If you want to know more about someone, go and look in their fridge. If you want to know more about a country, go and look in their supermarket. There you will not only find out about the most common shopping routines of the locals, but also other hints about their culture. Is it clean or dirty? Is it organized or a mess? Do you feel good in there or more like running away? I like Swedish supermarkets and, believe it or not, that did have some weight on my decision of moving here.
When I was small I had a childhood best friend who I only saw on the weekends because we didn’t live in the same neighborhood. She was the youngest of five and together with her brothers and sisters built a play supermarket. They saved empty boxes, jars, and packages, and the result was as realistic as it could get when you are a child. I loved it. I joined them in the play many times and I was only sorry that I couldn’t spend as many hours there as they were allowed to.
That experience ended up having a significant influence in my life since I love going to the supermarket still today. Every time I travel to a new country I have to go to a supermarket and look. For me, it is just as important as any other sight or museum. And maybe I have learned as much about other cultures this way.
For instance, in Brazil, I found loads of fresh tropical fruits but the meat was sometimes green. In Argentina, just south of Brazil, I found fantastic meat but the fruit section was not as interesting. In Italy the supermarkets are noisy while in Finland they are so quiet, one can hear a pin hitting the floor.
What can we learn about Sweden by visiting a Swedish supermarket?
The experience is influenced by other factors, such as location and size both of the city and of the supermarket, and it can also vary within different stores. However, if you take a local average supermarket you can find all the hints you were looking for.
Organized and clean
The supermarkets are well organized, with well-marked sections for the different types of products. So is Sweden. The supermarkets are in general very clean. So is Sweden.
Technology and smart ideas
Swedes love smart and simple ideas, especially the ones that make life easier and less complicated. There are quite a few examples in the supermarket. The coin-counting machine at the cashier, that protects employees from the dirtiness of money and saves them the trouble of counting a lot of coins. The split conveyor belt, that allows you to pack your things without trouble or rush, as the cashier can just send the next costumer’s products to the other side. The guess-the-vegetable scales, that although are not yet in all supermarkets can be found in more and more. The self-scanning and self-payment machines, that make our lives so much easier every day.
Easy and efficient payment
In most supermarkets, there are many payment options available. One can scan while shopping and just pay at the end. One can scan and pay alone at the end. One can simply go to the regular queue and have a cashier do the scanning. There’s also membership cards, from more simple to more advanced, that work as credit cards. All of these combined with some of the technology described above make it so that shopping for groceries is simple and easy.
I don’t think I have ever been in a queue here for more than 10 minutes and I finally understood why my Swedish boyfriend always gets so annoyed by the long wait in other countries.
EKO, EKO, EKO
The Swedish concern about the environment is well expressed in the supermarkets. For almost every kind of product, there is a more ecologic version of it, whether it is in the section of fresh produce, staples, toiletries, or others.
Not noisy, not quiet
There’s no constant advertisement on the loudspeakers, which make the supermarkets a quiet place. Although, they are not as quiet so it gets uncomfortable. I would say they usually have a good amount of noise. Just like any other public place in Sweden.
Big variety and international food
I have heard a few times from Swedes that two decades ago the variety of produce in the supermarkets was quite limited. Things have changed and the supermarkets here, especially the larger ones, have a huge variety of products. That also means that the international section is usually quite large. There is a big range of Mexican products (Swedes love their tacos and tortillas), a decent Asian section, good Mediterranean and middle-eastern ingredients, among others. This is probably a result of the multicultural population of Sweden but is also one of the reasons why foreigners enjoy it here.
The truth is once one moves abroad you will never stop missing some things, whether it is from home or from other visited countries. I miss food, ingredients, and dishes from each place I have lived in. In Sweden, I can start missing a certain dish, spend the day dreaming about it and then go to the supermarket and cook it in the evening. This was not possible until I moved here.
Do you have a similar relationship with Swedish supermarkets? Have you spotted any other cultural hints that I might have missed?