Welcome to Switzerland! I guess you’re going to want to find some food to eat, right? It’s either that or eat at restaurants all the time, and that’s going to get pretty pricey quickly. The good news is that there are plenty of supermarkets here, and they’re generally well stocked (some even have little sections for homesick foreigners with things like Marmite and Bisto). Both of the major supermarket chains are actually cooperatives, but you wouldn’t know that from day to day. Yes, one of them is called Coop, but Coop is less famous for being a co-op than Migros.
You’ll find meat is pretty – no, very – expensive, but Harsh Truth Time – it’s expensive because people here generally like their meat to be locally raised and humanely treated, and there’s very little of the “race to the bottom” in price that you find elsewhere. As raising meat is a labour-intensive task and labour is expensive here due to the annoying Swiss habit of paying a living wage, and as there just isn’t the space for large-scale livestock rearing due to all the mountains, yeah, this is a good time to reduce your meat intake. I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s not that meat is too expensive here relative to income, it’s that it’s too cheap elsewhere.
Anyway, I digress. Let’s assume you have found your supermarket, you’ve found it open (extra marks for being a competent enough expat to know that you might need to look the hours up), and you’ve put some things you want to buy into your trolley. If you’re really new to this you’ll have spent some minutes during your visit staring and thinking “My goodness. That really is a lot of (yoghurt/cheese/Dar-Vida/Zopf/energy drinks/chocolate).” You’re probably wondering what this Rivella stuff there is so much of on the shelves is too. All you need to know is that you should pick a colour of Rivella as your favourite and stick to it religiously, even if you never actually buy it.
If you’re in Migros you’ve probably also spent 20 minutes looking for the beer and wine. For legal reasons they keep it in an unmarked back room. Ask a member of staff. They might detect your foreign accent and pretend the room doesn’t exist – this is because they’ve had too many bad experiences with visiting foreigners starting fights at the checkout after getting tanked up on cheap Migros “M-Budget” booze. Make it clear that you’re not a tourist and be persistent and they’ll eventually show you where to go.
Ready meals are limited in scope and availability. As far as Swiss society is concerned, single men live entirely on Red Bull (well, M-Budget Energy Drink) and cigarettes. They get their mum to cook them something more solid at the weekend, or they go off for army training and get fed there. Everyone else is either a woman and therefore either a housewife or a member of the Federal Council (but should be able to cook either way) or a man (who has women to cook for him).
There are a few tricks you need to know in order to blend in at the checkout, so I figured I’d help you out by outlining them here.
- In general, the number of checkouts that are open will be the number that is needed for the current customer load minus one. Hiring people is expensive, so hiring them to sit behind checkouts doing nothing but twiddling their thumbs is a waste. And waste is a sin.
- Once you get to the checkout, put your stuff on the conveyor. So far so good.
- When it’s your turn, you must greet the cashier with the most terse, cursory “Grüezi” you can gather. Anything more is dangerously effusive. Not greeting them at all, however, is unthinkably rude. If you’re one of those foreigners who thinks it’s okay to yak on your cellphone through a transaction like this, you should be ashamed and people will roll their eyes at you for being so rude.
- The cashier will probably select one of two or three bins at the bottom of the checkout to propel your purchases into at high speed. Under no circumstances should you start packing your bags during the scanning period. Instead, stand watching the cashier.
- Once all your purchases have been scanned, the cashier will ask if you have a loyalty card. (“Cumulus?” if you’re in Migros, “Supercard?” in Coop.) Dig around in your bag for a while and hand them the wrong card. Everyone does this at least once – they’re both blue, and both major chains have orange logos, so it’s easy to confuse them.
- The cashier will ask you for money. When this happens you must look extraordinarily surprised (understandable, as a lot of transactions in Switzerland just involve sending you a bill a few weeks later).
- Start scrabbling around in your bag to see if you have any of this “money” stuff with you. Take your time. When you find it, you must do one of the following:
- Pay with a thousand franc note
- Spend 5 minutes carefully counting out the exact amount down to the last 5 rappen. For maximum points, lose your place halfway through and have to start again.
- If the amount is, say, Fr17.00, giving the cashier a 20 franc note plus the 7 francs in coins you have because it makes for less fiddly change will confuse them. They’re trained professionals – it’s not your job to be creative about making change. It’s not impossible that they’ll frown at it, point out to you that it was 17 francs, not 27, hand you back the coins and make Fr3 change out of the 20.
- You may be asked “Sammeln Sie Märkli?”. This is for the advanced course only. For the time being, unless you want a number of small stickers it’s safe to answer “Nein, danke”. If you want to bluff your way in being Swiss, enthusiastically accept and count them carefully. They’re basically savings stamps – you know the sort of thing, fill up 2 cards and get a half-price casserole.
- You’re done! Oh wait, no. You need to pack your shopping.
- First, however, now is the perfect time to empty your pockets, tidy your bag, and be sure your wallet or purse is well organised. Again, take your time.
- This is the point where the multiple compartments at the end of the checkout become clear. The cashier will start serving the next customer, but will propel their groceries into a different compartment to prevent cross-contamination.
- Start packing your shopping now. I hope you brought a shopping bag to put it in or you bought a paper bag for 30 rappen at the checkout, as otherwise all there are for free are small, very flimsy bags designed to hold a sandwich and a drink and not much more. Don’t complain – using new shopping bags every time is regarded as extremely wasteful in environmentally-conscious Switzerland. Instead get used to carrying one with you.
- Your target time for finishing packing your shopping is about 10 seconds after the cashier has to cycle back round to the compartment your groceries are in. If they don’t have to do some weird gymnastics like putting things on the side of the conveyor so they don’t drop all the way down and get stuck in with your stuff, you packed too fast. Try to relax next time and don’t be in such a rush, okay?