Oxford to Oz: Supermarkets

Comparing Australian supermarkets to their inferior British cousins

I don’t know about you, but one of the weird little things that gets me excited about visiting a new country is the chance to see what their supermarkets are like. I can justify this to myself by saying that, as a social historian, they are fascinating anthropological sites which tell us a lot about how people live and what they value. But really I just want to see how much better their fruit is than ours, and what type of yogurt they have.

Moving to Australia was no different. I was keen to see how the other hemisphere lives, and what exciting new things I could incorporate into my weekly shop. As it turns out, I arrived in Australia at the very start of coronavirus related panic-buying. So I suppose I can’t really say that I’ve had a very standard experience so far. But I think I’ve seen enough to draw some general conclusions. I’ve been shopping both in the centre and out in the suburbs, so I think my experience has probably been fairly representative. Here are some of the things that have struck me about Australia supermarkets, and what marks them out as similar to or different from their British cousins.

It’s all ‘local’

As expected, the fruit and vegetables are a lot better than those in the UK. There is a pretty good selection, including stone fruit like nectarines (my favourite), and what is there is larger and more colourful. I’ve arrived more or less at harvest time, so it will be interesting to see how things change come winter. Because almost everything in Australian supermarkets is gown in Australia. Sometimes they’ll stretch to New Zealand, but at the moment the fresh produce is proudly emblazoned with ‘grown in Australia’. I am delighted to finally be living in a country where they actually grow avocados, so I can feel a bit less guilty about my addiction. However I’m not entirely sure that being grown in Australia means that it hasn’t been air freighted. Presumably a lot of things are delivered by road (the Australian economy is said to be built on ‘truckies’), but Australia is an almost unfathomably large country. It’s hard to image that a tomato grown in Queensland would still be good to eat on arrival in Melbourne. But it’s at least good to know that you’re supporting farmers and communities in your country, instead of relying on exports.

There are greengrocers here (our local is called the ‘Food Barn’), but these don’t seem to just have Australian produce. They stock fruit and veg from other countries including the USA, and prices are actually lower. The quality is perhaps a bit questionable in some cases, and it’s probably preferable to support homegrown produce.

It costs more – and prices fluctuate

One of the consequences of growing food in the country is that prices can vary a lot. The cost of capsicums (technically the name of the genus but they seem to use it largely for bell peppers) seems to change on a daily basis. The consumer is slightly at the mercy of growing conditions. The high prices we’re seeing at the moment are partly the result of a bad summer, and the horrendous bushfires at the beginning of the year. These price changes are not necessarily a band thing, in that they keep you a bit more in touch with the agricultural calendar. But if you’re the sort of person who buys the same things week-in, week-out, be prepared for the cost of that shop to vary, and be a bit unpredictable. If you’re willing to change things up depending on what’s in season and most available, you could end up with a more varied diet, and more money in your bank account.

It’s not just fresh produce that is more expensive. Everything from pasta and tinned foods to soap and light bulbs are pricier than you’d expect to see them in Tesco’s. A quick aside: they call light bulbs ‘globes’ here; you can imagine my bemusement when the supermarket seemed to have a dedicated aisle for spherical world maps. Things are at least double what you’d expect to pay in pound sterling, so with the exchange rate as it is you’ll be doing ok. Once you’re earning in Australian dollars you might need to be a bit more conscious of what you’re buying. But I believe that although the cost of groceries is proportionally greater than average in the UK, it still amounts to a very reasonable cost of living. I’m not noticing the difference that much at the moment, with some exceptions. As a ginger, and now in a sunny climate, I’m getting through a tonne of suncream, which is becoming a bit of an expensive habit. Before I left the UK I joked that I’d need to put a new line in my budget for it – little did I know how true that would be!

You can find most of the same things

If you’re looking to replicate your orders from back home, you’re in luck. With a few exceptions I’ve been able to find the same products and brands that I used in the UK. The same major companies are available, like Kellogs, Nivea, and Cadbury’s (most importantly!), with some regional variations. Bizarrely Rice Krispies are called ‘Rice Bubbles’ here, but otherwise the product is identical. Chocolate has a greater variety of flavours, but you can find more or less the same things. I was relieved to see that I’m not going to miss out on Creme Eggs! They also have the same sorts of fishmonger and butcher’s counters, delis and bakeries that we have in the UK, so you won’t need to change your shopping habits if those are your go-to. I even found Yorkshire Tea, so you can be pretty confident of finding the things you’re craving from back home! For the few things I haven’t been able to find, like particular brands of cheese, there seem to be pretty good dupes, so I’m not expecting to miss out.

Image of a stack of Cadbury's Creme Eggs Easter eggs.
The most essential find

Online Shopping

This seems to be, unsurprisingly, quite new to Australia. Given the wider spread of the population, and the fact that it is usually not yet profit-making in the UK, I was expecting online shopping to be not quite as normalised here in Australia. The two main supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, both offer online grocery shopping and home delivery. There are now restrictions in place to deal with the coronavirus situation, with delivery slots being prioritised for older people and other high risk individuals. Prior to this I managed to get in one shop with Coles. I filled an equivalent basket with the Woolworths and the price was the same to within a dollar or two, so there’s not much difference in it. The delivery slots are similarly structured to in the UK, but generally more expensive (think a Sainbury’s order if you didn’t reach the £40 minimum spend). At the time both were offering free delivery on your first order, but that has presumably been suspended for the foreseeable future.

Image of the entrance to a Woolworths supermarket, with checkouts in the foreground, and shelves of fresh produce in the background.
Woolworths is still a thing over here

When it arrived it worked exactly as in the UK, but I didn’t have to sign for it. This could have been a measure to reduce the likelihood of passing on coronavirus. Unfortunately lots of things were missing from my order on account of panic-buying stock shortages, but all-in-all it was still a great service. Not being a car driver, I’ve always relied on online delivery to get my big shops in, and look forward to a time when I can get back to it, when the current situation has passed. But online delivery is maybe the smallest possible sacrifice one could make in times like these, and I’m pleased that it can still be used by those who need it most.

They are, simply put, better

There’s no getting away from the fact that in my experience Australia supermarkets are just better than UK ones. They have all the same stock and more, and are easier to use. The fresh produce is carefully arranged on raised stands, so it’s easier to choose what you’re after, and they even stack things in semi-artistic arrangements. Few florists can achieve what the average Coles worker does with some celery and a few carrots.

The choice available is fantastic, and overall I think you will have a more diverse and pleasant shop in Coles or Woolworths than you would in a Tesco’s or Waitrose. And I say that as a former Waitrose partner! So should you find yourself down under, don’t forget the everyday pleasures, and treat yourself to a big shop in your nearest supermarket.

I think people are just starting to realise how grateful we should all be to supermarket employees. These often overlooked and underpaid individuals have been making all our daily lives possible for years, and in the current crisis we need them more than ever. There have been sad and disappointing stories over the past few weeks of them being verbally or even physically assaulted, and they are wrongly being blamed for situations they have no control over. They need our support, so when you next go shopping do your best to make their days easier. They’re having a tough time of it, and a little friendliness and compassion can go a long way. I remember how stressful it could be working in Waitrose over Christmas, and that completely pales in comparison with what they’re having to deal with at the moment. It’s very important to maintain social-distancing – don’t just walk right up to them demanding to know why there’s no pasta! Let’s make sure they know how valued and respected they are – and use this as fuel to make sure they’re getting fair employment and decent wages in the future.

Which country do you think has the best supermarkets? Is there anything you noticed about Australian supermarkets compared to UK ones? Is there anything you think UK ones do better? And finally, is it just me who gets weirdly excited about visiting supermarkets in new counties? Sound off in the comments below!

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