2011-01-18

reflecting on groceries


Yesterday Joey played The Albert Heijn Song for me. It's about the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, viewed (and ridiculed) from the perspective of a British expat. It criticizes, among others, the price level, the crammed space in the markets, the re-stocking activities going on in the aisles all the time, the quality of ready meals, the checkout process and more.

The refrain goes:
"You'll have a terrible time at Albert Heijn
the shitty supermarket with the blue and white sign
the prices are exorbitant
the staff is rude and arrogant
and yet you're in there all the f*cking time."

And it's true. Well, except for the part about the rude staff, which naturally depends on which store you choose. The closest one to our place has nice employees, compared to the Dutch service standard, even though most of them aren't able to tell a kohlrabi from a broccoli (come on, guys - that's not exactly exotic vegetables!). As for ready meals, I wouldn't know, because I avoid them (except for their fresh pizzas which are quite tasty), but they have Tasty Tom tomatoes (which miraculously taste like tomatoes, even when grown during winter time in greenhouses around the country), sustainably caught fish, and vegetarian liverwurst which is quite good. If you shop selectively, and mostly outside the after-work 'rush hour' between 5 and 7pm, you're safe.

The song closes with the words:  
"Because there's one on every street, 
we all have to admit defeat
and be the bitch of Mr Albert Heijn."

And that is true too: I have 3 of them within 10 minutes walking distance from my house, and two more on the way home from the university. They have 800 stores all over the country, and a market share of almost 33%. Luckily, we have alternatives in walking distance too: Bas, another Dutch supermarket chain, which is more reasonably priced and a bit more comfortable to shop, but has less organic variety. There are also two Jumbo supermarkets in biking distance, and an organic supermarket which is great, but very expensive too. And of course, the big outdoor market which takes place on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays on the Binnenrotte and is known to be the 'longest market in Europe'.

I am grateful that it's not all WalMart, Tesco, REWE or other supermarket chains from abroad here. The Dutch retail infrastructure is still pretty much intact: There are specialized stores in the city centers instead of the outskirts, you can do groceries on practically every street, and you really don't need a car to get your basic supplies two or three times a week. The fresh stuff is mostly really fresh; the markets get deliveries on a daily basis, and if you buy it fresh and consume it fresh, you get the best from it in terms of vitamins and taste. Dutch people tend to go grocery shopping every day or every other day: The kitchens are small, the refrigerators are smaller, and in the cities, they do their 'boodschappen' (groceries) by foot, by bike or on public transport, so no one really wants to carry a trunk load of stuff home, half of which will go bad in the fridge. Which is what I like about the system, since it matches my car-free lifestyle.

One more note: Mr Albert Heijn himself died last week aged 83. I hope it wasn't because someone showed him the video, as Joey suspected this morning.

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