Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Little Things: Shopping

The day after I got off the plane to start life in Hamburg I was in Larry’s office, meeting some of his coworkers and hearing about their experiences. One of his American teammates told a funny story about a tug-of-war struggle to return a woman’s grocery cart for her.

Turns out you have to use a coin to release shopping carts from their stalls, and you get your coin back when you return the cart to the stall. So he thought he was doing her a favor, and she probably thought he was trying to steal her money.

I wondered how many adjustments I would have to make in my shopping quests here…

Thankfully, my food-shopping travails had more to do with finding what I needed/wanted than anything else. Instead, my first real shopping adjustment was the speed of checkout.

It’s no joke—you do not want an annoyed German giving you the stink-eye!

There are no baggers at checkout and cashiers ring things through at breakneck speeds, so if there are people behind you in line, you’ll find yourself hauling butt to unload things as quickly as possible onto the belt and then scoop them back into your cart as they come shooting past the cashier.

The first few times I went shopping I just carried things in my backpack or reusable bags as I shopped, but found it too slow and awkward at checkout. The people behind you don’t hang back and wait for you to pack up, and the cashiers don’t wait for you to move your stuff before they start sending the next person’s items your way.  
Stores facilitate this process by having open areas past the registers with counters where you can take your items from your grocery cart and pack them into your personal shopping trolley and/or reusable shopping bags at a more leisurely pace. (If you don’t bring your own bags you grab some at checkout and throw them on the belt to pay for along with your food).

So I started using a shopping cart and using the counters to load things into my reusable bags. A slight improvement, but as I explored stores further out to find items I needed, it meant a long and heavy walk home or an unsteady ride on my bike.

Eventually I broke down and bought a shopping trolley. I had resisted because I didn’t want to be one of those middle-aged ladies lugging one of those things around. But I am, and now I have my shopping cart/shopping trolley routine down and can shop with the best of them. J

One big difference here in Hamburg is the split between convenience stores--similar to Walgreens or CVS--and the Apotheke. Unlike the U.S., if you need any type of medication, you go to the Apotheke. This is not a self-serve environment for much more than aspirin and toothpaste, however. Whether it’s an over-the-counter ointment for athlete’s foot or a prescription drug, you’ll have to tell the clerk at the counter what you need.

(Thankfully I have not had any ailments yet that require an Apotheke visit.)

I’m a strong believer in retail therapy. Not necessarily buying, but stalking the stores nonetheless. As I mentioned before, I had a bit of sticker shock in my preliminary scouting of downtown Hamburg. Where was my Ross equivalent? My deluxe thrift store?

An online search yielded uneven results, including several recycled clothing stores for kids, a “TH Maxx” (which, upon inspection is a rundown version of the U.S. TJ Maxx), and some vintage stores which turn out to be far too pricey. But further exploration led me to an affordable recycled clothing store that benefits OxFam, and introduced me to clothing-by-the-kilo in a couple of other stores.

Which is good, because it turns out there are some affordable clothing stores (aside from the omnipresent H&M) in the large shopping centers, but I find these 5- and 6-level malls to be overwhelming!

Wherever you're shopping, in many stores it’s expected that you’ll give a greeting when you enter. At first I feared this would mean a hovering presence, eager to try to upsell me on the latest Angebot (offer/deal), but you’re pretty much left to your own devices. (On the flip side, depending on the size of the store, you might be hard-pressed to find someone when you have a question).

Obviously I don’t need new office wear at the moment, but I did reduce my wardrobe by 2/3 for the move, so there’s definitely room to keep exploring and find some new favorites. J

Yes, online shoppers, there is an Amazon.de and it has Prime. But the entertainment offering isn’t as broad as Amazon.com and a lot of sellers offer free shipping anyway, so your real advantage is quick shipping.

I used Amazon.de to get our electrical transformers and a handful of hard-to-find items, but sadly, even for the non-luxury American brands you pay a premium that makes online less viable than in the U.S. (You also have to beware of customs charges on certain items, so stand-bys like eBay can mean extra costs that double or triple the price of what you want to buy).
This is why I brought a box of Bisquick 
back in my luggage after my Christmas visit.

I did find a bright spot for online shopping, however.

After a particularly grueling bus ride lugging a new litter box, large bag of kitty litter, and large bag of cat food home, I searched online for pet supply delivery and found zooplus.de. Since the nearest pet store is not at all nearby (hence the bus ride), it’s been a godsend. And zooplus takes PayPal, so I don’t have to go through the 5 security steps it takes to use my German debit card online (seriously, it's ridiculous).

A lot of the little differences are things you’d find in any move to a new area where you're scoping out unfamiliar stores and comparison shopping. But here there are also the cultural differences and, of course, language. (Like understanding that you're not allowed to use the hand basket to gather your groceries and then transfer them to your bags, or that the trainee cashier mis-scanned something and you owe an extra $0.04 on your groceries, or that you can earn points on a frequent shopper card toward a 30 Euro shopping trip...)

And for Americans, unless you’ve lived in the South or the "Bible Belt," it may take some getting used to the fact that stores—including grocery stores--are closed on Sundays.

I’ve adjusted my shopping habits accordingly, although restaurants are open, and if you’re desperate for food you can go to one of the big train stations, since they’re always open for the convenience of people passing through.

But my next task is to make note of German holidays, which also close down the stores, no matter the day of the week or number of days. Because getting to the nearest Bahnhof to pick up a few things at the last minute is not my idea of a fun shopping experience… 

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