Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name...

When I first came to Australia, I found shopping a constant frustration. Most of the shops and brands were unknown to me. I couldn't find the things I was used to having and I didn't even know where to look to find such things most of the time. There weren't many large 'department stores' that stock everything like you'd find the in the USA. The Target and K-Mart brands both exist here in Australia, but they carry dramatically different merchandise to the ones in the USA. So even though some stores were familiar, the items inside of them were still foreign. I never came across a one stop shop where I could get all the things I needed.

The same seemed to be true for groceries. Different grocery stores carried different brands and I had to go to several different ones to find all the things I required. The more people I spoke to, the more I realised that people simply didn't buy all of their items in one place and didn't really have the desire to do so. I didn't really understand why.

As far as food shopping is concerned, most people seemed to have a Fruit and Veg shop they'd visit to get their, well, fruit and veg. Then they would have a butcher they'd visit to choose their meats and if they were lucky enough to have a fish monger in their local strip of shops, they'd go there for their fish. Nearly every high street shopping strip has a stand alone bakery where people go to buy their bread. The grocery stores seemed to be the place to buy dairy items such as milk, yogurt, cheese, etc as well as cereals, cleaning supplies and those other items that you didn't find in your local shops.

This shopping system clashed with my American expectations and desires. I really wanted to be able to go to one place, get it all done in one hit and then go home. I couldn't be bothered with all the running around it would take to go to all of those shops and get each of my items individually. What a hassle, I thought.

Friends would assure me that I was paying more by trying to buy everything at the grocery store. By going to each of these individual shops, I'd be saving money and supporting a small business versus a large corporation.

Initially, I was too busy working to take this advice. I simply could not be bothered with all that running around. The longer I lived here, however, the more the pressure got to me. People would frequently question me about my choice to shop only at the grocery store (I'll admit most of these questions came from the Handsome Australian's family who generally shopped at fresh food markets and almost never set foot in a grocery store) to the point that I decided I'd try buying my fruit and veg somewhere else and everything else at the grocery store. One stop changed to two stops and I admit, this method seemed cheaper.

Eventually, the Handsome Australian and I started our family and moved away from the center of the city out to a more suburban neighbourhood with lovely high street shops. In our local strip of shops there are several fruit and veg shops, several butchers, several bakeries, an excellent deli, several pharmacies, a post office, branches from most of the main banks as well as other small stores selling assorted items. This meant we didn't have to travel very far to do our shopping. We live a five minute drive from these shops and could easily walk there in 20-30 minutes. Once we are there it's a matter of walking up and down the street (the shops are contained in a three block area) to get most of the errands completed.

We may have to walk in and out of each shop and buy our things individually, but there is something really special about the relationships you form with these merchants. You are generally served by the same people each time you visit. The businesses are small and many are family owned. Service is generally very good and these people know their stock well. They can tell you backwards and forwards what they do carry and what they don't. They will tell you when it gets delivered and how much you can expect to pay for it. They'll set things aside for you, they'll order things in, they may even greet you by your first name when you walk in the door. The barista at our local cafe starts our coffees when he sees us walk through the door. He knows what we have because we have them there all the time. We don't even have to order.

In many ways, it feels like we are living in the USA circa 1950 when all the Mom and Pop shops still existed and people had a relationship with the merchants who they bought from. The days before Wal-Mart came through and sent everyone out of business. Nothing against Wal-Mart, but have you ever met a particularly knowledgeable Wal-Mart employee? My experience is they can rarely direct you in the right direction and have no idea what items they may or may not stock. Was this what I was originally hoping to find in Australia and if so, why? Perhaps it was familiar or perhaps I simply didn't know any different.

So in case it's not obvious, I'll admit it: I'm a convert. I love the high street shopping in Australia. I love the small shops where people know their stuff. It may have taken me awhile to come to this conclusion, but now sometimes I wanna go where everybody knows my name.

8 comments:

KLS said...

Sounds great to me! What is high street? I understand it from the context (sort of), but that sounds like an Aussie term...

Annelise said...

And que Cheers theme...

Sounds lovely.

Dana said...

I am wondering how Australia has kept WalMart from invading. I'm sure some American communities would like to know the secret. It could be the American search for CHEAP that has let WalMart invade to the demise of mom and pop businesses. There is a butcher near me but I rarely go there but rather go to the supermarket. Was just trying to think where I could do all that shopping without running all over town. There is one local fruit and veg with several locations available but not close to where I am. Maybe I will have to try it out.

suzinoz said...

KLS-The high street is just the main shopping strip in each suburb. Each neighbourhood here has their own little strip of shops as I described and that is known as high street shopping. I was going to include it in the Learn the Lingo, but sometimes I have a hard time remembering which terms are Australian and which are American. In this case, I think 'high street' is probably a British term that the Aussies have adopted. Thanks for reading!

suzinoz said...

Dana-I'm not sure what has kept Wal-Mart at bay. We have heard rumours that Costco will be opening up here sometme in the near future. Have yet to confirm those details though. We'll just have to wait and see....

ibbabs97 said...

I feel cheated on not learning the word Chemist vs pharmacies.

melbournebound said...

I have to become a convert too! I think it will be less frustrating, to just "give in" and do it this way. I find myself shopping with my American expectations and just getting frustrated! Great post!

suzinoz said...

Thanks melbournebound, sometimes you just have to embrace where you are!