Not for nothing do the French use the same word for shopping – les courses – as for the races. ‘Faire les courses,’ means to buy groceries or run errands. Run being the operative word. While service tends to be slow, shoppers are both dense (literally and sometimes figuratively) and in a hurry. Possibly because most stores close early in the evenings and on Sundays.
The French tend to shop differently than we North Americans. While we load up on specials and stock our freezers for a snowy day, it’s traditional in France to go shopping daily for bread, meat, fruit and veg. Many people go to open-air markets and directly to the farm for fresh foods.
I would love to shop that way, but who has time? I will make the effort for special meals and on weekends but by the time you go to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker, half the morning is gone. And you still have to go to a supermarket for staples like toilet paper. (Which, oddly, the French prefer in pink.)
Most of my shopping odysseys take place in the superstore. And I’m not alone. La grande surface as they call it here is a pillar of modern French life, selling everything from booze to baby gear. Carrefour, Casino, Géant, Leclerc, Intermarché, Auchan, Super U….the choice of enseignes (major retailers) is vast. But this type of shopping is not for the faint of heart. The fact is, the bigger the store, the longer it takes.
But there are perks, starting with the fact that you can find the most amazing goods. All those fancy oils and vinegars I used to search out in gourmet shops in Toronto are right there on the supermarket shelf. Along with organic foods, imported snacks, fine wine and alcohols, every imaginable kind of chocolate and cheese. You can pick up towels and sheets, books and DVDs, an ironing board or a pair of sandals. All under one roof.
It is seductive for people like me who don’t really like shopping. I believe I may have inherited a male gene here. I just want to get in and get out. Mission accomplished.
Window shopping, the kind of casual, strolling-around that may or may not lead to a purchase – which the French call ‘lèche vitrines’ or literally ‘window licking’ – is my idea of torture.
I’m always fascinated by the fact that the French retain the notion of a marketplace in their grandes surfaces. Sales people set up stands in the dairy aisle, encouraging you to try a new kind of cheese. Hucksters at the prepared-foods counter shout out their wares. Entire families with kids stroll aimlessly as if at a carnival. People chat in the aisles, oblivious to the fact that they are blocking traffic in two directions.
Over the years I’ve perfected my get-in, get-out strategy:
- Go early. Avoid Saturday afternoons at your peril!
- Bring a coin for the cart and shopping bags for your stuff.
- Don’t carry a handbag – stay hands-free and pickpocket-proof by slipping your essentials into inner pockets
- Wear comfortable shoes
- “Fill your stomach and empty your bladder!” as my father used to instruct us kids before car trips
- Park strategically near the entrance, right next to the shopping carts
- Pick a cart that doesn’t have a wonky wheel (more art than science)
- Know the store and organize your list accordingly
- Start with the heavy stuff: water and other beverages like wine, proceed to packaged goods, fresh and frozen last.
- Avoid the seasonal section at all costs – this is where the most people are and where you’ll waste time and money buying crap you don’t need.
- When your cart runneth over, proceed to the lineup reserved for pregnant women and handicapped – unlike the parking spots, it is also open to other shoppers and generally goes faster
- Get your bag-packing strategy right. Don’t count on the cashier to do anything more than to push (read: viciously shove) your goods across the bar code reader.
- Breathe deeply and ignore the people behind you (other than handicapped and pregnant) who have half the amount of stuff and are shooting daggers at your back. Take a sick pleasure in teaching them patience and courtesy (good luck with that).
- Pay by card and get the hell outta there
- Unload everything into your trunk
- Return shopping cart for coin
- Drive home, honk horn for helpers to unload
- Plop on sofa and crack open a cold one
So there you have it, my survival guide to the French superstore. Must dash – the cupboard is bare so it’s off to the races!