September 25, 2008

The Tengelmann Challenge

Grocery shopping in Germany is not like shopping at, say, Whole Foods or even Safeway in the US. For one thing, German stores have limited opening hours and are never open on Sunday. However, this - claim shop people who don't have to work on Sunday - is intended to encourage more time for family and friends. The selection of goods is also more limited, which requires more work on your part, such as you have to de-stone your Kalamata olives, wash your lettuce and cut your feta cheese into small squares to make a Greek salad. This requires some open-mindedness (just because a country doesn't have pre-washed lettuce doesn't mean it's a bad place), but the basic ingredients are available so it isn’t an insurmountable challenge.

The most striking difference is the level of service. In the US someone puts your groceries into bags as they are being rung up, which means that two whole people (and sometimes three) are helping you navigate the check out process. Sometimes you even get an offer of help to the car.

Tengelmann is one of the better (read ‘more expensive’) German grocery stores that has a few luxury items like sardine-filled olives and real cheddar cheese, as well as an in-house bakery and butcher. The people who work at Tengelmann are unfriendly by American customer service standards, although it is possible to elicit a small amount of tepid approval from the cashier if you manage not to hold up the line. This isn’t easy because you have to both unload and bag your own groceries and inevitably you’ve just started bagging when the cashier starts ringing up the next person’s things. Oh, you have to have your own bags, too, and forgetting them creates lots of unpleasantness because the cashier keeps ringing things through and your stuff gets mixed up with the next person’s stuff while you’re trying to figure out how many items you can carry without a bag. As often as not the person behind you is an impatient elderly woman who pushes her cart at you while you’re struggling to pay and get out of there. Having small children with you does nothing to soften people toward you, either, like it would in Italy or most other places in the world, because Germans aren’t interested in extenuating circumstances.

However, I don’t want to paint an overly negative picture because small triumphs are possible, especially if the person in front of you is less competent than you are. Just the other day I dropped in at Tengelmann to pick up something I had forgotten and found myself behind a Japanese guy with his arms full of gummy bears and multi-vitamins. He didn’t speak German and actually tried to pay with a credit card! Fortunately he also had cash and was eventually sent on his way with his odd purchases. For my part, I couldn’t help feeling smug as I pulled out the shopping bag I had remembered to bring and the EC card which is accepted as legal tender at Tengelmann. The cashier awarded my preparedness with a small nod of approval and remarked, ‘Those idiotic foreigners! It seems like there are more of them every day.’

1 comment:

  1. It sure makes you feel good when you are awarded the title of a "non-foreigner"! By the way, I am delighted by the friendliness of American people - helping you to your car??? That's amazing! Here in Greece our shopping situation is similar to Germany: The lettuce is unwashed (the prospect of washed lettuce seems out-of-this-world to me), the feta is not cut up, the olives have stones and everything, and of course you have to fill your own bags. Add to that the Greek tendency to disobey the rules and skip the line (and also the fact that people seem to remember they need more things and rush to fetch them right at the moment when they where supposed to pay, get out and get the line going), and shopping can become a totally frustrating experience.


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