I’ve always liked going grocery shopping and even after 10 years in France, I still get excited to go to the French grocery store. I always find new (or new to me) products to try and it never gets old. But there was a bit of a learning curve when I first arrived in France. French and American grocery stores look similar enough, but they aren’t the same. Whether you’re just curious or want to be more prepared for your trip, this post is for you. Let’s get into 11 little differences between French grocery stores and those in the U.S.
French grocery store differences
1. The hours.
French supermarkets tend to have shorter business hours than their US counterparts. This is especially true in smaller towns where some stores even close for lunch from 12 until 2 p.m. My local grocery store in France opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 7:30 p.m. and it’s only open until noon on Sundays.
Even stores in the suburbs in the U.S. tend to have longer hours, with some being open until 10 p.m. or even later. When in France, be sure to note your local stores’ hours so you don’t show up to a dark store (speaking from personal experience. ;-)).
2. Mostly seasonal produce in France
For the most part, seasonal produce is what you’ll find at French grocery stores. There are exceptions, but I see fewer fruits and veggies in France that have been imported from a different continent than I do in the U.S. You’d have trouble finding strawberries in January in France.
That said, I see this changing little by little and bigger stores do have more of a selection. Generally speaking, the French do tend to take advantage of what’s in season and eat and shop accordingly.
My favorite French mealtime habit >>
3. Bring your own bags and bag the groceries yourself
Always remember to bring your own reusable shopping bags in France and be ready to bag your groceries yourself. Most stores have bags for sale if you forget yours, but it’s good to get into the habit of having them with you when you go grocery shopping. And unlike Publix in the U.S. where someone helps you to bag your groceries and even offers to bring them out to your car, you won’t find that in France.
In addition to reusable bags, many people use a shopping cart/shopping trolley on wheels. They’re even better than bags in some cases like when you have a long walk home and don’t want the bags to dig into your hands. I LOVE my shopping cart on wheels which is called un caddie in French.
You know the ones I mean, the colorful, usually canvas-sided shopping trolleys that are super common in Europe and for city life. I wrote all about these shopping carts on wheels here.
When you walk to the supermarket or farmers’ market, having one of these is a must, even if I must admit that I thought they were something only senior citizens used back in NYC. They are mainstream in France and used by people of all ages to cart their groceries home.
Another functional option that sure beats lugging heavy bags home by hand is the VOOMcart. That’s it in the photo just above and thank you to VOOMcart for sending me one to try out! It’s a great twist on a traditional shopping trolley and is my top option for farmers’ markets as well.
The two covered bins can hold up to 33 pounds of goods each and they’re at different heights so you can separate your groceries. The VOOMcart wheels around kind of like a stroller and folds up for easy transport and storage. You can also configure it like a dolly to wheel behind you and up stairs instead of pushing it in front. How cool is that?!
4. You can open a 6-pack of soda or water and just take one bottle
This was something I didn’t catch onto for a few years. I’d see 6-packs of soda, milk, or water and they’d often be ripped open with a few bottles missing. In the U.S., a 6-pack is meant to be sold as a 6-pack and not for individual sale. They even have that written on the packaging.
But in France, if you want one bottle, ripping into the plastic of a 6-pack of bottles is fair game and totally normal. Just get in there and grab your bottle, no big deal.
When I first came to France, I thought people were breaking the rules since this generally isn’t done in the U.S., but nope. In France, you can open up a 6-pack of soda or milk or water to buy one without getting any dirty looks.
Top tips for not embarrassing yourself at a French farmers’ market >>
5. No medication aisle
In French supermarkets, you won’t find over-the-counter medications for sale like you will in U.S. supermarkets. Things like pain relievers, diarrhea, and indigestion medication and everything else is only available at the pharmacy.
What I mean is that all of the OTC meds are for sale in a separate store, not the pharmacy department of a supermarket. In-store pharmacies don’t really exist, although sometimes supermarkets in a shopping center will have a privately owned pharmacy in the shopping center.
This took me a little while to get used to because it wasn’t always convenient to have to go to a separate store just for allergy medication when I was already at the supermarket — but you get used to it. For the record, French pharmacies are fantastic and there are some differences between pharmacies in the US and France.
But the one thing I will never get used to is having to actually ask the pharmacist for what you need (or describing your symptoms and they decide) when it’s a more, let’s say, delicate issue such as explosive diarrhea. Voices carry and I feel like the line behind me always hears. Oh well.
I wish French pharmacies had self-checkouts so you could discreetly grab what you need off the shelf and pay for it without making eye contact with anyone. But alas, that hasn’t happened yet….
P.S. For more French pharmacy fun, I did a whole behind-the-scenes video at one and also had an embarrassing experience I talked about here. And this product is a summertime essential.
6. Milk and eggs are room temperature, not in the refrigerated section
One of the things that surprised me when I first came to France was seeing milk and eggs left out on the shelf at room temperature. In the U.S., all eggs and milk (except Parmelat, which no one buys) are refrigerated. All commercially produced eggs need to be refrigerated to prevent condensation from forming on the shell. Moisture allows bacteria to get into the egg and makes us sick.
In France, the eggs retain the protective coating that prevents this from happening due to the way they’re processed. French people do sometimes refrigerate their eggs but not out of necessity like we do in the USA. They’ll refrigerate them to extend the shelf life or to free up counter space.
Once milk is opened, it needs to be refrigerated but in the store, you’ll usually find UHT milk (ultra-high temperature) milk near the eggs in packs of six.
You will sometimes find a small selection of fresh milk in the refrigerated area near the yogurt but it’s usually just one kind of whole or 2% milk. While in recent years, the selection of nut milks has expanded and they do exist, you still won’t find 10 brands of almond, rice, oat, and other specialty milks like you will stateside.
7. Carts are locked with a token
I’ve seen this at ALDI in the U.S., but aside from that carts tend to be pushed together in the U.S. but not locked. In French grocery stores, the metal shopping carts are almost always locked by a chain that connects them. To get your cart, you either use a 1-euro coin or a token (called un jeton) that’s the same size as the coin.
Once you’re done shopping, you get the token back when you park the cart back in its spot and insert the part that pops out the token. I find this cuts down on carts being left haphazardly in the parking lot.
Come to think of it, I really never see rogue shopping carts denting cars on windy days because people want their euro/token back and act accordingly. There’s also very little need for an employee to go around rounding up people’s carts left in the parking lot.
For those of you in the U.S., have more supermarkets implemented the token/coin system in the past couple of years?
9 Things the French love that I’ve come to love too >>
8. Colorful/scented toilet paper
Ah yes, the magic land of scented TP. The toilet paper in France is often white, but in addition to the regular stuff, you’ll find a bunch of fun pastel-colored options that are sometimes scented as well. Think peach, marine breeze, and almond. It’s not really my thing and regular white is fine for me, but for more on that, I wrote about scented TP here.
The best online French supermarket for AMAZING products ($15 OFF w/code OUIINFRANCE >>
9. Prices you see on the sticker are what you pay at the register
In France like elsewhere in Europe, the sticker price of goods is the total price you pay at the register. It’s already inclusive of all taxes (VAT) and not added at the point of sale. Unlike the U.S. where state sales tax is not already included in sticker prices and fluctuates depending on the state, in France, the price you see is the total price you pay. It’s simpler that way. And very tourist friendly. 😉
On that note, when Tom came to the U.S. for the first time, he had a $5 bill in his pocket and bought something for $4.95. But he hadn’t factored in sales tax, which took him over the $5 he had on hand. The clerk was understanding and someone behind him pitched in the extra 30 cents or whatever it was, but lesson learned for him that day.
Speaking of VAT, check out this free app Wevat that I talk about in this post about how to save money in France. It’s a no-hassle way to get your VAT refund at the airport. It’s all done via the app and you’ll get a higher percentage of the VAT back than you would via the traditional method where you fill out a bunch of papers.
10. Lots of little individual desserts
When I first moved to France, the number of individual refrigerated desserts next to the yogurts surprised me. I was dazzled. THERE WERE SO MANY! There are little dessert cups for pretty much every taste. Here’s a short list: Chocolate mousse, cream pudding in a bunch of flavors, rice pudding, creme brulee, tiramisu, and so many more.
There are cheaper store brands, mainstream brands, organic ones, locally made options. Depending on the brand, they even sometimes come in glass or ceramic containers that can be repurposed or recycled. The desserts are single portions and are just big enough to satisfy a craving for dessert but not overly heavy or high calorie. Sure beats boring JELL-O!
11. No mac & cheese in France
If you walk down the aisle where you find pasta and rice in an American supermarket, you’ll always find boxes of macaroni and cheese. From Kraft to Annie’s and other brands, it’s pretty much an American supermarket staple. In France, this is not the case and you’d be hard-pressed to find macaroni and cheese in a box anywhere.
Culturally, mac & cheese just isn’t something the French eat. Pasta, sure. Cheese, definitely. But mac and cheese? That’s a nope. Although the French folks I’ve made it for love it.
When I first moved to France, things like peanut butter, oatmeal, and maple syrup were difficult to find, but over the years they’ve become mainstream. So maybe macaroni and cheese will be popping up soon. Until then, I’ll be doing the homemade version with broccoli like my mom used to do. It’s healthier from scratch anyway.
Want more info about grocery shopping in France? Check out my top tips for going to the French grocery store here. I’ve also done a bunch of videos on my YouTube channel like this one on souvenirs to buy at a French grocery store and this Monoprix tour and this livestream tour I did at Intermarché.
What other differences have you noticed about supermarkets in France? Talk to me below!
Also, check out myPanier for all your French grocery store products in the US. They’re an online French supermarket I reviewed here that is FAB. Get $10 OFF your first order of $49+ with code OUIINFRANCEMP at checkout. Stock up on your favorite French products today and support a small business run by a French owner at the same time. Click here to shop!
For even more travel tips, check out my eGuide titled “75 Beginner France travel tips for a Standout trip” to be more prepared and in the know about all things French!
Diane great tips . I live France and I am from England and I still get excited going shopping. In the beginning my eyes used to pop out seeing all the lovely foods and I wanted to buy everything but there is such a thing as a grocery budget. Not sure if this is in all the shops but in my local SuperU you cannot take your backpack into the store. It must be.left in a locker at the entrance. I sometimes find those six packs of milk and water difficult to tear open and have broken my nail trying so now I have in my bag a tiny pair of scissors( hope this doesn’t count as a weapon). I am with you on the self check.out at the pharmacist . That would be so convenient . The queue for prescriptions can be quite long if you just need one item off the shelf.
I saw a recipe for Mac and cheeese in one of the supermarket mags last week so it might be on its way. They do fish and chips now for us Brits but not like the real thing. I find those little pricing gadgets discreetly dotted in the store useful when there is s promotion as sometimes the price isn’t changed on the cash register and also when there isn’t a ticket price on the item I want.
I am amazed that cheques are still being used and how patient everyone is at the checkout. Vive la France
Yes, I feel you on the broken nails, Kameela. I use my keys for that very reason.
Definitely make the homemade mac & cheese. SO GOOD! And yes, checks are very much alive and well still!
Stay cool this weekend!
Thanks Diane! Another fantastic collection of tips. Like you, j’adore visiting grocery stores when I travel. I’ve learned all these tips through experience – like the time on a motorcycle ride through the countryside on a hot day when we found the market closed at noon on a weekday because it was a saints day! They wouldn’t let us in to buy water. Fortunately, some Australian tourists took pity on us and gave us two of the bottles they had just purchased.
You’re very welcome! Glad you were able to get water. The store hours can be maddening at times, that’s for sure.
My only major complaint about European grocery stores is their grocery carts (trolleys, I think they’re called). You can’t steer them! All four wheels spin, making it very difficult to maneuver them. I’ve trained myself not to wear sandals to the grocery store, because trying to steer a loaded grocery cart makes my feet slip in the sandals while trying to round a corner. And getting it out through the parking lot, especially if there is any kind of slope, is a nightmare! Grocery carts in the US have fixed back wheels, making them so much easier to steer. I do love the coin method for getting and returning grocery carts, though. So many carts get left in the parking lot in the US by lazy people.
Another difference between US and French grocery stores is that in the US all produce is weighed at the checkout. Some French stores have gone to that; some have not! You have to remember to check what each store does. There’s frequently a backup at the produce weighing stations.
I do love going to Grand Frais. They have the best produce department ever, a fantastic cheese department, and lots of meat, fish, and cheese. And excellent prices. And they weigh everything at the checkout! I could spend hours in there. Loose blueberries! Loose grape tomatoes! Loose spinach! Scoop up however much you want. Lovely!
Hi Cyndy, I never noticed that about the wheels on the carts. It’s probably because I rarely take a cart and just use my own cart like the ones I mention in the post. But I will look out for that difference!
And speaking of slipping, I almost wiped out HARD in my flip flops in Publix in FL. Caught myself right before. I walk so carefully now on those floors. It would have been bad.
So true about the weighing of produce. Some stores do it and some don’t.
Yes grand frais is great!
Birgitta qf says
Remember the furst time i Saw cheval at the meat dishes. So different. But strolling in foodshops and markets are One of THE best experiences abroud
Oh yes, horse meat. I have to say it’s not something I see often but I have seen it. Agreed on your last point 😉
In Paris I went to my first French market in St Gernaine. Carriefore, I believed it was called. There was a long cold case of drinks, and another of hot food on a wall. I was able to get a fantastic dinner of hot baked chicken, and vegetables with gravy, and several drinks. The variety of waters sparkling and plain were fantastic. Another wall held deserts. I think I got something with strawberries and pastry. The food was fantastic! The people in the store, we’re all friendly and customers smiled at me in the narrow aisles. My hotel was a short walk, and I had my dinner on the balcony of my room overlooking the neighboorhood. There were five crowded cafes, nearby with many people outside drinking, eating and talking. It usually took much longer and I took advantage of those nearby cafes, but it was great to go for ready made delicious food a couple of afternoons. I felt like a local.
Yes, the rotisserie chicken you can get at most grocery stores is great! The potatoes often sold alongside the chicken are delicious too. Glad you had a nice experience!
Thank you so much for your blog. I have visited Paris twice, and intend on coming back and staying longer and visiting many more cities. Boudreaux, and Vannes are on my list. Thank you for opening up a great new world. My family came over from France with Lafayette in 1777 to fight in the American revolution. It’s nice to go back, I love the people, the history and the Paris city life.
You’re very welcome! Hope you get to make a longer trip soon. So much to see!
Aussie JJo says
A very interesting post
Thank you, glad you enjoyed it!
Great post! Really it’s only Aldi that has the coin needed to get a cart. I wish all stores did that because people can be so rude with their carts, especially at Costco. I love the long store hours here in the US; they were shortened during the pandemic, understandably, but many haven’t gone back to their previous hours. I think it’s mainly staffing issues at this point. I like being able to buy OTC on my own discreetly. I remember having to tell the pharmacist my issues in my halting French. Add embarrassment to injury, I guess!
Ah, interesting it’s still only Aldi really that uses the coin/token system. I wonder if it’ll catch on…. thank you for reading, Susan!
Steve Wilkison says
Ha! When I first started coming to France I saw the locked grocery carts and noticed people had to put a coin in to use them. “That’s ridiculous. I’m not paying to use a grocery cart!” I told myself. It actually took me quite awhile to realize that you get the coin back when you are finished!
Yes, completely understand how you could think that. I think I thought that as well in the beginning!
About mac and cheese : in France we have something similar : gratin de macaronis. It is macaroni pasta (or other pasta) with béchamel, and cheese, grilled in the oven. It can be improved with ham or mushrooms. You won’t find it in stores, because it is very easy to do at home, I don’t imagine a french man or woman buying it… and you won’t eat it at a party by friends, because hosts would be ashamed to propose this dish to guests because it is so plain 🙂
David Long says
It always astonished me how the cashier would plop your change directly in front of you on the conveyer belt/counter.