Going grocery shopping in England? Let me prepare you for the experience, because it's not like shopping in the States. Like much of what I have described for you, it isn't bad...it's just different.
I'll begin with the cart situation. There are four things about the carts - which are called 'trolleys,' by the way - that make are different than what we have in the States. First of all, let me tell you right now that the cart you get is not broken. No matter what store you find yourself shopping, you will no doubt be thinking that you have the bad cart with the bum wheel. But all the carts are the same...and the way the wheels turn every which way is not an indication that something is wrong. The wheels are just like that...trust me on this one. You can stand there at the entrance of the store all day long and try different carts. It will be the same. (Not that I did that or anything...I mean, how foolish would that have looked???)
Before you can get your cart, though, you might have to put a coin in the handle to get it released from being locked. Don't worry...you'll get it back. Similar to the luggage carts at the airport, many of the grocery stores here require a coin to release it, and you get it back when you return it. They even sell key chains with a 'fake' coin on it that you can use to get your cart, and the stores themselves sell the key chains, so it isn't fraud or anything. I have speculated on the reasons why they require the coins at all, and the only one that makes any sense to me is so that the carts get returned. However, it doesn't seem likely that there is a missing cart problem, or at least not in any of the stores where I have encountered this, so it's just my speculation. I don't see a homeless population, nor do I see anyone using carts outside of the parking lots for other reasons. So really, I don't get it. But if you are trying to get a cart from the stall at the entrance and the cart seems stuck to the other one in front of it, don't bother going over to the next row and trying that one. Or the row after that one, either...they aren't stuck together, they are locked. Yanking on them won't help. You'll just look stupid. (Not that I did that, either...again, how foolish would that have looked, yanking on rows of carts, when all that needed to be done was depositing a coin in the handle?)
If you are looking for a cup holder, you aren't going to find that on your cart. That's a good thing, really, because once you see how willy-nilly these carts go, you'll realize that your drink would just be spilled all over the place. Seriously, the base of the wheels rotate a full 360 degrees, independent of each other, and they are NOT in need of oil...they not squeaky and they spin and rotate without ANY drag. Your cart goes sideways at the same time it is moving forward and at the same speed. There's no one-handed pushing, and I can safely say that they are actually difficult to control in comparison to an American cart. In fact, there are different handles on the carts at my favorite store, Sainsbury's. The handles raise up above the straight bar across the front. I've attached a picture to show you...the blue part is what I'm talking about. These handles help you control the cart much more than just the plain straight bar for sure.
The last thing you'll notice is a separate compartment in your cart for your bread and for flowers. True. There is a section at the front of the cart, opposite of the kiddie seat that will hold your baguettes and your flower bunches and keep them from getting squashed. Pretty clever.
Aside from the carts - I mean, trolleys - being different, there aren't many other visible differences that would make you think you aren't in your hometown grocery store in the US. There are only two other things I notice as different when I am there - I mean, as far as what I see when I look around.
The first thing is when I go to buy fruits and veggies. The produce department in every store here is the same in that the produce is in large green bins with flip-open lids that obviously come from the producer. The bin is similar in size and shape to a recycle bin in the US and I assume they use these bins instead of tons of cardboard boxes. Great idea, isn't it? I'm not saying it is straight from the ground, or sloppily thrown in the bin - it is bunched or bagged or packaged just like it is in the States - but it is contained within the bin. The produce department people just roll out a pallet with the green bins stacked, and they set the bins on a slanted display surface, flip open the attached flap lids, and the contents are displayed, ready for the shopper to just take the product out of the bin and place it in the cart. Just like a Dierberg's or an Albertson's or any other store in the US, there are sprinklers above some of the displays, and of course there are bags and ties and scales as well, but there is not a fancy display of each piece, or bunches arranged in rows. It is practical and it works.
The second thing I noticed was the absence of baggers at the checkout. I should first mention that the English are GREAT at not handing out plastic bags for every purchase. They will ask you if need a bag, there are signs reminding you to bring a bag, there are canvas bags for purchase (cheaply) everywhere, and there are no paper bags available. Along this same line of thinking, they have customers bag their own stuff while they check you out. And since this is NOT America, you are probably not buying dozens of items at one time, and if you are, they are not huge and over-sized. I think the absence of baggers can be attributed to two things (and this is just my opinion) that seem to be consistent here. The first is the thing about bags...they don't want to encourage you to use theirs. They want you to bring your own and bag your own stuff. The second is the customer service aspect that is prevalent in the United States and distinctly absent here. That customer service thing is not just my opinion, either. Several of my British friends have commented on the outstanding service they always get in the States as opposed to here. But that's another post for another time.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Grocery Shopping in the UK where I tell you the names of all the food that isn't what you think it is. Or something like that.