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 grocery stores 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.
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.
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….
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 US but not locked. In France, 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?
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.
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!
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!