13 February 2009

About Australian Grocery Stores

A trip to the grocery store doesn’t exactly constitute an ‘adventure’, but it is an activity worthy of comment, if only for purposes of cultural compare and contrast. Indeed a perusal of commercially available provisions in any foreign country is an enlightening if not confounding experience. I once spent hours in a grocery store in Zimbabwe marveling over bags of unidentifiable ingredients and calculating exchange rates – of course, that was back when grocery stores in Zimbabwe actually had groceries on the shelves, and one did not require a 24-digit calculator in order to perform monetary conversions. The procurement of basic sustenance and household items is a hot topic of discussion among expatriates, rivaled only, perhaps, by lengthy tirades bemoaning the dominance of cricket coverage on television. (Sometimes, when a game has been suspended due to inclement weather, they still broadcast hours of footage of beer drinking spectators staring wishfully at an empty pitch.)

For Americans, the most confounding aspect of Australian grocery stores is their location. It is extremely unusual (although not unheard of) to find a free standing grocery store with a sprawling asphalt parking lot. Most often, a grocery store is located within a congested shopping center surrounded by a convoluted multi-leveled garage. Frequently, grocery stores serve as the anchor shops for full-on malls, much like Macy’s or JCPenney in the States. Large malls may even have two or more competing stores, though it should be noted that there are really only two major competitors for the Aussie grocery dollar – Coles and Woolworth’s (shortened, of course, to Woolie’s and not to be confused with long underwear, the latter seldom offering avocados at 2 for $5.)

One might be tempted to assume that there is no drama associated with a grocery store being located in a mall, except one might also be tempted to assume there would be an outside entrance to such a store. There is not. Access to the market is typically deep within the center of the mall and often involves transcending levels by means of cramped lifts or long sloping escalators (more on those in a bit). Despite the inconvenience, I think it is a brilliant business model: arrive with the intention of simply buying milk and Tim-Tams, and on impulse, go home with a pair of trainers, a new doona, and a hamster (if you follow one link, make it this one!). I don’t know why Westfield has yet to implement this strategy in any of the multitude of defunct malls they have snapped up in dying US townships.

It is a popular pastime in America to lament the demise of small bakeries, butcher shops, and green grocers, these having been forced out of business by large conglomerate chains. Such is not the case in Australia, and indeed these shops are thriving, despite charging far more for their goods and being located immediately outside the entrance to the big stores. I cannot offer much in the way of an explanation for their success in such proximity to their cost cutting competitors, except that they typically offer goods of considerably higher quality and the shopping experience itself is more friendly, more nourishing to the soul than a hectic expedition through crammed narrow aisles stocked with too many choices of lesser evils.
And speaking of evil, that brings me to shopping carts, or trolley’s as they are called here (in New Zealand, they are known as ‘trundlers’, a word I adore and am striving to permanently incorporate into my vocabulary even though trundlers are just as evil as trolleys.) Perhaps evil is too strong of a descriptor, but they are most certainly possessed with a strong will of their own, owing to the fact that all four wheels turn independently and seldom in the same direction at once, such that navigating a corner often resembles a graceless modern ballet of flesh partnered with steel. If you have the misfortune of being parked on a level that is not flush with the store entrance, then you must negotiate your obstinate trolley onto a sloping escalator. The carts and escalators are cleverly engineered such that the wheels lock into place. However, being built and maintained by humans, there are occasional malfunctions. I have seen many frightened pedestrians leaping over rubber rails in fear for their lives ahead of careening carts dragging helpless old ladies behind weighty loads of discounted canned dog food.

The stores themselves are well stocked and modern, with the major differences being units of measure, an excessively large tea aisle, and the presence of kangaroo mince meat. I have a catalog of other observations, but I fear that listing them would sound like complaining…unless I were to specifically state that these are merely observations of differences and not in anyway a proclamation of superiority or inferiority of either country’s approach to edibility:

Cheddar cheese is not dyed orange nor is it widely available, with ‘tasty’ cheese being the more popular curdled milk product.
Bacon. I cannot quite put my finger on the bacon situation, but it is not at all the same entity that I know and love. I am not sure if it is a difference in the cut or the curing process, and although it seems to be more flavorful and less laden with chemicals, it does not cook up with the same satisfying crispiness that makes my heart skip a beat (literally). There is a product here called ‘streaky bacon’, which alleges to be American style, but it still misses the mark. However, the upside to this is that when I visit America, a simple staple becomes a gourmet treat.
Chips are known as crisps (so as not to be confused with French fries which are known as chips) and come in all manner of meat flavors, such as cheese and bacon, honey lime chicken, and pork roast.
Biscuits (aka bikkies) may be either cookies or crackers, but never fluffy rolls laden with baking soda.
Cuts of meat are different and have different names. I have not quite figured out from which part of the animal a Scotch fillet is derived, but it is a damn nice cut of meat. A chicken breast is still a breast, but it is hard to find one with bones that still has the skin – except at the poultry shops (not the butcher shop) located just outside the main entrance.
Every donut case ALWAYS features at least one pink donut.

One of the more frustrating aspects of shopping at any new store is getting accustomed to the general lay-out and organization. At the Coles in Lane Cove, I had the damndest time finding paper towels. There was half an aisle of toilet paper, but not a single paper towel. They were not shelved with the sponges nor with the cleaning products, nor the napkins. I finally found them wedged between onion soup mix and quince paste. At Big W, the dental floss is located, not along side the tooth brushes and tooth paste, but next to the deodorant. I have finally come to realize that many items are shelved alphabetically rather than categorically.

Perhaps grocery shopping is a bit of an adventure after all.