Why the U.S. Should Adopt British-Style Supermarkets

American chains could learn a thing or two from the organized, inviting spaces of British supermarkets like Marks & Spencer. (Photo: Creative Commons)

American chains could learn a thing or two from the organized, inviting spaces of British supermarkets like Marks & Spencer. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Are you craving nineteen varieties of Oreo, or a slab of meat so hormone-pumped it could complete in the Tour de France in record time? Then head to your nearest American supermarket.

When I moved to the U.S., the thing that sent me into a rage — more than airport immigration queues and the fact that most New Yorkers appear to have learned how to drive by watching the first Mad Max movie — was the substandard grocery shopping experience. Entering a U.S. supermarket is like stepping into the early 1980s. Crumbling beige, cream and brown fixtures abound. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits is piped on a loop and the trolleys all have a busted wheel. Precisely no effort has gone into making this an enjoyable shopping experience.

Is this dearth of decent supermarkets exclusively a New York problem? Nope. Having perused this fair land for a couple of years on various self-catering breaks, I can confirm that the problem exists in the rest of the country too. At least in New York and other affluent cities, it’s possible to take a pick and mix approach to food shopping. There are delis and artisan purveyors of hand-rolled gnocchi that will relieve you of an entire paycheck in exchange for dinner. Back home, I could get everything I needed in my local Sainsbury’s. Here, my weekly shop involves a tour of at least five stores. I no longer “nip out” to do the shopping.

And, yes, before you throw store-bought rotten tomatoes in my direction, I know all about Whole Foods and Trader Joes. These are two small but shining examples of American chain grocery stores. BUT, while lovely, Whole Foods is prohibitively expensive. TJs, meanwhile, is New Yorkers’ go-to shop for anything alcoholic, dried, canned or dead, and I’d go as far as to say the shopping experience is pleasant and affordable. (Quality-wise, think Waitrose’s economy range, or Sainsbury’s mid-range own brand.) Alas, according to the TJ’s website, there are only 250 branches in the entire country, so it’s hardly available to all.

Elsewhere in the U.S., you’re stuck with one vast hangar containing precisely nothing you want. Product displays look like they were designed by disinterested teenagers on work experience. Packaging is depressing and the product quality is poor. Then there’s the smell: a chemically enhanced cinnamon and apple, plus a quirky top note, which I’ve only recently identified as rotting vegetables.

British supermarkets, meanwhile, are arranged by the cunning and design conscious. They draw you in with their artfully arranged ready meals, three-for-two offer on Gü desserts and piped freshly baked bread smell. This stuff used to annoy me, mainly because it worked and I ate too much posh chocolate mousse. Now, I have a revised respect for pretty shelves, clever packaging and olfactory-pleasing in-store ploys.

Whoever’s in charge of branding at the major American supermarkets should spend a few days camped out in Waitrose, M&S or Sainsbury’s. It’s not hard to make food shopping luscious fun, America! People should be mentally assembling delicious dinners as they wander the aisles, not huffing as they stock up on lackluster carbohydrates.

British supermarkets’ edge doesn’t begin and end with aesthetics. Let’s talk about pricing. My weekly shop in London cost me at least a third less than it does in Brooklyn — even with a stack of coupons in my back pocket.

Back home, there’s also not the infuriating disparity in pricing that there is in much of the U.S. Sure, Shreddies might be three pence more expensive in Tesco compared to Asda. In America, however, that difference often runs into dollars. Two supermarkets near me recently started stocking sugar-free Swiss Muesli, which was exciting because most other U.S. breakfast options come with free diabetes. Anyway, there’s a three-dollar price difference on the identical box depending on where you buy it. It’s just bizarre and infuriating. And did I mention everything smells of rotting turnips?

What would you do to improve American supermarkets, expats?

Join @MindTheGap_BBCA on Twitter Wednesday (October 16) at 2 pm ET to discuss British food and its reputation across the States. Tweet your thoughts using the hashtag #MindTheChat.

See more:
A British Expat’s Guide to Cooking in the U.S.
Food Memories: What Do You Miss From Britain?
Tipping in America: How To Do It and What To Expect If You Don’t

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis
  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

    Even after 20+ years I miss British supermarkets and their “sparkle”.

    • dw

      Can you elaborate? Photos, maybe?

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        Not much point really – whatever I shared would be met with “Yes but where I live…..”. Anyway, how can one possibly capture “sparkle”? It’s all in the experience – which is what shopping is really all about to the professionals. (Spoken as one who has worked in retail.)

        • dw

          Maybe it’s some kind of nostalgia.

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

            From June?

  • Jane

    I’m very fortunate to have a really great supermarket just across the street from my home but I agree with you about the sad state of the vast majority of US grocery stores. So many of them, even in ‘nice’ neighborhoods where you might expect more, are depressing and just plain ugly.

    • Jane

      I must say that I have noticed in the past several years that many supermarket chains are getting rid of their stale uninspiring look and are jazzing things up a bit in order to attract more customers. The stores that are always clean and attractive and have pleasant workers tend to be busy all the time. There are some really great grocery stores in the US but in my experience they are the exception.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        You’re right though – they seem to have woken up to the need for a bit of “sparkle”.

  • Courtney

    I miss my 24 hour Sainsbury’s so much, even though it closed at 5pm on Sundays…That’s one thing the US counterparts have going for them. If I need ice cream or painkillers or a plunger at 2 am, I can get it.

    I think this article was pretty skewed to NYC problems. Most of the US does get all of their groceries from one store, rather than shopping piecemeal at small specialty shops. And the expense is going to be much higher in NYC than anywhere else in the country, I would guess.

    • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

      Agreed Courtney.

    • David

      One thing I always notice is how retail prices including tax in the labelling in the UK make them clearer – ie transparent.

  • John H Harris

    Really? Back in 2007, I walked into a supermarket in Caerphilly and it looked exactly like the ones here in Western NY state… though I will admit the tea selection was better.

  • Jude

    It’d be a much shorter list to just name what’s actually *good* about the US. They have a decent Post Office. After that, I’ve got nothing.

    • Alfirinriel

      No, they don’t even have that. The USPS has a great reputation for losing, shredding and otherwise generally mangling your stuff and being notoriously difficult to claim from after this happens.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        However, in my years here, they have never lost a package sent to or from the UK, as has UPS and Fed Ex on several occasions. Fed Ex once told me it had tried to deliver to my brother’s house but couldn’t because he didn’t have a door number (house name) and sent it all the way back to me, and then tried to charge me $70 for doing so. Turns out the person who transcribed my clearly written address got it so wrong no one could have found his house in a month of Sundays.

      • Valerie Barlow Horton

        I work in shipping and trust me for the volume of packages and letters that go through the USPS they do a damn fine job. I don’t trust them if it has to be there quickly but if you aren’t willing to pay UPS or Fedex prices they are the way to go. IMO you get what you pay for.

      • PauperPrincess

        I’ve always had good luck with the USPS. Sure is a lot cheaper than FedEx or UPS.

    • Sarah

      1. Americans are generally friendly, even to strangers passing on the street.

      2. Customer service! As an American, I did not appreciate this until I went overseas. Most American waiters/waitresses, clerks, cashiers, etc. are trained to go out of their way to be helpful and kind to customers.

  • Bric

    Maybe New York area stores smell of rotting vegetables, but I have never smelled such a thing where I shop in Middle America. Jewel Food Stores are clean, well lighted, have all sorts of products ranging from those loaded with empty calories to health food items, and all kinds of non-food items.

    They have an excellent Deli with salads made fresh every day—and during the day if necessary—meat and cheese sliced as you wait, and, across the way, the bakery section with the fragrance of newly baked cookies.

  • Graeme Robinson

    Great article and your experiences in NY are pretty similar to ours out in CA. Who would ever have suspected you could miss shopping at Tesco.

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

    I was interested to hear that some supermarkets here in the mid west (Jewel I think) are abandoning the self checkout lanes. Thank god. The time i waste (thinking it’ll be quicker) waiting for the supervisor to come and unlock the darn thing because it’s decided that I must not have bagged something. I regret it every time I do it.

    • Grand Moff Vixen

      I’m American and hate the self checkouts. When I have 15 items that are too big to be bagged the register decides that after 3 I need an override. Really? Their response is “it prevents theft”. The only thing it does is prevent me from shopping here. :(

    • Valerie Barlow Horton

      As a former cashier for Walmart I hate the darn things too. You have to watch them like a hawk to keep theft down and they break A LOT. More aggravation than they are worth.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        Yes, the theft doesn’t surprise me. It’s quite easy to “wait them out” when they’re trying to stop you doing something. Other than requiring ID for booze, that is.

    • PauperPrincess

      I’m an American and I always use the self-checkouts. I’d rather ring and bag my items myself. Plus I don’t have to worry about my lettuce being stuffed in a bag with my raw meat and bathroom cleaner to save on a $0.01 bag.

    • JamaGenie

      My experience with self-checkout machines is that they’re a waste a customer’s time, i.e. having to wait for the above-mentioned supervisor to override the system. The advantage is all the store’s by requiring fewer human checkers and therefore a lower payroll. One chain, though, usually has no less than three and as many as six human checkers standing at the end of every two self-checks ready to “help”, so that particular chain isn’t offering self-check to save on overhead.

      My main complaint, though, is that the wages of human checkers are built into the price of an item, so when I’m paying the same to self-check as I would to have a human checker, either get rid of the self-check lanes or give me a HUGE discount to check myself out!

  • Kirsty

    Good article. We drive from Philly yo Cherry Hill for Wegmans. The cost of messages here is crazy! A full trolley at Asda would be around £100, full cart at Wegmans is easily $300…..

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Haven’t heard “messages” for a very long time!

      • PauperPrincess

        For the uninitiated, what is “messages” in this context?

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          Where I grew up in the north east of England, if you had “messages” to do it meant errands, specifically shopping. Doing messages = shopping, and the noun as Kirsty used it, is also “shopping.”

  • Alex

    I always have to shop around due to prices and selection, and out here if the middle of nowhere PA we don’t have trader joe’s or Whole foods (probably why I’ve never been able to find almond flour…) so the quality of certain products is much lower depending where you go. I have to go to Walmart to get cheap boxed things (like granola bars, cereals, tea etc), but then go to Wegmans for fruit and veg., and then a local grocery store chain for meats to be both fresh and decently priced.

    • Angie Poole

      Wegmans sells almond flour, at least in NY, in the gluten-free section. That’s where I buy mine.

  • Shoney

    I really enjoy shopping in my local Meijer. They have a great world foods section and a good range of unusual veggies. I can buy my hp sauce, marmite and Heinz Beans for the kids and the place is bright and well laid out. Granted other chains such as Kroger and Wallmart could learn a lot from them though. I can do my weekly shopping for a family of 4 for about $100 which is mostly buying fresh produce.

    • Meekrob

      Meijer is terrific.

    • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

      From my experience (mom in Ohio, living in the American south), the midwest has wonderful grocery stores. They are large, well lit, and do not smell funny. Stores in NC are small and not as nice.

    • LO_TS

      We do our week shops between Meijer and Krogers and I have nothing bad to say about either of them. I actually prefer food shopping in the US because basically everything is in one place! I do admit to staring longingly at the British section in Meijer and they do have a great section of international foods!

      Food shopping is certainly cheaper for us in the US and that’s even with buying many organic food in there too!

    • Cathy Raymond

      Meijer’s isn’t bad. They are well-lit and do have a large variety of items at good prices.

    • JamaGenie

      I LOVE Meijer’s! I was introduced to them when a daughter lived in northern Indiana. A pity there are none in my area.

  • English Rose

    Hehehe… I was just having a giggle at the thought of what most Americans’ expressions would be like if they got to see the grocery area at Harrods. Slightly off topic perhaps but that place to me is like a Wonderland. And, yes, how I miss Marks & Sparks and the smell of real bread…

    • Lena Zies

      The grocery section at Harrod’s is indeed nice, but here in Texas we have Central Market, which is like the Harrod’s grocery area on steroids. It’s awesome – and not everything is marketed to tourists or costs more because it has a fancy name on it.

      • FaerieBad

        I absolutely love Central market! The huge cheese section is wonderful as is everything else!

    • dw

      Probably similar to what happens when my British guests see a Whole Foods for the first time, minus the Princess Diana statue.

  • Mr Grace

    When you have a country with 300 Million plus people come talk to us about your supermarkets. We are feeding folks on a much larger scale then your UK population…economy of scale folks. Your article was insulting and stereotypical to say the least. Have you been to every state in our union to make such sweeping statements? I think not….

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Ah yes, but have you been to the UK. Have you seen the “sparkly” supermarkets?

      • crissypoo

        I have and based off what I’ve seen, they look pretty run down or normal. Nothing really interesting.

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          So, not the sparkly ones then? You have to know where to look.

          • Proud Yankee

            I guess you have to know where to look in the US then, too.

            I definitely will have to look for them the next time I’m in the UK, because all I hear from British people here is how much they love the variety in our supermarkets and how cheap all the clothing, craft, electronic, department stores, etc. are.

          • Meekrob

            Having been there, I must say that the latter is, as the Brits say, bollocks.

          • PauperPrincess

            I don’t want sparkly — I want reasonable prices with good quality and variety.

  • Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass

    Tesco tried bring British-type grocery stores to southern California over the past 6 years. It ended in disaster. Californians didn’t want the British grocery experience, and Tesco failed to adjust to the preferences of the local market. They recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sold out to a California-based chain that will take the stores in a much different direction.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/21/business/la-fi-fresh-easy-woes-20130321

    • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

      True that.

  • Philippa

    What I would do?…(1) Get rid of high fructose corn syrup, therefore less sugar in bread, coca cola and chocolate. (2) More healthy, ready to eat meals, like M&S, which would include really good Indian food. (3) decent BACON – not that streaky, fatty stuff which goes like cardboard when it’s left in an oven. (Ruby’s, take note!) (4) Take a look at Major Supermarket, and copy their model: more international foods available, good choice of wines and really, really fresh fruit!
    I could go on, but that’s a good start! ;-)

    • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

      Indian food is consider one segment of ethnic food available in the US. It is not the main ethnicity here though, so you would find Mexican or other ethnic foods readily available. I would say that the Indian food you find here in most restaurants are really good, however. It is also NOT like the UK idea of curry.

    • Angie Poole

      Alas! It’s illegal where I am to sell wine in the grocery stores. I wish they could…

  • Always a stranger

    It’s puzzling why hundreds of thousands of people would voluntarily leave the Shangri-La that is the UK only to move to such a sub-standard land as is the US.
    Discussing the differences between the countries can be incredibly interesting but the constant whinging about how awful most aspects of life in the US is serves no positive purpose. If you want your life here to be identical to the life you had in the UK then why bother leaving in the first place?

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Ah – the classic “why don’t you go home” response.

      • Proud Yankee

        So what’s your response to it, Expat Mum?

        I have to say, of all the “ugly American” stories I’ve heard, I’ve never heard tales of any American being in a “rage” because foreign supermarkets were laid out differently.

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          My “response”? If you look at the wording, it’s clearly a piss-take; a piece of hyperbole. Brits don’t get enraged about anything. I save my “responses” for real issues. Chill!

          • Proud Yankee

            Ah – the classic “refusing to answer the question” response.

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

            @ Proud Yankee – Yup, in a nutshell.

        • Drs Coffee Cup

          That’s because many Americans have never been in a foreign supermarket.

          • Meekrob

            I have, and I wasn’t impressed.

          • Proud Yankee

            Well, I’m American, and I’ve been in foreign supermarkets. I noted that the ones I went to were different from American supermarkets in that I had to bag my own groceries. I can’t say that this difference caused me any emotion remotely akin to rage, though.

          • Frankie Herron

            Exactly. That’s because American people live in a melting pot/ salad bowl, where we’re used to adapting to (and including) many different kinds of cultural ways. In Britain however, instead of evolving to include other cultural ways, they expect newly arrived foreigners to abandon their ways ENTIRELY and adapt to traditional British culture, which is made of, well…only British culture.

          • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

            Ah, the classic “Americans never travel abroad” response. Just yesterday I heard an English author whinging on NPR about how Americans never travel their own country. We can’t fecking win! We don’t travel abroad and we don’t travel our own country. We are the world’s b*tch.

          • Deirdre Hines

            I’ve traveled the contiguous states and Europe.
            Why is it when I run into Brits it’s NYC or Florida ? (Disney mostly). When was the last time you ran into a Brit at the Grand Canyon or Mt. Rushmore? We visit Dover.

        • Another expat mum

          I don’t know about the Expat mum reasons to come to America but my experience is that apparently there’s nobody around here clever enough to do my husband’s job… ;)

          • Proud Yankee

            And nobody in the UK clever enough to hire him, evidently ; )

          • Deirdre Hines

            Oh, snap.

        • Frankie Herron

          Absolute truth.

      • Always a stranger

        I never said you should go home. I spent many years in a country very different from the US and certainly missed many aspects of the life I left behind.
        I would never have thought to be so rude as to criticize the differences or suggest that things could be “improved” if only they were done the same way they were back home.
        That’s why I said why bother leaving home if you want your new life to be identical to the old.

      • NathanMentley

        I would typically agree with you, but I don’t think this is exactly a “why don’t you go home” response. At least not one I’d expect out from my country.

        My rational? You see those responses typically rant and spew misinformation about taxes… They’ll claim that undocumented residents don’t pay taxes and are free loaders. You know crazy BS like that which is completely incorrect.

        Not to mention the “Get out of ‘Merica” comments tend to have some racism mixed in and some weird assumption that English is the primary language.

        And finally, they always end with a fictitious quote incorrectly attributed to a founding father. 50% of the time the quote isn’t even relevant to the statement being made.

        The comment you’re replying to doesn’t have any of those characteristics.

        Yeah, My country has a lot of problems, but at least our government is open again. #HighFiveProgress

      • miscreantsall

        Exactly. You don’t like it? go home!
        Akin to someone coming inside your home (uninvited) and wanting to re-arrange your furniture.
        Keep your “the sun never sets on the british empire” attitude to yourself.
        First generation American here with british (English) and French parents.

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          @miscreant – Nice one. Your parents must be very proud.

        • Kris Baughman

          Listen, the whole point of the mind the gap (as far as I know) is to try to bring our countries to understanding each other. this isn’t about who is better, as an american woman I will be the first to admit that England is better. America is like a spoiled teenager without a parent eventually it’s going to crumble and unfortunately immigration laws make it impossible for people like me to get off this sinking ship.

          • declan casey

            Hahahaha, I lived in the UK. Forget the governmental issues (we have a better economy and a better standard of living than the UK does anyway), I would NEVER go back to the UK. It’s remarkably plain and boring compared to every aspect of life here.

    • George England

      No stranger, _you_ are being short-changed.

  • Pingback: We're Not in Tesco Anymore: Six Ways U.S. Supermarkets Differ From British Ones | Mind The Gap | BBC America

  • Proud Yankee

    Supermarkets sent you into a rage? Maybe chill out and try to enjoy life a little, Ruth.

    So many people in the world have nothing — and not having what you feel are artfully coordinated displays and listening to the Eagles enrages you?

    Isn’t the UK known for having a lot of jobs that pay less than their equivalents in the US? So wouldn’t it follow that some things might be cheaper there to match the standard of living? If Whole Foods cost twice as much (which it really doesn’t for most items), but you’re making two or three times the money in America, don’t things actually end up the same price or cheaper in relation, even if you have to shop at the higher-end supermarkets here?

    A rage? Really? What the heck is wrong with people?

    • Proud Yankee

      And packaging is depressing? Who gets depressed by packaging?

      I have a strong feeling some of you Brits may have brought your depression with you.

      • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

        Think somebody else needs to chill. It’s not a declaration of war.

        • Proud Yankee

          Yeah, you know, Mum, I read this piece after reading about the migrants from Africa who drowned trying to reach Europe for a better life, so it really did hit a nerve hearing someone describe such a misplaced emotion over how tomatoes are stacked. (And for that matter, over immigration lines and NYC drivers.)

          I actually have seen a British woman having a bit of a hissy fit in an American supermarket complaining loudly to herself about having too many items to choose from, so it made me wonder if some of you really are walking around with genuine anger over such trivial differences.

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

            Hyperbole. A bit like sarcasm, but not.

      • Cathy Raymond

        The only packaging that bothers me is the tough plastic kind that you need a chainsaw to open. :-)

    • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

      First world problems.

  • http://mangabotblog3000.popanime.net/ Brand

    I’m wondering how a Wegmans would stack up? I used to live near one and it was the greatest thing ever. Now, that I moved to another area with out one, I find myself grocery shopping, and cooking less.

    • Scott Mawhiney

      Wegmans will change your world view. It really is that good.

      • Angie Poole

        Only if you happen to shop at the newer ones or the flagship store in Rochester. The older ones are a bit ho-hum. Where I am the Price Chopper is just as nice and carries some things Wegmans doesn’t. I only shop at Wegmans because it’s the closest grocery store to home and another (far more ho-hum, poorly laid out with less selection) closest to work.

    • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

      Wegman’s are beautiful but unfortunately, like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods they aren’t everywhere. I hope that changes. Stores are beautiful and offer a great variety of organic and traditional food stuffs at reasonable prices. Also a good International aisle. It’s where I go to get some of my favourite UK items.

      • Cathy Raymond

        Wegmans is expanding its domain. It started with stores only in New York state but now also has them in Pennsylvania (where I live), Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. I don’t blame them for moving slowly on expanding, since I’m sure that they don’t want to lose good will by starting stores in new areas that are inferior to their usual quality standards.

    • Deirdre Hines

      Love my Wegmans.

  • Sharpi

    Goodness me such a heated discussion over supermarkets as someone in the UK who has had the pleasure of visiting the US and used your huge supermarkets I love them !! Someone said lack of choice what you amaze me I would love to have a few of the US supermarkets here. Well Walmart owns Asda so I suppose thats as near as we get. Stop moaning people be grateful you can afford to shop for food some people can’t.

    • G Byron Canon

      Don’t forget about Safeway in London…

      • JMGPannal

        Safeway????

        They were bought out years ago and are mostly now Morrisons stores!

    • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

      Your comment is the one we normally hear about U.S. supermarkets. Something along the lines of “Wow!”

    • dot turner

      You are so right, Sharpi. These are the the most hostile comments I’ve read on this site between Brits and Americans. I’m so sorry that the Brits who live here seem to hate it so much. Please forgive us for being sensitive, but hurt feelings will bring out the worst in people.

  • si

    nobody’s gonna point out the fact that trader joe’s is basically aldi?

    • Bobbi Marshall Sundeen

      They are VERY different in what they carry, however. Aldi is known as a discount store.

    • PauperPrincess

      Opposite ends of the spectrum, I’m afraid. I have two Aldi’s in my town, but not a Trader Joe’s for at least 100 miles.

    • dw

      Trader Joe’s is owned by Aldi; Harrod’s is owned by the Qatari government; so what?

  • KimberlyJ1792

    I’ve always been fascinated with the quality and freshness of the produce in the UK and how affordable it is compared to the US. It takes time to get used to the lack of choices in the UK but overall it just simplifies things. I was thrilled when I found that there is no added salt in canned vegetables. I have to pay extra for that in the US. I enjoy shopping in the UK.

    • dw

      There’s probably a huge regional variation. In California, vegetables are fresh and cheap, because they are grown nearby .

  • SeattleGirl

    I’ll give you Marks & Spencer but SAINSBURY’S… BLECH! I am lucky enough to live in an area with 10 Trader Joe’s (my least favorite of our so called sparkle stores), Whole Foods, PCC, QFC and Metropolitan Market. All of which are filled with sparkle, fresh made meals, and a plethora of choice. Not to mention beef that is indeed beef and not horse mislabled as beef… I noticed you neglected to mention Tesco’s… seems everyone has their embarrassing markets.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Hmmm…we have Trader Joe’s everywhere where I am and, despite their glowing reputation they are the least “sparkly” in my view. They are messy and not very clean looking. I’m sure they are designed to look like that (organic, farmers’ market-ish etc.) but it does nothing for me.

      • dw

        If your primary criterion is being able to see your reflection in the floor, then TJs may not be your first choice. I think they’re more focused on the food they’re selling. But, then, I could say much the same about most Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s in England.

  • Mad Max

    We do have a British-style chain here called “Fresh & Easy”, which was started by Tesco. It didn’t do so well and quite a few of them have closed and the remainder have been sold to a US company. Not sure how much longer they’ll be around which is unfortunate as I quite like them.

  • Rachel

    I’m an American living in the UK and I miss my American supermarkets! I’m not sure what “sparkle” you’re referring to in UK shops. The aisles are too narrow as are the options for almost everything. I can’t go to the Asda by my house after work and expect to find any essentials like fruit, bread or eggs. I have been to several stores in town and they all keep eggs in a different place, and never mind why the sugar is not next to everything else you need to bake something! The supermarkets in my area in the US are all fairly clean and well-stocked with pretty much the same layout in each. I’m so happy I’ll be going home soon!

  • rogue188

    as an American I wholeheartedly agree with this post. and groceries are not the only area of price discrepancies. America could learn a few things from Europe in general, much less the UK.

  • Karen Frenchy

    I am a French living in the USA & I have shopped in France (carrefour, auchan, continent etc…), England and the USA… no matter where I go, grocery shopping is a pain -_-

    • http://www.wristflick.com/ Christina G. Smith

      I totally agree. I’m an American who has been living in France for 6 years. I’ve been to the UK a lot and there are UK based supermarkets now in Paris again. But I don’t seen anything that special about them as compared to those in the US. Maybe some more minimal packaging but honestly that’s no big deal.

  • Lorraine Conaty

    After 15 years of living in the US I can confirm that the grocery shopping experience in the USA leaves a lot to be desired. I have managed to conform and assimilate to most of life in America but the one thing I miss most is shopping at Tesco or M&S. Yes Tesco! I shop at Trader Joe’s, Stop and Shop, ShopRite sometimes WholeFoods and wonderful Costco but nothing compares to the quality of product in Marks and Spencers. I am not the only one who flies home and heads straight to M&S for a bit of post flight retail therapy.

    • dw

      What kind of stuff can’t you find that is as good as M&S? Underwear?

  • Kate

    I also miss being able to WALK to said supermarket instead of driving 20 minutes to the nearest big box store outpost.

    • gigihicks

      I guess the author has never been to a Publix.
      Clean, great buggies everything fresh and the people who work there are friendly.

  • JBohanPitt

    You cannot tar everywhere in the US with the same brush. When we moved to Dallas I was introduced to Central Market, a far more comprehensive supermarket than Whole Foods but on the same lines. The in-house butcher and fishmonger supply probably the best meat and fish I have purchased anywhere and much better than the equivalent at home. I agree the pricing is a little more but the quality is outstanding. The ‘market’ feel of the fruit and veg area is great and the quality excellent. I cannot deny, with all the free samples of food on offer, I have spent several hours in there doing the weekly shop!!! One thing that Tesco failed to do here was sell fresh cooked food. Americans do not like packaged food that looks too much like a TV Dinner. But they will pick up a selection of just cooked food at a super market. Cleverly Central Market has a kitchen and cooks up meals to sell from food that likely is just about to be taken off the shelves, far better than chucking unsold food away.

    One thing that is missing here is internet food shopping. I know that some tried and failed here years ago but that was often when new companies tried to take on the traditional supermarkets. Once the Tesco’s of the world had figured out that they could use their big-box outlets to pack peoples shopping versus build big warehouses, internet shopping became hugely profitable and popular. The US supermarkets never really got to that point. While the car tends to dominate here, still there are some days that between my wife and I there just is not the time to do the weekly shop so we resort to a delivery. Being able to have the basics delivered at home was great.

    • FaerieBad

      I love Central Market’s Dinner for Two’s. Freshly prepared entrée and veggie packaged in a brown paper bag with new menu’s every day.

      • JBohanPitt

        They are great, a perfect late night pick up and far better than an unhealthy delivery meal!

  • Robert Crim

    I’m sorry you did not have a good experience shopping up North. Next time try the Southern chain Publix Supermarkets. When I go into my local store, I am met with the smell of bakery goods as I enter through the door. As I’m desparately trying to avoid all the fresh baked goodies, I go through the deli where I smell fried chicken cooking and see all the asst cheeses and meats you can think of, as well as many homemade products. Then onto the produce section where there are rows and rows of “colored” fresh fruits and vegetables “aesthetically” displayed. Watch out for the thunder and lightning sounds as it is a warning the watering system will come on to sprinkle the produce to keep it fresh! Onto the fish/meat dept where their is a smiling man preparing fresh sushi daily! The grocery dept spans the entire store that includes almost as many health food items and gluten-free items as every day items. Most stores even include a pharmacy. When I check out, the cashier knows my first name and I do theirs. It’s a friendly, easy trip to an otherwise droll chore. Perhaps you need to come further South next time. And remind me again why our Founding Fathers left England. Oh that’s right, they were looking for a cheaper tea.

    • Robert Palmer

      You forgot to mention that Publix has a British foods section in many of their stores.

  • hebec

    I really miss UK supermarkets.
    One thing US supermarkets do have going for them is, I don’t have to pack my own bags.

  • Trev

    look at Tesco fresh and easy in the US, move on stuff is different 7,000 miles away…
    BTW i love the 80′s music (mainly British it has to be said), heard Howard Jones the other day….ah brought it all back

  • MissyMom

    I’d love to have a an M&S grocery near by for the preservative free (mostly) prepackaged meals. However, until Americans as a whole learn to live without preservatives in EVERYTHING I doubt it will happen

  • Frankie Herron

    Americans aren’t British. Hence the differences. A marked difference between Americans and (some) British is that (most) Americans seem to instinctively understand this. Yes America is plagued by inflation and multinational corporations looking to cash in on the Euro-made consumer culture that’s been shoved down their throats. However, Americans are much more likely to understand and respect diversity than Britons, who don’t think anyone else knows how to do things correctly, unless of course, they’re doing it like the British. Every country has its blessings and curses. I say keep the British stuff in Britain and Americanize the heck out of anything imported. Including British expats.

    • Always a stranger

      So well said!

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      “Americans are much more likely to understand and respect diversity than Britons”…..I’ll be sure to spread the word about this to the LGBT community here then.

      • dw

        Tell your ginger-haired friends too :)

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

          c/o the Katherine Tate fan club ;-)

      • Joanna

        I am from the UK and I have to say that Americans are far more accepting of people from different countries, if they are Caucasian and straight. I am a British citizen living in the U.S., but I was born in Romania. Even though I grew up in the UK and was a citizen there, I was horribly bullied and discriminated against simply because of being born in a different country. I have lived in the U.S. for 3 years now and I have never been called a name and have always been treated with respect. People in the U.S. have been welcoming and actually are fascinated, not repulsed, by my foreign background.

        • Angie Poole

          I love Romanians. My best friend in middle school and high school was born in Romania, and there was a decent sized Romanian community in the area. They were always friendly and accepted me, even though I was not infrequently the only one around who didn’t speak Romanian. I visited Romania once, and I’m pretty sure they could teach most of us a thing or two about hospitality.

          I love the ethnic diversity I had growing up, particularly now that I live in an area that has much less.

      • Frankie Herron

        Great! That’s an excellent place to start spreading the word.

    • VD

      Oh come on! “Americans are much more likely to understand and respect diversity”??!! LOL!!

    • Jude

      The US won’t even show British sitcoms – they have to “Americanize” them first (see The Office USA, or the awful It Crowd remake). Most British music doesn’t get through either (even though British music is clearly superior, and has been since the Beatles). In the 90s all you could hear on the radio in the US was godawful “woe-is-me-it’s-raining-in-Seattle-again-and-I’ve-got-a-needle-in-my-arm” grunge, while very little innovative British music got through (d&b/jungle, Britpop, rave, triphop, shoegaze, etc etc). As far as music and tv shows that aren’t in English? Forget about it.

  • Erin Thursby

    Um, Publix is awesome.

  • NoName

    One thing American supermarkets have in common though is that the bread sucks! Lived in CA, VA and NC. La Brea is fair to middling but for 3 bucks a loaf is really not that special. Favorite US store is Wegmans, the produce from there lasted a few days before rotting.
    One does feel that some take these articles a little too seriously and if they are that sensitive should perhaps be better off not reading them?

  • Brigantyna

    Except, if American grocery stores were so inviting and encouraging people to plan meals fit to make the Queen Mum proud, would we instead be reading about how our supermarkets are, therefore, enabling Americans in our seemingly-never-ending pursuit of being morbidly obese?

  • Kalideva9

    I have to completely agree with this post. Grocery shopping in the U.S. is a chore, while pretty much everywhere I’ve been in Europe, it’s a delight. The best grocer I’ve ever experienced was Larry’s Market in Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne (Hill) neighborhood. Sadly, now long gone. While a bit more expensive, I actually saved money buying delicious prepackaged meals from their deli. Sadly, Larry’s Market is long gone. I am no longer in Seattle and am marooned back in the Midwest in an area that is monopolized by a local grocery chain that is more than happy to sit back on their heels and provide substandard quality. Due to their totalitarianism, we don’t have a chance of a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s within 150 miles.

  • Kalideva9

    Ah, if only the author could have experienced the delight that was Larry’s Market on Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne (Hill) neighborhood. Expensive, but worth every penny I ever spent there. Sadly, long gone. *sigh*

  • Ewokia

    Oh my goodness, of course prices are going to be high in New York. It’s NY! It’s almost as bad as Chicago. As for the stores, it all depends on which store you got to. I admit, some as dull and boring, while others have a different atmosphere. Also, the driving in NY is terrible, but that doesn’t mean every place in the US is like this. Trust me, I’ve lived in 12 states. Atlanta, GA, Salt Lake City, UT, Chicago, IL are almost as bad as NYC. Don’t be so judgmental, the United States is HUGE. There are so many different types of American culture, you can’t just think it’s all like what you experienced. Go adventure more!

  • AAEdwards

    I think HEB, the regional grocery chain in my neck of the woods, is pretty decent. They have a fair amount of locally sourced meat and produce…and some even have fresh tortillas in the deli/bakery area! (I just love watching those little balls of dough go through the machine.)

  • Scott Mawhiney

    You have obviously never been to a Wegmans.

  • AC

    Try and find a Wegmans, they are a NY based supermarket and have a great but small range of UK foods. At mine here in PA, we have the usual (decent tea, beans, HP sauce) but now they have Jammie Dodgers, Mint Sauce, crumpets, Wispas, Aeros and fantastic british cheeses!

  • dw

    I grew up in Britain and would take Trader Joe’s over any British supermarket. In terms of quality and variety of food, Whole Foods wipes the floor with anything I’ve seen in the UK, if you ignore the price.

  • ladyliberal

    I’ve shopped in numerous British markets, they were not all that exciting. I was amazed by the number of perishable items that were not refrigerated.

  • Sue Taylor

    Come on folks.. for the most part, the quality of the US food is pretty drab. I so miss the miles of aisles of fresh meat and fish and proper butchers. Store made Indian, Chinese food and freshly made pizza’s. Fresh sandwiches and meal deals with bags of fresh veggies to go with your chosen entree. The bakery section…ah, absolutely fresh and delish. I was in a store recently and they were trying to sell vanilla slices that had a sell by date of a week! The word is FRESH! Please. give it up…

    • dw

      It all depends on where you are in the US and what supermarket (sorry, hangar) you’re talking about. Ms Margolis is clearly aiming to stir up an online fistfight to bump up her page hits :)

    • Jane

      My local neighborhood US supermarket is exactly as wonderful you described. Perhaps Brits have a knack for chosing the worst places to shop.

  • VD

    I cannot agree more with the author. And I’m not british nor American. But I have lived in both countries and I think the British supermarkets are much superior than the ones I found in New York and Connecticut area. The only thing with I kind of disagree is about the packaging. Some of them are more clever here (easy opening, etc) but sometimes that comes with the disadvantage of “too much or not so necessary packaging”. And that’s another thing british do better: recycling and taking care of the environment. But that’s a topic for another discussion.

  • http://xiaochensu.blogspot.com/ Xiaochen Su

    Wal-Mart (yes, they also do supermarkets) is all around the world, but not that many British chains (neither Tesco nor M&S has been all that successful in global expansions). I suppose the rest of the world dont share the British concerns addressed here?

  • Proud Yankee

    Quote: “And did I mention everything smells of rotting turnips?”

    I have to concede that I haven’t the faintest idea what a rotting turnip smells like, so maybe everything in American supermarkets DOES smell of rotting turnips and I just never knew!

    Maybe ALL of America smells like rotting turnips and you’re the first to let us know! Maybe they can smell our stink all the way across the Atlantic!

    Thanks for finally breaking it to us, BBC America! We’ll wear more deodorant from now on.

  • Always a stranger

    Why is it so many Brits never seem happy unless they’re letting everyone else know how miserable they are?

  • ann dorian

    I’m changing the tone here a bit, but so what! The area I would LOVE to see the U.S. emulate is British Entertainment. I’ve been a “Brit-com” fan (PBS) for decades and the mysteries, sit-coms, and other classic stories can’t be beat. America doesn’t come close…..who on earth can possibly sit through any more American made movies with bathroom humor, filthy language and behavior, depravity and violence….is this really what the young American mind is craving? Nearly everything truly creative and worth watching is coming from overseas.

  • MArandom

    I’ve been to the UK, and honestly, the supermarkets don’t really look that different. Good and bad in both countries. What did piss me off about the UK was that they had no real lemonade ANYWHERE!! It was all soda, instead of lemon juice. The closest thing I could find was a sort of lemony water. :(

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Not sure when that was. This past summer I noticed a lot of real (or Victorian) lemonade as one brand called it. My ten year old was thrilled until we opened it and discovered it was fizzy!

    • JamaGenie

      Funny, I loved Fanta’s lemonade when I was in the UK, but on returning home found it’s not available in the U.S. Perhaps because it’s too “pure” and doesn’t contain the additives that make most American soft drinks so unhealthy?

  • Sarah

    Go to WEGMANS! It is the Disneyland of grocery stores. The happiest place on earth. You must go. There are many in NYS and some scattered through PA and neighboring states.

  • RealHoopyFrood

    Oh my, aren’t you the little snob? I am SO sorry that our grocery establishments don’t live up to your lofty expectations. There’s planes leaving for the UK every day. Get on one. We won’t miss you.

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  • RametinDallas

    The BEST supermarkets are Tesco and Carrefour in Bangkok. 15 kinds of rice in eight colors, departments devoted to chicken, fish (they will fry, bake, or broil it for you), breads and pastries, pork, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, preserved foods, freshly cooked foods, Western foods, etc. with amazing choice and the quality is first rate. Carrots weigh a pound each!

  • A. Nuran

    Within a mile of my home we have New Seasons – think Whole Paycheck but much more reasonably priced, a Safeway which is adequate for staples and such and boasts a good-sized organic produce section, a bulk grocery used by restaurateurs – great for economizing by buying in bulk and two Mexican, one African and one Fijian grocers. Most of them are on bus lines. I’d say we’re as well set up as anyone in the UK.

  • Buckaroo

    There is one shining standout from the mass of lousy grocery stores here in the US and that is Wegmans. Based in upstate New York they have set the gold standard for what a grocery store should aspire to be. Fresh local produce, amazing takeout foods, wood burning bread ovens, multiple cheese counters…the list goes on. Also the management there truly cares about its employees and it shows in the positive attitudes of everyone there. They are found in a few of the surrounding states and are so good that when a future store is announced it has an immediate effect of increasing property values in that area.

  • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

    Ruth, you have turned whinging into an art form. And please don’t tell me that this piece or any of your other articles are just “taking the piss.” That’s simply a disguise for being rude and hypercritical. You’re like the bully on the playground who tells another child they’re ugly and then says “Ha,ha. Only joking!”

    The truth is both U.S. and U.K. supermarkets have good qualities about them. I’ve been to many of them on both sides of the pond and within the last two years. I’ve seen lousy U.K. supermarkets and I’ve seen lousy U.S. ones. At the end of the day, this is a first world problem. Move on.

  • Expat Backpacker

    I am an American, and I appreciate your point of view. However, I would say that maybe, just maybe, your pov is a little biased, and perhaps you are not considering the pro’s of American supermarkets. I consider myself somewhat well traveled. I’ve lived in the M.E., and currently live in Europe. Sure, Waitrose is nice, but surely not any cheaper. What about Carrefour, or are we not allowed to compare French stores to UK stores? Point is, there will always be differences because the consumer in every country is different. Not only that, the consumer base in the U.S. varies significantly from city to city, and from state to state.

    In European grocery stores, I was initially annoyed that I had to bag my own groceries. You can’t consider this a plus for the UK!! If I’m spending my money in your establishment, seems only fair that you have staff to properly bag the groceries for me. Nonetheless, I’ve adapted. Fortunately, I have access to a U.S. grocery store here in Europe, and I’m always asked by my European friends to buy them various products that they cannot find in their supermarkets. That must count for something.

    BTW, you may like Harris Teeter.

  • Cathy Raymond

    Some American supermarkets are dreadful, and others are not. Wegmans, a chain associated with the northeastern/Middle Atlantic states, provides a great shopping experience. It has a large selection of reasonably priced organic foods, foods from other countries (including the UK), great produce (with a large section of locally grown fruits and vegetables), and microbrews. They have an in-store Food Court, restaurant, pharmacy, bakery and a lounge. All this and prices lower than their local competitors (Giant and Acme), whose markets haven’t changed much since the 1990s. They are also open 24/7.

  • dp

    All y’all need an HEB in your lives.

  • Anon

    Here’s some advice, sweetie: Go back home. If you aren’t content with certain things that it drives you to the point where you’re constantly complaining and whining then leave. No is forcing you to stay in the United States.

  • James

    I’m from the U.K. and I prefer to go grocery shopping in the States. I love the variety and quality of their food. The employees are always so helpful and polite. The

  • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

    Here’s a British supermarket with some “sparkle.” http://haggerston-tescos.tumblr.com/

  • Annalie

    Unfortunatly, some of the grocery stores and supermarkets here in America aren’t great. However, there are a few that have aesthetic appeal and don’t cost too much either. You just have to keep looking around and eventually you’ll find one.

  • YorkshireLass

    I am a Brit living in New Jersey. I’ve lived here for 19 years. I LOVE THIS COUNTRY and will never go back to live in the UK. There are things I miss, of course, but there are so many things that I love about the US.

    I have a Wegmans close to me and it’s OK. The best supermarkets I’ve experienced here are the big HEB stores in Texas. Largest privately owned company in the world – and a really benevolent company. Truly want to do the best for their customers and their staff.

  • Olde Squid

    Gotta agree with you on this one. If I had my way, I would redesign all chain supermarkets with at least one “non-American” branch, so I could go to my British store and find decent tea and Jammie Dodgers without special ordering, or my Italian branch to shop six aisles of pasta. Now if we could work in a Japanese 7-11 with a noodle shop tucked into the corner, I’d be estastic.

  • Deirdre Hines

    Despite having superior markets, Brits are just as plump as their American cousins. I’m looking at you Scotland. I’ve lived in the US, Britain and the continent. On the continent it seems the saying is true – Americans shop once a week and bathe daily and on the continent they shop daily …..

  • WestCoastKenny

    I wonder if this writer has ever shopped outside New York City. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and none of our supermarkets look like this. They are laid out logically with lots of selection and the majority of them have hot deli sections so you can pick up something quickly which was made within the last several hours. The latest trend is for drug store chains such as Walgreen’s and CVS to add groceries, including fresh fruit and packaged salads, all at reasonable prices, so one does not have to leave the downtown area to grab something resembling a nutritious meal for lunch or dinner.

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