Saturday, 19 May 2012

Life in Britain: Grocery-Shopping

I've been wanting to write a little post on grocery stores and shopping in Oxford since we moved here.  Since a new Sainsbury's opened on Banbury Road just the other day, this seemed like a good opportunity to do so.

With the new Sainsbury's (which has taken over the space vacated by Excellar, a lovely, small wine store that went out of business last November, which resulted in our purchasing a great deal of discounted scotch, port, and red wine), Banbury Road now boasts a total of four (count them - four!) grocery stores within a three-block distance of each other.  Now, the first question you may be asking is: why does a residential area need quite so many grocery stores?  And I can only look back at you with a bemused and confused expression.  I have no idea what possessed Sainbury's to think that Banbury road needed another grocery store.  (I should also mention that we have three different pharmacies - er, chemists - two of which are from the same chain.  I also don't know why this is the case).

So, for our grocery shopping, we can now shop at a small Sainsbury's, a small Tesco, a large Marks & Spencer, or a largeish Co-operative Food.  Generally we shop at the Co-op, even though it's the furthest away, because they seem to have the least expensive produce and dairy, the best deals, and good selection.  However, ever since we discovered milk is 20 p cheaper at Tesco, we've started doing our milk runs there.

One thing we learned about grocery stores in Britain is that they are moving towards self-service checkouts much more quickly than in Saskatoon.  I used to be rather resentful of self-service checkouts at home - wasn't this really just a cost-saving for the store?  Also, it's often nice to deal with real people, as opposed to waiting and waiting for the supervisor to authorize having your backpack sit on the scale or confirm that you are old enough to buy alcohol.  Or, for that matter, plastic knives (the UK has had recent problems with youth knife crime - but plastic knives, really?)

However, I think I've become a convert.  I can pack up my bag (they don't seem to offer bagging as a service over here) at my own pace and pay at my own pace, because there generally isn't anyone waiting for my till.  Also, every now and then, there just aren't any tills manned (womanned?) by actual human beings.  Alas.  Also, I've gotten very good at tuning out the robotic voice asking me if I want cash back.

Now, positives and negatives.  In general, food here is more expensive than it is at home.  However, certain products are happily less expensive.  Italian and French cheese, for instance.  Also wine and spirits, probably in part because they don't have Saskatchewan's price controls on them.  As an illustration: at home, you can get a nice bottle of wine for about $12-16/~£7.5-10 (we aren't too picky, as you can see).  Here, we can walk into the Co-op any day of the week and chances are that a wine we like that would have sat in that price range at home has been marked down to £5/~$8.  There isn't as much selection, but when you can get a nice bottle of wine for that price, we're not complaining.

Also, at home, liquor is sold in Liquor Board Stores or, more expensively, at off sales.  Here, there's a wine, beer, and cider section in every grocery store, even small ones.  Liquor actually makes up a pretty good chunk of the store.  That was rather strange to get used to at first.

Negatives.  There are certain things you just can't get in the UK very easily.  One thing that Tim sometimes misses is blueberry jam.  They do have many, many kinds of marmalade and strawberry, raspberry, tangerine, and blackberry jam.  (My folks bought Tim a jar of blueberry jam from Fortnum & Mason while they were here.)  It seems applesauce, one of my stand-by healthy snacks at home, is only available as an expensive sauce for pork in small containers.  There is a lot more instant coffee sold here than at home, and the grounds you can buy just don't make very strong coffee.  We have of course solved this problem by having kind parents bring us cans of Tim Hortons.

There's also the strange fact that you sometimes cannot find simple things at any given grocery store.  For example, if we want to make pastichio (a heavenly Greek lasagna), we need to hit up about four different stores for ingredients.  I can get wheat-free penne at the big Tesco in city centre, tomato paste from the small Tesco in Banbury, romano cheese from M&S, and the rest of the ingredients from the Co-op.  At home, it was very seldom that you had to look at more than one grocery store for the necessary ingredients.  Luckily, as I mentioned off the top, we now have four stores in close proximity to each other.  It still boggles the mind.

Postscript: Since moving here, Tim has become a big crumpet fan.  Neither of us, however, has tried marmite.


  1. When we visited England I was super impressed by the selection of ready made (veggie) sandwiches at all the grocery and corner stores. And I also love crumpets!


  2. They are very good for ready-to-go meals and snacks. Also, I love the Innocent Smoothies (esp. the strawberry and banana) but I usually save them for a treat.