Grocery shopping isn’t much different in Germany as it is in the US, however, there are a number of things that we’ve had to adjust to since moving into our apartment. The biggest difference is size. Space is at a premium and grocery stores are significantly smaller in Berlin compared to almost anywhere outside of Manhattan in the US.
Combine that with our tiny fridge and we usually shop for only 2-3 days at a time.
Our apartment building has a higher-end (in German terms) grocery store right across the street (ReWe). Additionally a discount store (Netto) is a block and a half away. In total, we have 4 grocery stores within a short walk from our apartment.
Much like the US, there is a distinct hierarchy of grocery stores in Germany. Having said that, we’ve found that the neighborhood you are in also has a big influence on quality, selection, cleanliness, and friendliness of staff.
Aldi, Lidl, and Netto dominate this space.
Aldi (parent company of Trader Joe’s) is the cheapest of the cheap with almost no brand names and hit or miss produce. They also sell a weird selection of non-grocery items; like cheap printers, phones, bikes, and lawn furniture. Speaking of Trader Joe’s, you’ll occasionally find the odd Trader Joe’s branded item in an Aldi. I can only imagine the number of miles something like that has to travel to make it to the bargain bin of an Aldi in Berlin.
The Netto outlet in our neighborhood isn’t bad and we’ve used it for staples as they are significantly cheaper than the other stores in our area. These types of stores are no-frills outlets usually with large boxes of stuff cut opened and stacked on the floor or on large shelves.
ReWe, Kaiser, Edeka
I’ve only been in one Edeka and it was a dump. ReWe is our go-to store and the 2 out of 3 Kaiser’s we’ve been to have been fantastic; large for German standards and lots of selection. The third one I’ll write off as an anomaly.
Turkish markets have an abundance of high quality fresh produce available year-round that is usually cheaper than elsewhere. Sadly, the closest one to our apartment is a bus ride away so we haven’t really availed ourselves of this option.
Super High End
If you want to splurge, the enormous KaDeWe department store has a grand food hall on its top floor comparable to Harrods in London. You can buy hard to find American staples like marshmallows and taco kits for an exorbitant mark-up. A box of US-imported cereal can run you around 13 Euro! They also have just about every meat, seafood, and cheese product imaginable along with impeccable produce.
If you get tired of shopping or dizzy from the prices, there are about a dozen little bar/food stands littered throughout the floor that serve excellent, albeit pricey, beer and hot food.
Similar to KaDeWe, some Karstadt department stores also have a grocery section called Perfetto.
There are Bio (organic) stores in most neighborhoods although we haven’t yet shopped in any of them. Many shopping centers will have 2 grocery stores: One will be a regular chain like Kaiser and the other will be a Bio right next door.
Having lived in California for the past 10 years, we were spoiled by year-round, local, organic produce. Yet, even in California, we often paid a premium for shopping this way. We were curious to find out what kinds of fruits and vegetables would be available in Germany and how much organic selection there would be.
To our surprise, even in the tail-end of March, the selection of fruits and vegetables was good. Not comparable to California, but we wholly expected that. As we’ve moved into Spring, selections have become more diverse.
Fruit has been coming from Spain except for grapes which mostly come from India. Vegetables usually come from Spain, Holland or are locally produced. Currently, stuff like tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces have been coming from the miles and miles of greenhouses in Holland.
The quality of vegetables has been very good, although fruit has been hit-or-miss. I expect that to improve as the Spring and Summer months get into full swing.
Organic products are widely available in most stores and the markup is comparable with California.
Beer and Wine
We haven’t paid more than six Euros for any bottle of wine in a grocery store and have been satisfied with over 90% of our purchases. Beer is cheap and plentiful and mostly high quality. No complaints here.
In grocery stores, most wine is from Spain and Italy with France and Germany making up nearly the rest. California, South Africa, and South America wines are available but in very limited quantities.
Universally, you have to deposit a Euro coin to get a shopping cart. When you’re done, you hook the cart back up to the one in front of it and you get your coin back. The benefits of this are that everyone puts their cart back where they belong to get their deposit back and cart theft is virtually non-existent.
In a city of 3.5 million, I have seen a total of two abandoned shopping carts.
By contrast, in the US, it’s popular for retailers to employ complicated wheel lock systems where the cart locks up if you get too far away from the store. The abundance of shopping carts strewn around the Bay Area leads me to believe that this is a less than perfect system.
Bags are never free, you usually pay around 20 cents for a plastic bag. However, they are actually re-usable. Big, thick plastic bags that will last for months. Some stores also sell cloth bags for about a Euro but these tend to be smaller than plastic. Paper bags, as far as I can tell, do not exist.
Check-out clerks are always seated and never bag your groceries. It’s very rare for there to be more than one or two check-out lanes open even if people start stacking up 10-12 deep. It doesn’t really matter; clerks are fast and expect you to be just as efficient with bagging and paying. If you have a lot of stuff, you just grab it once it’s been scanned, put it back in your cart, and, once you have paid, move to a designated area to bag.
Unlike in France or Belgium, we’ve never gotten grief for not having exact change or paying with too big a bill.
You pay a deposit for almost all plastic drink bottles and beer bottles (Pfandflasche). Every store that sells bottles like this is obliged to have an automated machine that takes your empties and gives you a receipt that you give to the check-out clerk for your deposit back. You can either put it toward what you are buying or just give it to the clerk for cash back.
- Red pepper flakes, chili flakes, hot sauce and the like are pretty rare. Most things labeled spicy (würzig, sharf, pikant) are far milder than we are used to. We’ll probably have better luck in a Turkish or Asian market finding stuff like this.
- Nuts are also harder to find and much more expensive.
- Salty junk food and snack items in general are more expensive. Not that we’re complaining as, conversely, cookies are more diverse and cheaper than in the US.
- Most stores, even the discount ones, have small separate bakeries attached that sell everything from coffee and sandwiches to baguettes and danishes.