We’re Not in Tesco Anymore: Six Ways U.S. Supermarkets Differ From British Ones

Remember strolling the aisles of Tesco? U.S. supermarkets differ in several ways. (Photo: Rex Features via AP Images)

Remember strolling the aisles of Tesco? U.S. supermarkets differ in several ways. (Photo: Rex Features via AP Images)

While food shopping (a.k.a. grocery shopping) isn’t an ordeal in the U.S., there are quite a few elements that still surprise Brits.

Accustomed to the pristine orderliness of the M&S Food Hall or a Sainsbury’s supermarket, Brits often find the American version, well, a bit messy. It’s not disorganized shelves or sloppy sales assistants, there just seems to be a lot going on in each aisle, giving a general appearance of borderline chaos. Think of the clear aisles in most British supermarkets; in the States, you’re more likely to find bins and promotional displays hampering a clean run to the back of the store.

A U.S. candy aisle of a supermarket. (Photo via Creative Commons)

A U.S. candy aisle of a supermarket. (Photo via Creative Commons)

Choices, choices
One thing my friends and family always comment on is the mass of choices for everything from toothpaste to tuna fish. You want Coke? There’s classic, diet, and zero, caffeine free, diet caffeine free, cherry and cherry zero, vanilla and vanilla zero, and coke with lime and the diet version. Milk? You’ve got fat-free, skim, 1%, 2% and full fat (whole); milk fortified with vitamins (usually A&D); chocolate milk, coconut, strawberry, soy and rice too. And there are usually at least two or three different brands of each variety. “Overwhelming” is often the word used.

Price tag confusion
Unlike in the U.K., where the sales tax (i.e. VAT) is embedded in the price tag, not so in the U.S. On top of a state sales tax, which varies by state,* you can also have city and county taxes, although they may be billed to you as one sum. For example, the sales tax in Illinois is 10.25%, but that is made up of a 6.25% state tax, a 1.25% city tax, a 1.75% county tax and a 1% transportation authority tax. My advice to new British shoppers fumbling for the correct change — unless you’re a math(s) wizard or the sales tax is a handy zero or ten percent — don’t bother. *Alaska, Montana, New Hampshire, Delaware and Oregon have no state sales tax, although local taxes are applied.

Booze restrictions
While you can buy almost anything at U.S. grocery stores, one thing that might be off-limits is your favorite tipple. This varies regionally but where I am in Chicago, supermarkets can sell any type of alcohol almost around the clock if they’re open, except for before 11 am on a Sunday. In other cities and states, you won’t be able to buy booze at a regular grocery store and must purchase it at state-run liquor stores. There are 18 such control states, where the state has a monopoly on the sale and distribution of some or all alcoholic beverages.

Brand name and packaging confusion
While most labels are written in English, some are not familiar to Brits. You probably won’t see Bisto or Bakewell Tart on the shelves and there might be some names that mean nothing to you. Likewise, the look of the packaging won’t be familiar so allow yourself the extra time you’ll need to pick up and read dozens of items. Not only is gravy often thick and light colored, it can look like this…

…instead of this.

Similarly, your chocolate bar is more likely to look like this…

…than this.



You’ll notice many more people using coupons. It’s a way of life here, and in some cases, it’s diagnosed as “extreme couponing” — there’s even a TV show about it. Choose your checkout lane carefully. Rookies will go for the one with the least people in line, completely missing the people clutching coupons. A variety of coupon-driven events can cause major delays:

1. The couponer has duplicate coupons that can only be used one per transaction, eg. “10% off your entire purchase.” These shoppers will check out only a few items at a time so that they can use all twelve of their 10% coupons.
2. The couponer’s items are scanned and bagged but s/he forgot to mention the coupons and is now insisting they still be applied. (This means that every coupon must be matched with an item and the coupon scanned. Since not everything purchased has a coupon, this can take a while and will result in one very pee’d off salesperson. I have lived this.)
3. The sales assistant doesn’t know the store’s policy on coupons … and neither does the supervisor when she arrives twenty minutes later.
4. The extreme couponer doesn’t like the store’s coupon limits and is going to stand her ground. And yes, many stores are very strict about how many coupons shoppers can present at one time.

For more information couponing, pop over to the Krazy Coupon Lady web site. (No – they’re deadly serious.)

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 also:
Why the U.S. Should Adopt British-Style Supermarkets
What’s With the Stereotypes About British Dental Care?
A Brit’s Opinion: American Chocolate


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • OxfordGal

    The sales tax issue gets even weirder when you consider that some states (such as Texas) don’t tax most food, but do tax junk food, beverages, non-perishables and other “non-essentials”, and those designations can be pretty arbitrary.

  • Grace

    Pennsylvania doesn’t tax either, or at least not “unprepared food”. It was a shock the first time I went shopping in California and my bill was 10% higher than I thought it would be. We don’t have sales tax on clothing, either.

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    A lot of people in Illinois drive over the state borders to Indiana, Michigan or Wisconsin where the sales taxes are lower.

  • maggie

    Here in New Hampshire only prepared food is taxed the same as in restaurants, otherwise no sales tax at all, not even local. Of course gas is taxed and we have high property taxes.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      Just goes to show that when you decide to relocate somewhere, there’s lost of things to consider.

      • maggie

        We get people from neighbouring states doing there shopping here because there is no sales tax. In a town south of where we live you and another over to the west if you go to the Mall, Walmart Superstore, the club stores the car parks are full of cars from Massachusetts. An Aldi has jsut opened there too and I bet it is the same there.

      • maggie

        When ones job is involved you don’t always have much choice. We could have lived in Taxachussets but decided to live in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state

        • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

          Exactly Maggie – that was, as you said, your decision and when Brits are considering (if they can) where to live in the USA that is not always an obvious consideration. State and local taxes can make a huge difference.

          • maggie

            My husband’s commute was 35 miles each way down into Mass from NH and used to have to pay their state income tax but now he works from home and since there is no state income tax here he is financially better off. It will be a pain next year when it comes to doing taxes as he worked 6 months down there this year.

          • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

            My husband is based in Illinois but conducts business in at least 8 other states throughout the year – which means he has to file and pay taxes in all of them. Another thing to take into consideration as these taxes are all different.

          • maggie

            We’ve be going through the tax thing with Mass. for several years and it is such a pain. I can’t imagine how it must be for your husband.

  • Linda

    Here in NJ, unprepared food (ie most of the stuff you buy in the supermarket), household paper goods, and medicines are not taxed. Ditto for clothing, which means a lot of people head over the bridges from NY to shop here, especially around back-to-school time.

    Also, no booze in the supermarkets, but there is usually a well-stocked liquor store nearby!

    • PauperPrincess

      Michigan has no sales tax on most food. Anything considered “ready to eat” though will have sales tax.

      Most of our grocery stores have some kind of liquor aisle, but you could have either dry counties of limits of sales on Sundays.

  • NCGal

    Here in NC, there is a 2% tax on food items, and a different tax rate for non-food (this varies on the County you live in). In certain counties prepared food (i.e. prepared meals at the deli) are charged an additional 1%. You can buy beer and wine at the grocery store (but not before noon on a Sunday), but the liquor is sold at the State/County controlled ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) stores.

  • Lola Ballentine McKinlay

    I’m American but have visited the UK four times, staying in self-catering apartments so I could cook. What I love about UK supermarkets, besides their addictive sweets I can’t find in the US, is that I don’t have to figure out taxes on top of the purchase price. Also, I was amazed to find a Marks and Spencer supermarket inside one of their clothing stores – in Stirling, Scotland. I also believe I spent less on food in the UK than the US, even when adding in the difference between the Pound and the US Dollar.

  • PauperPrincess

    Oh no! The labels are different! My my! I do declare!

    Seriously? Wouldn’t you EXPECT that to be the case?

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      No one is saying it’a a crime, but as it says in the post, and YES it is to be expected – “Likewise, the look of the packaging won’t be familiar so allow yourself the extra time you’ll need to pick up and read dozens of items.”

  • gn

    Does the UK still ban alcohol sales between noon and 3pm on Good Friday, the time when Jesus was supposedly on the cross? It used to when I lived there.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      It may well do but it’s not a Separation of Church and State kind of country. The Queen, as you know DW, “- holds the title ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’.

    • Rob G

      No, we’re all-day drinkers now. We can go to the pub/off-license/supermarket and buy alcohol everyday, all day and all night :) Well, thats what everyone thought when the law changed many years ago. The reality is that although you can buy alcohol all day every day now, most places still stop selling alcohol at 11pm. Very few bars stay open later than that (maybe just at weekends till midnight). Ironically, the main purpose of all night opening was to try and reduce violant incidents with everyone coming out of pubs at the same time. But recent research has shown that it hasnt reduced at all. Just shows that everyone in Britain still likes a good ruck after a few beers. :)

  • PJ

    A note on “choice” — what bothers me about large US supermarket chains is that “choice” you describe is really a monopoly disguised as choice. Twenty different varieties of Coke are all still the Coca-cola company, as well as all of the bottled water and other products they own. If you don’t want to buy from a major brand, preferring something smaller, local, healthier or just plain different, you’re often out of luck. I find more choice at smaller local stores than chains, but with less products on the shelves at the same time for a more efficient shopping experience. Major companies like Coke, General Mills and Unilever have a stranglehold on grocery chains that kills real choice.

  • Journeyman

    Have visited England twice recently and enjoyed the new shopping experiences, Going back again next year. Enjoyed the shopping in the local markets and seeing and trying all what was new to me. Liked the 99pence (US$1.59) Stores in the UK. Did not notice that any thing was less expensive then in the US. Had a hard time with the left hand driving in the UK, was almost run over several times…

    • David

      The UK/US price thing is complicated. Population density and land prices make everything potentially more expensive in the UK. However, we were surprised on a very recent return visit to Virginia that some classic “cheaper in the ‘Sates” cost much the same as back here. Retail prices including tax in the UK make them more transparent.

  • Chris

    Most grocery store chains have their own brand, including Whole Foods, which is cheaper than the larger companies’ products. Stores also carry several different other brands, including local, for lots of products. US shoppers are all about buying local. If people aren’t sure what the store brand is, they can ask a clerk. Whenever I read these articles, they seem to be about what’s wrong in the US and right in the UK. I think both have their good qualities. UK stores often have strange ideas about what makes a good sandwich, for instance. And a baked potato with tuna? Really? :) As for our stores, I can’t remember the last time I was stuck behind someone with coupons. Our aisles are wider. Based on the pics above, our stores are more modern with better lighting. Just adding some points for the US team even though I, too, adore M&S!

  • Olivia

    Here in Oregon there’s no sales tax, but the state income tax will make you cringe. Needless to say, quite a few folks from Washington cruise over the Columbia River to do any major shopping. Speaking of Washington, the sales tax there does not apply to food at the grocery store.

  • Mekadave

    Florida also has no sales tax on food. No income tax here, either.

  • Grand Poobah

    You barely touched on how confusing sales taxes can be in supermarkets. As a general rule, only prepared foods, snacks, and alcohol are taxed. Foods that the buyer prepares themselves aren’t taxed. This is the case in most states, but as alluded to above, sales tax laws vary from state to state (and sometimes from county to county or even city to city).

  • SavvyJo

    I live in Ohio & I have to pay 6.5% tax on everything except food, not including the “fat tax” on things like pop and candy.

    We as Americans have VERY unhealthy habits, most things aren’t labeled as well as in the UK

  • jsnb2001

    In NJ we pay no tax on unprepared food or clothing because they are considered necessities for living. So if you buy a lb of salami there’s no tax. But if you pick up the salami sandwich, they tax you.

  • Rob G

    With regards to the section “choices choices”….that doesnt sound like any different to the UK. We have all those varieties of cola and milk (Milk is milk right??) so perhaps this isnt much of a difference. Admittedly, i’ve never been to America, so maybe theres more to it than Toni Hargis has mentioned, but if you really want individuality, then avoid the supermarkets and go to “farmers markets” (misleadingly named as they often appear in major high streets and not all by farmers). Not the sort of place you’d do your regular grocery shop, but certainly worth getting things for a nice change.