Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How to survive a South African grocery store

‘Oh! I forgot to buy sugar!’ Kirsten exclaimed, and started turning back toward Pick n Pay.
‘No!’ I screamed, and quickly grabbed her arm to pull her away from the store. With a hard, serious stare, I said, ‘It’s too late. Let it go. I can’t go back there.’

While Cape Town is a lovely city in many regards, the grocery store shopping experience is frustrating enough to require a lifetime of therapy sessions. Well, not quite, but it’s pretty obnoxious.

I could live here...right?

The main grocery store chains are Pick n Pay, Checkers, Shoprite, Spar, and Woolworths (the lesser of the evils, but much more expensive). For some reason (probably because they’re only paid $2/hour) the cashiers seem to hate their jobs, hate you, and just hate the world in general.

I can tolerate a trip to a South African grocery store once, maybe twice a week, because a quick trip to buy bread and bananas usually turns into an hour-long ordeal during which you will most certainly fall asleep while waiting what seems like hours for your three items to be scanned. So basically, if you forgot something, there’s no going back. I was hoping to go to the gym today and then study for my exams. But nope, I spent the evening buying lettuce and tomatoes at Checkers instead.

Woolworths is tolerable if you can afford it

How to survive grocery shopping in South Africa:

Disclaimer: despite the flaws described below, South Africa remains one of my favorite countries in the world.

1. Take a deep breath and smile
When you walk up to the counter, the cashier will not make eye contact with you or greet you, or make any sort of acknowledgment of your existence. Even South African stand-up comedian Trevor Noah agrees; check out the video below.

2. Make sure you're not in a rush to go anywhere
Cashiers often suddenly decide to leisurely count all the money in their register, change shifts, or sometimes even close the register altogether and walk away. Conveniently just as soon as you’ve unloaded all your groceries onto the conveyor belt. Umm, were you going to tell me the register is closing? Are you coming back? Should I wait?

3. Bring a book/magazine to read while you wait
Watching the cashier scan your items is like watching grass grow. Sometimes they stop to check their phone, fix their hair, or examine your item with blank curiosity. It will take all your strength not to fall asleep or start screaming. In fact you should probably bring a book to read.

4. Take another deep breath
There is no way to see the total price (the computer screen is facing the cashier), which they always mumble under their breath at an inaudible level.
‘What? How much?
‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Here’s all my money. Just take it and let me out of here’

More often than not, at least one of your items will ring up with the incorrect price. Listen to me, IT’S NOT WORTH THE 50 CENTS. Adjusting an incorrect price requires calling over a supervisor to enter the price into the computer. This will take hours. Well, at least five or six minutes. The method of ‘calling over a supervisor’ involves repeatedly whispering the name of a supervisor who is standing about 10 feet away until they magically hear the cashier and meander over. It’s like being the star of some sick, twisted, horror movie, or The Truman Show.

6. Bring your own shopping bags
‘Do you want a bag?’ is also an inaudible question at the end of this gruesome ordeal. I’ve just learned to bring my own bags and clearly say ‘No bag, thanks’ after the last item is rung up, but they always seem to ask again anyway, and I fall into the trap of asking ‘Sorry, what?’ yet again. Bags cost about 5 cents. And if you say no bag and they accidentally charge you for one, they WILL call over a supervisor to reverse the charge. ‘No, please, forget it, I’ll take the bag.’ ‘Sorry, supervisor is already called and on the way.’ ‘No, I’m begging you, I WANT the bag, I swear…please…just let me out of here.’

On the bright side, Cape Town is full of incredible, affordable restaurants, so with any luck you may never have to experience grocery shopping at all!

Lunch at Greens in Tamboerskloof. My first month in Cape Town I only ate out!