twice a week in my neighborhood.)

7. German bread is sacred.

Speaking of freshness, there is one thing that no German can go without – bread. German bread.

I’ll bet that you can’t walk more than five minutes in the Innenstadt of any German city without passing at least one bakery (assuming you don’t live in a village of roughly 300 people). In fact, on my way to work, I pass five different bakeries – and my daily commute only takes twelve minutes from door to door.

So it should come as no surprise that German supermarkets are basically a carbohydrate lover’s heaven. In fact, if you have a fancy supermarket like mine, a bakery will probably even be built right into it. Otherwise, you can still get bread on demand from the nifty bread machines at places like Aldi, which only take two to three minutes to pop out a freshly baked Brezel. Yep, even the discount grocers have fresh bread. That’s how much the stuff is loved here.


So there you go – seven things a trip to your local grocery store will teach you about German society. I know you’re still probably scratching your head over the fact that I dedicated a whole post to grocery shopping in Germany (I know, I’m weird). But don’t worry, I promise I won’t write about supermarkets again.

Well, at least not in the near future…



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