Shoppping: USA vs Germany (pt.1)

Paper or Plastic? — Shopping experiences on both sides of the Atlantic (pt.1)

Last Monday I found this editorial in the Chattanooga Times Free Press advocating an end to the habit of using plastic shopping bags. That opinion piece gave me the idea for a blog post. First of all, let me say that I couldn’t agree more with the CHA Times’ position on plastic bags. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to rid ourselves from that plague.

And yet I wonder why so many people still use them. During my first stay in the United States in the late 80s I was impressed how most stores gave consumers the option to choose between plastic and paper bags. Back home in Germany that hadn’t been introduced. I was also impressed at how many people worked at grocery stores and supermarkets. There were people bagging your purchases for you! Totally unheard-of for a German. Others collected the shopping carts on the parking lot to return them to the store. Amazing!


You’ll understand my amazement (and that of other Germans) if you look closely at the above picture. This is what the standard shopping cart return in Germany looks like. Notice the chains linking the carts? They lock each and every cart back in place. How do they get there? In order to free a cart from the pod shoppers have to insert a coin to open the lock. Usually the slot asks for a €1 coin which serves as a deposit money. When shoppers are finished loading their purchases in their cars or onto their bicycles they want their Euro back. So they return the cart to its designated spot where the coin is released after locking the cart back up again.

Aldi+Lidl-TütenTo American cart collectors an introduction of this system would be bad news – they’d lose their jobs. At least one retailer already implemented it here: Aldi, which is of course a German grocery shop giant. In fact, Aldi and other discounters like Lidl were the reason why Wal-Mart abandoned the German market. The Bentonville, AR chain just couldn’t compete.
For U.S. shoppers, though, the cart rental system needs explaining and/or better signage. I still remember this lady in her early 50s who apparently wanted to shop for the first time at the Aldi store on Brainerd Road/Lee Highway in Chattanooga. When she realized that she had to put a quarter into the slot she turned away, mumbling “I’m not gonna pay for a cart”.

For Germans who will try to get accustomed to the shopping habits in our area, the learning curve will be different. Which brings me back to the plastic bags. Throughout Germany it has become a common practice in stores that if you want a plastic bag, you have to pay for it. Some stores still offer bags in different sizes – with different price tags, ranging from around €0.10 to €0.50. This concept was introduced to educate shoppers to bring their own bags or baskets in order to cut down on plastic waste. Everybody knows this, understands the reasoning behind it and acts accordingly.

So imagine the irritation of German shoppers in the U.S.: They get the plastic bags for free, but have to ask in case they want paper. Even stranger: Wal-Mart sells reusable shopping bags, but if you dare bring your own bags, prepare for grumbling cashiers. I once had a lady operating the register tell me that bringing my own basket made her day worse than it already was. To be fair, though, the number of stores going greener keeps growing and attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. Customer demand is likely to speed up this process. So, dear store managers, get ready.

There are a lot more differences on how people shop here and there. That’s why this is only part 1 in a series. Expect posts on deposit on bottles, sales tax vs. Mehrwertsteuer, customer service and more. Stay tuned …

3 thoughts on “Shoppping: USA vs Germany (pt.1)

  1. Good point about bags. Of course bring your own is the real German way – and coming here more and more. When you consider the size of German refrigerators and the (short) distance from one’s apartment to the local grocery, you see why the bags can be small. My wife learned to shop daily when we lived in Germany. Now she does it for freshness. Further to plastic – South Africa (which has wonderful countryside) was covered with blown plastic bags until the stores began charging for them. Now the countryside is cleaner than here in the US. I can’t recall the last time I saw a German (or a South African) throw something out a car window or drop it on the street. I see that pretty often here. Now explain to Americans Muelltrennung and bottle return.

  2. I agree. I wish Americans were more conscious about their use of plastic bags/putting shopping carts back in place.

    When I studied abroad in England last year, the grocery stores didn’t charge for plastic bags, but it was very frowned upon to use them excessively. I’ve also had several experiences at Wal-Mart where the cashier has complained about me bringing my own bags. It’s obvious that Wal-Mart wants to cash in on the green trend without actually training its employees to become more aware of the environment. Target actually rewards their customers for using their reusable bags; they take $.10 off your order for every bag load.

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