Thursday, October 21, 2010

Clash of the Cultures: Why shopping for groceries in Belgium thrills me and annoys me

While reading this, please keep in mind that I'm not trying to argue that Norway is preferable to Belgium in any way. Even if that was possible, I wouldn't do it by writing about grocery stores.

Norwegians are used to getting everything they need on a day-to-day basis from the same big store, comfortably located within walking, cycling or driving distance from their home. For example, the largest grocery store in the last town I lived in is about the size of an international-size football field.

You will find no such thing in Belgium. Additionally, much of the grocery business is handled by small local businesses: butchers, bakers, greengrocers and others. I think that's great, but it's still comforting to have a nice supermarket to go to when I need to restock my supply of spuitwater or chocolate waffles.

I got a tip from a friend about a Delhaize at 15 Jubileumslaan, close to the man-made lake that is shaped like a penis. It was a promising store, blowing me away with its pre-chopped garlic. (I always have to watch garlic rot on my counter after using the one or two cloves I need; well, not any more!)

There was only one thing that could make this store even more perfect, and that was a short wait at the till. So far, no Belgian grocery store could offer me this.

It didn't happen today either. In addition to the self-pay device (a great system the Norwegian chains should be quick to adapt) there were three tills in operation, and they all had about a dozen people waiting in quiet resignation. I joined them, silently cursing my luck and wondering why it has to be like this.

I have a year of working as a grocery store clerk behind me, and I'm used to three customers in line being the absolute maximum, and sometimes only two if they've got full carts. A long queue was usually neutralized by extra clerks in less than two minutes, and if it took any longer than that, the customers would start to grumble. Here in Belgium, people act as if standing in line long enough to watch an entire episode of Witse on your iPhone is perfectly acceptable.

I don't know how long the average person will spend standing in line at the supermarket, but I suspect that Belgians get a lot more experience with this than most other people. Either Belgian stores need to change their routines to shorten the queues... or Belgians simply enjoy the waiting.

If you're a Belgian, please tell me what you think about this phenomenon. If you are from any other country, tell me what you think of the Belgian way.

Perhaps it's us Norwegians who need to slow down and be more patient. After all, if you use your imagination there's plenty of things you can do to kill time in a queue. Like pickpocketing the person in front of you.


  1. You know that Belgium is just an overcrowded country, right? No wonder you get queues everywhere.
    Still don't wanna move back? ;)

  2. Employing people in Belgium is expensive so shops usually do not have a lot of staff at least that is what I see when I compare supermarkets in the UK with Belgian ones. Not sure how it's like in Norway.

  3. That's a good point. I'm under the impression that it's harder to get a job like that in Belgium than in Norway.

    Some shops, though (specifically, Colruyt), need more employees than others thanks to their ridiculously cumbersome procedures at the till.

  4. In Belgium the length of a queu adds the the reputation of the shop. It's like in restaurants : the more people waiting for food, the better the restaurant. Conversely, it is a sign of good taste if you spend your life in queus. Come to Belgium!

  5. @Bruno: Thank you for explaining this to me. Now I'll never have to feel bad for buying breakfast at Panos.

  6. As a Belgian, I dislike doing groceries with long queues very much. Still I didn't know any better till I read your blog :-)

  7. I'm a Belgian living in's true...lines are much shorter here.