When it comes to grocery shopping, I was spoiled back in the States. I worked full-time at Whole Foods, and enjoyed the luxury of perusing the aisles for a few dinner items after work with a cold craft beer and delicious cheese samples in hand.
If you don’t know much about Whole Foods, here’s a summary:
It’s pretty much the utopia of grocery stores. Virtually everything is beautiful, delicious, and natural. As a customer, your shopping experience doesn’t require much effort at all. Wanna buy something we don’t sell? We’ll find it. Want that thing on the top shelf? We’ll get it. Forget something once you got to the register? We’ll run back. Don’t like bagging your own stuff? We got you. Need someone to hold your umbrella over your head while you walk to your car? We’ll cover you. Don’t wanna lift your bags? We’ll lift ’em. Don’t really feel like pushing your cart back to the corral? We’ll collect it. Mark my words: anything is possible at Whole Foods Market.
To be clear, I think it’s great that American companies like Whole Foods have worked so hard to make shopping more pleasant for their customers. However, I also think it results in the customer feeling more entitled the longer they are treated like royalty. Is it their fault? Not really. Is it a bad thing? Not always. But I do think that added luxuries like these require more self-awareness. Do the work to ask yourself the important questions. Am I being respectful? Would I want to be treated the way I treat these employees? Am I taking unfair advantage?
The first time I shopped at a German grocery store, I was blown away by how different the experience was. You must insert a €1 coin into the handle of the shopping cart to release the chain that connects them. Since I didn’t have the correct change, I had to skip the cart. When I got to the checkout, my cashier said a simple “Hallo!” with a quick smile, scanned my handful of items in what seemed like one swift motion, and told me the total. She gave me my change, my receipt, and a simple “Danke! Tschüss!”
During my trip, there was no obligatory small-talk about how I was doing today. My cashier didn’t ask me about the activities I had scheduled for later, or what recipes I planned on making with my hodge-podge of ingredients. She didn’t bag my items for me, and since I forgot my reusable bags at home (I didn’t plan ahead!) I couldn’t bag them either. She began scanning the next customer before I had cleared the lane. I know many American shoppers who would be appalled by this experience. But let’s be real here… this isn’t America. I should’ve remembered to bring my own bags, and the coin to borrow a cart. I should’ve been faster at grabbing my items off the belt and getting out of the way.
After putting the groceries away at home, I had a long analytical conversation with my husband (a nightly occurrence in the Zimmer household). The vast difference between what I just experienced and what I’ve seen hundreds of times in America was astonishing. If my German grocery check-out experience happened at Whole Foods, the customer would demand to speak to a supervisor to rant about the “impersonal” and “unhelpful” attitude of the cashier. Yet the Germans shop like this every day and never seem to complain. I couldn’t even find a “customer service” department in the store. It’s not that German stores don’t appreciate customers, they’ve just never felt the need to kiss any butts. And since they never introduced butt-kissing, their customers don’t expect it.
I laughed for about twenty minutes straight when I thought about a hypothetical scenario: Say a customer buys a perfectly fine potato, and after storing it at home for a week, the potato gets squishy and smelly. A German customer would compost the potato in his backyard garden, buy a new potato, and enjoy a relaxing meal with his family. An American customer would wrap the potato in a bag, take it back to the store, and demand that the manager smell the potato (as if he couldn’t just take their word for it). See how the American customer is missing the point? Shit happens. Produce goes bad. But it’s not necessarily someone’s fault. Maybe the stress of the American lifestyle is just too intense to shrug off a 64-cent rotten potato. Maybe getting an apology from a person in semi-authority makes American shoppers feel better.
It’s fascinating to me how German grocery stores and American grocery stores have developed in completely different directions, and how shoppers have developed different expectations accordingly. For me, shopping on the German economy is a breath of fresh air. I know that to have a good experience, I simply have to be a good shopper. And, if I want to have a fun, sociable, butt-kissing shopping trip, I’ll just take my husband. It’s too easy.