The Grocery Shopping Experience in Switzerland

You have to eat, no getting around that. In most cases you can’t get out of going grocery shopping either. There used to be only 3 big shop chains here, but now there are about 5. The top two, Migros (pronounced Me-grow) and Coop (pronounced Co-op) are probably in most towns. They are also the ones we frequent the most.

There are some pretty major differences in grocery stores in the States and Switzerland. Starting off when you pick up your shopping cart. They are all locked up and you have to pay a deposit to get one. That came about because people were leaving their carts all over the parking lot and not returning them. Some smarty realized that you could “train” Swiss through their wallets. Not returning the cart will lose you (and someone else gains) two francs (about $2.00). Needless to say, there is no longer a problem with shopping carts.

The actual size of the stores in Switzerland are smaller or at least they seem smaller to me. In America the aisles are wider and longer. In fact, in the States signs are hung from the ceilings saying what can be found in that aisle. The only places I’ve seen aisle-signs in Switzerland are in hardware stores. The aisles are so narrow here that two carts can pass each other with only millimeters to spare.

Grocery Store Setup

Once you are actually inside the store, ready to shop, neither Switzerland nor America leaves much to chance. It starts out with the general layout of the store. You usually enter through the fresh vegetables and fruits and move counterclockwise. Why? Because about 90% of the population is right-handed. You push the cart with your left hand and pile things into it with your right. Speaking of carts again, did you know that their size has more than doubled since their “invention”? You might as well fill it up while you are there.

Fresh Produce

The first stop when shopping is usually the fresh produce. You pick, bag and weigh what you want. Same in the States. But, I noticed that the vegetables somehow look greener in the States. Is that because everything looks greener on the other side? Of course it does, well, not always. I saw why once while I was in the States. While I was standing there admiring the huge selection, the “misting machine” turned on automatically. That made everything look so fresh and clean. Of course the colored lights helped, too. Just presenting things in the best possible light, I guess.

Seeing the vegetables misted left me with a couple of questions. Was that really only water they were spraying? Will the produce decay quicker and grow fungus? Will that make what I buy weigh more, making me pay for water? I have never seen either lights or misting in the vegetable and fruit section in Switzerland. I’m not sure I would welcome it with open arms. I do, however know that Switzerland use special lights in the deli and at the meat counters. That makes the meat seem redder than it actually is.

What I love in America and Switzerland

Something I loved in grocery stores in the States are the different free sample stands. Especially on Saturday morning. Cookies, bread, cakes, lunchmeats you name it. Go to the store with an empty stomach and come home stuffed. I have seen this only in one store in Switzerland and that, maybe once every two or three months. Too bad, but better for your figure.

Here’s what I really love about stores in Switzerland. Some time during late afternoon an employee checks the perishable date on the food. If the sell-by date is about to expire they put a 25% tag on the items. Closer to closing time they will go through again and put a 50% sticker on the items. I think that’s great, they have less food to throw away (or whatever they do with it). We make a “surprise” discount meal with whatever we buy.

The Checkout Lane

Assuming you have successfully navigated through the store and filled your cart. Adding some of the well placed advertised items into your cart along the way. The whole time conscientiously arranging your food in the cart. The heaviest and sturdiest boxes and containers jars go at the bottom, the most squish-able and fragile on the top. You move right along to any checkout counter that is open. Not so easy, because usually more than half are closed.

All the lines are usually long to extremely long. I always size-up the lanes; which one is the shortest and where the people have the fewest items. Of course, it never equates to the fastest lane. Or rather, it never does for me. Who knows, maybe the store likes me so much that they just want to keep me there for an extra quarter hour or so.

Our little grocery store has 3 checkout lanes which two, at most, are open at the same time. In the 11 years that we have lived here I’ve only seen all three lanes open once. That was when everything in the Canton next to ours was closed for a religious holiday. Our store did good business that day. Hmm, is this about money?

The regular Swiss checkouts look amazingly similar to the American ones. Left and right of each lane is a lot of candy at child’s eyelevel. One piece of candy is sold at almost the same price as a bag thereof found elsewhere in the store. You can also pick up app and store gift cards along with special, special deals (usually more candy) in case you need them.


Every checkout lane consists of a conveyor belt and scanner. At the end, the counter divides into two parts, where the food ends up ready to be bagged.

Something I liked in America is now threatened with extinction: the bagger. I believe they are still around in some stores but not all. I guess, if you are lucky the cashier will bag what you bought. But those days are slowly coming to an end, too. As far as I know, Switzerland never had baggers, you do it yourself. The paper bags, plastic bags and reusable bags all cost, too. I guess that helps the people remember to bring their own.

The Race Begins

So, in line you wait. And wait. And wait. Once it’s your turn at the cashiers the stress-level multiplies. By the time you finish loading your items onto the conveyor belt your scanned food compartment is almost completely overflowing. Swiss cashiers are extremely quick scanners. Zip, zip, zip, whipping all the items down into your side of the divided counter.

These divided counters are slanted so the scanned food will slide, roll or fall to the far end easier. The bag of chips you thoughtlessly put from the top of your cart onto the conveyor belt first are doomed. They will slowly be crushed by the weight of the other items rolling down and crashing into them. Something like that inevitably happens to me every time. That used to bother me. Now I Think of it this way, I’m not buying a bag of crushed chips, I’m getting more chips for my money.

As quickly as I can, I move from loading the conveyor to the end of my lane to start bagging my scanned items. Usually I barely start bagging and the cashier is finished scanning and tells me the total. Of course I stop bagging, pull out my wallet, see that I don’t have enough cash. I then put my debit card (from the post office) in the machine and pay. You also have to dig out your store card to be scanned. The store uses all the information they gather to see what I bought and keep tabs on me. I guess they want to make my shopping experience even better in the future. In exchange for my data, they give me points. I can use them to buy more stuff at a small discount. Fair enough.

Pure Stress

When the cashier is finished with me she moves along to the next customer. She tries to move the compartment-divider to the other side so the next customers items can fall in there. Unfortunately I am so slow that “my” side is backed up to her scanner. She unceremoniously pushes my items down to the back of my compartment. Then whips the divider as hard as she can to my side. Which crushes my yoghurt and pops a couple containers open. Naturally the second bag of chips crushes that I had actually remembered to put at the end of the conveyor belt. If I’m lucky the plastic container of blueberries stays closed.

When I’m about 3/4 the way done with bagging I see the cashier push the divider back to open up my side of bagging compartment. The next person’s purchase is being rolled into it. Now I have to bag quicker and be careful to only bag my food. Also, I have to make room for a second person standing next to me bagging her food. Gosh, my blood pressure is rising just writing about this.

After I put everything in the car and return my shopping cart to the designated area, I head home. When I get there I need to do some serious resting. I feel like I just ran a marathon, exhausted.

I go grocery shopping 3-4 times a week. You think I would learn how to get it right by now. But, no. Some things are not as easy to learn, like languages. In fact, some things can never be learned. The best I can do is to bring my Swiss husband with me. Then I can stand back and watch a professional do it correctly.

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