So, you’ve just arrived in Basel. You’re strolling along the picturesque streets and enjoying the view along the Rhein. You stop to buy a sandwich in a grocery store and add a juicy fresh apple to make the perfect lunch. When you get to the cash register the clerk rings up your order and then give you an icy stare as she looks at the apple. You can tell she’s annoyed, but you don’t know why? She scolds you politely in Switzerdeutsch as the line of people behind you sighs. What did you do? Well my friend you broke the first cardinal rule of Swiss grocery shopping. Thou shalt ALWAYS weigh thine produce.
Don’t worry we have all been there. I too have heard the exasperated sighs of the people in line behind me. This essential guide to groceries will help get you started.
Your first grocery shop in Basel may seem a little daunting, but here are a few tips to make it as smooth as Swiss chocolate.
Put in your two cents (or Francs). Grocery carts in most major stores require a deposit of 1 or 2 CHF. Like most people nowadays, I don’t often carry cash, so I like to keep one of each coin (as well as a 1€ coin) in a special pocket in my purse. If you forget, you can always get some change at customer service.
Weigh your produce. Unlike my experience (in Canada) where the produce is weighed at the cash register, in most grocery stores in Switzerland, customers must weigh and tag their own fruits and vegetables. You will notice several electronic scales around the produce department. Simply put your items in a bag (reusable or the plastic ones provided), place the bag on the scale, type in the number on the tag above the item and press “ok”. The machine will print out a label with a bar code that can be scanned at the cash register. Make sure to read the produce tag carefully as some items (like avocados or heads of lettuce) are labelled as ‘Stück’ (meaning ‘piece’ or ‘price per item’) and do not need to be tagged. Anything that is already packaged with a bar code does not need to be weighed.
Hands off the buns! Although bread and buns do not need to be weighed and tagged (the cashier will count them and charge you at the check-out), you MUST use the tongs provided to choose the pastries. Make sure not to overstuff the flimsy paper/plastic bags provided or they are likely to burst. Also, if you are using self-checkout, there is a bread option on the checkout machine. You simply select the amount and variety of the item(s) you have chosen.
BYOB (Bring your own bags). Although paper and plastic bags are available (usually under the checkout counter), they are not free. Bring your own to save money (and the environment).
Opening hours. Most Swiss supermarkets are not open very late (with a few exception – see below). The hours vary from store to store, but generally speaking are from 8:30am - 7pm on weekdays and 8:30am - 6pm on Saturdays. All but a chosen few are closed on Sundays.
Closed on Sundays. Yes, even the grocery stores are closed on Sundays. When you first get here, it seems positively absurd, but you get used to it and then come to enjoy your inability to shop and run errands for one day of the week. For milk emergencies there are several locations of Migrolinos or Coop Pronto that are open. The Migros at the train station (SBB) is also open on Sundays along with several other stores.
The Orange Giants
Coop and Migros
Switzerland’s grocery scene is dominated by two companies, Coop and Migros. As ubiquitous as cheese and chocolate, the various shades of orange that make up the logos of these two giants are part of the Swiss scenery as much as the cows and the mountains. The Swiss have divided allegiances in this area and most have joined one camp or the other (sometimes from birth) declaring themselves either a ‘Coop-Child’ or a ‘Migros-Child’. Whichever side you take, and you will be asked, (I’m a Migros-Child, but not exclusively ;) both supermarkets provide a wide variety of high-quality Lebensmittel (food)…at Swiss prices of course.
Despite the rivalry, both supermarkets are quite similar. Both have a loyalty rewards program, a budget brand, a bio product line and a surprisingly difficult-to-pronounce name. The one major difference is that Migros, in keeping with its founder’s concern for the health of his customers, does not sell tobacco or alcohol. These items are instead sold by a Migros owned subsidiary Denner (see below). Both retailers also have an online grocery delivery service - but be warned these services can have lengthy waiting times, depending on the demand. If possible, plan ahead if you are looking to have your groceries delivered.
Sound like a Local. Coop - not co-op, long 'O', rhymes with hope not scoop
Migros - Migro – no ‘s’- the name comes from the French ‘mi’ for half and ‘gros’, which means wholesale - in the French style you don’t pronounce the ‘s’
The Discount Brands
If you’re looking to curb your grocery budget there are a couple options. These retailers, which have a more limited product selection are less expensive and can be great for stocking up on everyday staples.
A Migros subsiduary, Denner is how Migros is able to sell alcohol and tobacco while still adhering to their founder’s principles. That is not all they sell though. There is generally a good selection of everyday staples and often times some great deals, especially on things like wine or cleaning supplies.
Aldi and Lidl
You may think that Aldi and Lidl are part of the same group (I did!), but they are not. Although they are both German-owned discount grocery chains, they are in fact competitors. They are similar in that they focus on providing lower prices for a more limited product line, but the main difference is the size. Aldis are generally smaller and therefore more likely to be found in Basel-Stadt, while Lidls are larger and are more likely to be found in Basel-Land.
The Department stores
If you can’t find what you’re looking for in in the other major chains, you may just find it in a department store (who would have known!). Although a little more expensive than Migros and Coop, both Manor and Globus have a nice selection of goods, as well as some more interesting specialty items.
Yes, I’m just a little biased, but Manor is my happy place. If I’m looking for a little treat or something special to serve to guests, it’s my go to grocery store. Located in the basement of the Manor department store, this hidden gem has some fabulous finds. I always go there when I’m looking for specialty cheeses, meats or produce. Their baked goods are delicious and there is an excellent wine selection as well. You can also use your Manor points card (the same one for the whole department store) to collect points and redeem discounts.
Globus also has a small specialty food section. Located in the main and lower level of Globus, it’s great place to go for things like fancy crackers, delicatessen, specialty sauces, spreads, vinegars etc. Be prepared for the sticker shock, though, as they are pretty pricy!
Bider and Tanner
I’ll wrap things up with a strange addition to this list. Where in town can you find your favourite North American/British specialty items? Why the bookstore of course. Yes, believe it or not, Bider and Tanner (upstairs near the English books) has a very small selection of hard-to-find groceries including the most coveted and illusive…brown sugar.
I hope you enjoyed this first dip into the world of grocery shopping in Basel. If I missed anything or you have any comments, please leave a message in the comments below.
alles Gute zum Einkaufen! Happy shopping!