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.

Merchandising
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…

jarofgravy
…instead of this.

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

hershey_bar
…than this.

bubbly_bar

Coupon-ers

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