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Going to the grocery store in another country is a fun, cultural experience. As an American grocery shopping in France, there were definitely some things that initially surprised me.
Here’s what you can expect at the grocery store in France as well as a few handy tips to make your experience better. This post is based primarily on my experience in Paris supermarkets, although I’ve also lived in and visited other regions of France.
Reusable Shopping Bags
Make sure you grab a few shopping bags on your way out of the house. Plastic bags are often available at checkout but you’ll need to shell out at least 10 euro cents due to the French government’s war on single-use plastic bags.
Many people bring large shopping bags or even rolling shopping carts. Personally, I’m a fan of the cart. I think they’re so handy! It’s definitely a generational thing though. Those *ahem* of a certain age, tend to gravitate towards the practical cart while young, cool people (clearly not me) tend to prefer the challenge of balancing 10 items in their arms.
Most often, those who have the foresight to bring their own bag or caddy typically place items for purchase directly in their bags while shopping instead of grabbing a store cart or basket. While this seems to be common practice in most stores, not all stores allow it. Sometimes you’ll see a sign at the entrance indicating where you must leave your shopping cart, so take note.
I remember going to Walmart with Jonathan for the first time and he put a couple items in our reusable shopping bag. I got nervous because I was so sure someone was going to think that we were stealing. In the States, where I’m from at least, you would never put things in your bag before purchasing them!
American supermarkets tend to be organized by purpose. For example, baking chocolate is with the baking stuff while chocolate for eating can usually be found with the candy. On the other hand, French grocery stores are typically organized by the type of product. So in France, all the chocolate is in the same aisle. This has taken some getting used to and every once in a while I have to go through an extra step to logically think about where certain items might be located.
I’ve been able to find just about everything I need here in France for cooking and baking but here are some things that I bring back to France from the United States to round out what I cannot find.
Dairy & Egg Storage
Milk, cream, and eggs are all unrefrigerated in France. You can find a small selection of fresh milk in the refrigerated section, but most milk in France is shelf stable. Dairy products go through a different process here than in the States. In France, milk and cream are UHT (ultra high temperature) processed.
Eggs are a whole other story. In the US, eggs are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized which removes their natural protective coating, leaving the shell vulnerable and porous. Therefore, they must be refrigerated to discourage bacteria from growing. In France, the eggs are not processed at all which leaves behind their natural protective coating, allowing them to be safely stored at room temperature. Additionally, hens are required to be vaccinated against salmonella, further protecting consumers.
In France, if you do not want to buy the whole six pack of soda, feel free to savagely rip open the plastic and take out just a can or two. I only recommend this tip for drinks wrapped in plastic: milk, soda, juice, etc. I would advise against shredding cardboard in the store.
Apparently, there is some law or rule where the customer cannot be obligated to buy a certain quantity of a product. In other words, there has to be an option to buy a product à l’unité (individually) in France. This is why you see specially marked “promo” multipacks of items right next to the regular packs, because French people should not be forced to save money by buying more. That would infringe upon their liberties.
Here’s the legal code if you’re interested!
In general, the sizes of products are smaller in France. The “family pack” here is the regular size in the States. And yes, I know I live in a city where smaller sizes are often the norm, but I have been to grocery stores outside of Paris. I have yet to go to the mythical Costco just outside of Paris and would be curious to know what the dimensions of the shampoo are out there.
Just a Grocery Store
Most grocery stores in France are just grocery stores. Don’t go there with the expectation of running all your errands in one place.
In particular, while many supermarkets in the States have a built-in, robust pharmacy with plenty of health care products, including over-the-counter medicines, this is not the case in France. The selection will often be much more limited. This is regulated by French law in order to protect pharmacies. Go to the pharmacy. It’s an experience in and of itself.
Additionally, it should be noted that while you can get cheese and cuts of meat at the grocery store, the quality at the cheese shop and the butcher is obviously going to be much better.
Fruits & Vegetables
In most French grocery stores, you need to weigh your fruits and vegetables yourself. There is a scale in the fresh produce section where you can print a little sticker off. Failure to do so can result in more than a few eye rolls at checkout. I’ve only been to a few stores in Paris that had a balance at the register.
While there are pre-packaged produce items in France, there is almost always the option to buy it individually. Honestly, I like that I can buy a single potato or two carrots if I want to. So many things come pre-packaged in American supermarkets and you have no choice but to buy the 5-pound bag of potatoes.
Recently, I discovered that you can go through self checkout in Paris without fear of being carded when purchasing wine and beer. Hard alcohol usually has a big safety cap over the top so I imagine something happens when you try to smuggle that through the self checkout, or else you’ll just have a rough time opening your bottle at the party later.
Of course, the drinking age is 18 here, but I thought for sure some bell would go off when I scanned my bottle (ok, bottleS) of red. In the United States, an alarm goes off when certain products are purchased through self checkout, namely alcohol and cough syrup. A manager has to come over and scan their card or punch in a code. It’s a whole production. Nothing of the sort happened here.
By the way, can someone explain to me what the youngins are doing with cough syrup these days? You know what? Nevermind. I don’t want to know.
There are no baggers at checkout so you have to bag your own items while they chuck them to you all willy nilly. I hate inconveniencing people so I always find it a bit awkward. It’s hard to keep up with the bagging so inevitably, you’re going to make someone wait a bit. Truth be told, most people just take their sweet old time and I shouldn’t stress about it.
Have you ever been grocery shopping in France? What are some things that you noticed?