The different categories of grocery stores in Germany can be confusing for newcomers. A few chains are actual supermarkets, while a growing number of stores are rather categorized as discounters. The "bio" markets sell exclusively organic food. If you're planning on cooking a Middle Eastern recipe, Turkish markets are your best bet; Asian markets provide everything you need for Oriental cuisine.
Trade variety for price at 'discounters'
While typical supermarkets offer a wider selection of products, discount chains concentrate their offer on fewer brands and merchandise, which can make it frustrating when you're searching for something specific. Still, the no-frills, cut-price approach has made German discount chain giants Lidl and Aldi so popular that they now have stores throughout Europe and the world.
Bring a coin to unlock your shopping cart
Many expats are amused to discover that shopping carts in Germany are shackled to each other. The €1-coin you need to unlock a trolley probably wouldn't stop anyone from stealing it, but that's not the point. Rather, the euro motivates people to return the cart to its designated spot after being used. The coin — or any token of the same size — is released once the cart is locked back up again.
Amaze your friends abroad with cheap prices
The low price of a pudding (currently €0.25 / $0.30) at a discounter store created a diplomatic uproar when an Israeli anonymously posted his grocery receipt on the now-defunct Facebook page Olim L'Berlin (literally, "Let's ascend to Berlin"), as evidence that the cost of living in the German capital was unbeatable. Israeli politicians were enraged that people would "abandon Israel for a pudding."
Don't look for eggs in the refrigerator
Any North American would look for eggs among the chilled products in a grocery store, but they're kept on normal shelves in Germany. Why? Eggs in the US are sanitized to prevent salmonella before being sent to the stores. However, the process destroys the egg's outer protective layer, so they need to be kept in the fridge. In the EU, it's illegal to wash the eggs; chickens are vaccinated instead.
Plan your Sunday meals ahead
Most stores are closed on Sundays, so fill up the fridge a day ahead. Laws regulate opening hours to allow workers to have a weekly "Ruhetag," or resting day, a concept that's still strong in Germany. There will always be smaller convenience stores open if you're desperate for a bite or drink. And stores are exceptionally open on a certain number of Sundays, known as "verkaufsoffener Sonntage."
Shop for the apocalypse before a long weekend
For holidays like Easter and Christmas, families often celebrate with festive meals. But supermarkets are closed an extra day on top of the Sunday. Grocery shopping just before they close feels like the entire country is preparing for an upcoming nuclear blast. If you happen to only need, say, bread or chocolate on such a day, avoid supermarkets and go to a bakery or convenience store instead.
Expect chaos if an extra checkout lane opens
The stereotypical German sense of order is quickly abandoned whenever a new lane is about to open. Instead of letting those who'd be next in line in the already existing queue go first, it's often a free-for-all run to the next lane to save a few minutes of waiting. The unspoken rule to justify the shoving appears to be: "I was smart enough to guess that the lane would open, so I get to be first."
Know the importance of checkout dividers
The little bar placed between two clients' items seems extremely important in Germany. You could start putting your groceries onto the conveyor belt without setting your checkout divider, thinking this simple task can be taken care of later, since your items are still meters away from the till. But some elderly person is bound to remind you that this priority just can't be neglected.
Notice the cashiers get to sit down
These are cultural differences that one might quickly forget if you've been living in Europe for a long time, but in most North American supermarkets, cashiers are required to stand while doing their work. The fact that cashiers are sitting in Germany doesn't stop them from being extremely effective...
Be ready to pack quickly
It has become a running gag among expats' complaints: The space to pack groceries in Germany is usually very small and, especially at discounters, the checkout is super fast, so people find packing very stressful here. Remember the importance of the checkout divider? Once the items have been scanned, the strict separation of the next person's groceries no longer matters. Just get out of the way!
Surprised by details Germans take for granted, some newcomers are shocked by the country's supermarket culture. Here's useful advice from a self-declared grocery shopping expert from Canada, who learned the hard way.
When I arrived in Berlin some 10 years ago, trying to find everything I needed for what I believed to be a very ordinary recipe was embarrassingly complicated.
Being a Canadian, most ingredients I would typically require were luckily available in German grocery stores — but not all of them.
Basically, it took time because I had to rule out various options: Was I not finding something because it didn't exist, or because I didn't know where to look?
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should
I once remember going to at least five different stores trying to find soft brown sugar, scanning all the aisles 10 times, hesitating with renewed hope that it had to be there, somewhere, in a hidden spot — especially after I'd discovered that flour was randomly stacked right by the toilet paper in one discount store.
German friends had recommended a stop at the "Bioladen," the organic grocery store, but they didn't realize the raw brown sugar they were referring to was not what I had in mind. Now I know: It simply doesn't exist in Germany.
There isn't necessarily a direct translation for Germany's numerous dairy products, so you need time to discover what they all are. What's the difference between Schmand and Saure Sahne, Crème fraiche and Schlagsahne, Hüttenkäse, Frischkäse or Quark? And all English speakers who've already learned that milk is Milch in German will be astonished to find Dickmilch among those multiple options.
Certain products are already challenging even if you're able to read what's on the package. Take coffee, for instance.
Is a light, dark or French roast something I should care about? What's the actual difference between Robusta and Arabica beans? Does it matter if they come from the Peruvian Andes or Ethiopia? And what about the working conditions of the people who picked the beans in the first place — is that Fair Trade seal enough or should it be organic and Rainforest Alliance certified as well?
And then there's the format: No one wants to end up with coffee tabs without having the right machine for them — plus, they're bad for the environment anyway. So is there a brand of pre-ground beans that works with my stovetop espresso maker?
I was trying to answer all these questions, informed by German labels, while wearing a too warm coat, my arms already loaded with other random groceries (because I had missed the spot to pick up a basket at the entrance) in the most humongous supermarket in the world: a two-story Real store.
After too many minutes of hesitation, I finally found some kind of relatively affordable Fair Trade coffee and decided that had to do.
I spent several days chugging cups of it, finding I was immune to its effects. At some point, I realized that the word "entkoffeiniert" means decaf.
I needed years of trial and error to become a super-efficient grocery shopper in Germany. And it's not like riding a bike: I find you need constant practice. A couple of months away from your favorite grocery store and you might miss a complete reorganization of the aisles.
Actually, now, whenever I go back to Canada, I'm completely lost in supermarkets there. Way too many items, the lighting is weird, and everything is so expensive.
With German discount supermarket chains Lidl and Aldi opening stores throughout the world, people might not be as shocked as I was a decade ago, when I first stepped into one of those stores with a bare-bone selection and grungy aesthetics (that has also improved greatly since).
In any case, the gallery above shows a few things newcomers — admittedly, mostly North American ones — typically notice when they discover German supermarkets.
What surprised you the most in a German store? Let us know on Twitter @dw_culture using the hashtag #MeettheGermans.