Don’t come to Germany for the supermarkets. Come for the Weißwursts, Volkornbrot and Leberkäse. Come for specialist corner shops that sell only Wildfleisch (wild game). Come for wine merchants which stock the world’s finest Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling. But don’t come for the supermarkets.
Britain long ago surrendered itself to supermarkets and the popular myth is that they ruined the place. The Temples of Consumerism have caused much damage: loss of neighbourhood grocers and butchers, strangulation of the High Street, erosion of green field sites, increase in vehicle traffic. But these negative points must be seen in context. British supermarkets offer customers vast choice, convenience and competitive pricing. Likewise in the States, Canada and especially France where a visit to a hypermarché can be a culinary adventure par excellence.
In contrast Germany doesn’t do supermarkets, or at least it doesn’t do them well. There are of course biggish, one-stop shops like Lidl, Edeka, REWE and Kaufland which sell all the standard food stuffs. Customers push around their trolleys and buy their pork, pickles, bread and yoghurt, considering themselves lucky if they saved a few pfennings on a box of Müsli. But there the similarity ends. If shoppers want a real bargain, or fancy something out of the ordinary, something new, then they need to make tracks for somewhere else.
In Germany it’s the supermarket – not the customer – which dictates what goods are on sale. Special offers tend to be pitiful. There are no ‘deep discount’ loss leaders. And finally few shops stay open until a time that’s convenient for the working man or woman.
What does this tell us about German society? First, many German women – especially outside the large cities -- are housewives who do the family’s shopping. They trek between local stores then hurry home to look after the kids and cook the family supper. (Bear in mind also that school starts here as early as eight o’clock and usually ends around lunchtime, keeping many mothers out of full-time employment -- an outdated structure which harks back to an agrarian age when children helped in the fields).
Second, German home cooking isn’t adventurous. In North America and Australia, mass immigration has ensured that supermarkets stock a wide range of ‘ethnic’ foods. Likewise the British, with the revolution in their international travel habits, brought a taste for the foreign home from their holidays. At my old local Tesco’s in rural Somerset for example I could always find Thai green curry paste, Mexican tacos, Japanese soya sauce and prepared Jamaican jerk chicken. On the rare occasions when I couldn’t locate a specific item, Customer Services would order it for me.
Third, Germany – for historical and geographic reasons – has resisted absorbing (and being changed by) the culture of its ethnic minorities. These days Britain’s national dish is considered to be chicken tikka massala (chicken tikka is an Indian dish, the massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of Brits to have their meat served in gravy). Many, many more Brits now eat Indian food than roast beef on Sundays. But I know a Bavarian who would rather drown himself in a vat of Paulaner Hefe-Weißbier than accept that Turkish babaganush might become more popular than bratwurst.
Fourth, food is more functional in Germany than it is in, say, France. The French live to eat but the Germans, like the Scots, eat to live.
Fifth, Germans are conservative and loyal to their local shops. In contrast the Brits are willing to be seduced by loss leaders and convenience.
Sixth – and importantly, most Germans don’t want vast supermarkets…at least not yet. The English nation-of-shop-keepers chose to become a nation of convenience shoppers. No one forced them to forsake their local High Street and join a traffic jam on the by-pass outside their nearest megastore.
Perhaps German supermarkets will improve over time, but any change will only come about through customer demand. And there’s the rub. As usual I’m willing to do my part, starting now at my local Lidl. At the customer service desk I’ll politely ask them to order me a big jar of Patak’s mango chutney or Marshmallow Fluff… So why are German readers laughing at my suggestion? Because most German supermarkets do not have a Customer Service desk. And if they did, they’d probably tell me to go shop somewhere else.