Swiss Supermarket Discoveries Part V: Customs and Logistics

Food, Things to Do, Travel Tips — By Sonja Holverson on October 12, 2010 at 10:43 pm


Yes, you read it correctly. There are rules (legislation by Canton and sometimes Communes usually with the originally intended objective of preserving family life with a mix of no one should be working in shops on Sunday).

Monday through Friday the hours are usually 9:00 AM – 6:00 PM or 6:45 PM in which case you physically must be paid up out of the building by 7:00 PM precisely.

On Saturdays some supermarkets open at 8:00 AM or definitely by 9:00 AM but may only stay open until 4:00 PM or 5:00 PM latest. Remember, it’s a challenge to buy food on Sundays, so be prepared. I used to eat at restaurants a lot more than I planned to. There was a time in some towns on Lake Geneva like Lausanne that were also closed Monday mornings but those days are (mostly) gone. It’s a long time from 5:00 PM Saturday to Monday 2:00 PM when you’re on low food budget. But the worst is if you’re invited to share a meal at someone’s home and you have nothing to bring nor can you buy something. Once I found a cake sale in the neighborhood Church to take to a dinner but that was just a stroke of luck. This is the time when the wine cellar comes in handy and I always have a couple bottles of champagne in the refrigerator in case of last minute emergencies!

For many years, the stores were simply closed late at night and Sundays. Then the Cantons and Communes decided that they would allow some stores to stay open for the tourists in areas where they were staying. It has only in the last couple years that COOP has been able to introduce a new brand of small convenience shops that can be open 365 days a year from 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM called Coop Pronto. There are some well-patronized stores even one in the center of towns with not a tourist in site. This could be dangerous for my figure!


Shopping in Switzerland sometimes depends on things like whether you want Coke or Pepsi – exclusive distribution is still legal in Switzerland unlike the European Union. One of the giants carries certain brands and the other giant carries the other brands.

All calm until 4:45 PM Saturday: image by nickgraysfu, flickr


Decision making on supermarkets and hypermarkets is easy in Switzerland because there are basically only 2 gigantic grocery store chains, MIGROS (slightly less expensive with more store branded products rather than famous branded products) and COOP (now with an increasing amount of inexpensive store brands since the financial crisis started). These types of cartels which the stores call “co-ops” are still legal in Switzerland (unlike the revised directives of the European Union of which Switzerland is not a member). The giants co-operate with local farmers and act as wholesalers as well as retailers so they have enormous power in the market.

On the other hand, in all fairness to them despite the loss of small neighborhood markets, due to their size these companies also give generous philanthropic contributions to the communities in which they are located (which is everywhere in the country). The giants have bought out most other competing grocery store chains such as Denner which was purchased by MIGROS but which still uses the Denner brand. Then Denner bought out another big one, Pick n Pay and rebranded them Denner. These giants make it as difficult as possible for other big supermarket brands or small independents to come in to the marketplace due to the giants’ “we-got-here-first” locations. There are now some big warehouse discounter “Costco” style coming into Switzerland but they are located outside of the cities.

Other chains that are left are Manor (a department store brand with food) and the very up-market Globus department store which has a gourmet food department that stocks everything from everywhere including my $12 bottle of American barbecue sauce. Well, it’s the only place I can find it and I’m too busy to make my own and after all, no American can live without barbecue sauce no matter where they live!  Coop, Manor, Globus and Denner sell alcohol while MIGROS never sells it (that’s why they bought Denner!). There is also the international French brand Carrefour around but they are also out of the center of the cities.

Some of the MIGROS and COOPs are enormous and sell everything including furniture, gardening supplies, do-it-yourself supplies and major electronics. For MIGROS, it’s the number of Ms on the front of the store that indicates the number of product types. For example, MMM has most food and dry goods products.

The Train Station

You can find almost anything to buy at Switzerland’s train station on any day and for long hours. One of the busiest MIGROS grocery stores is at the Geneva Airport and it’s not the passengers that are patronizing it but rather all of the residents in the area as well as from other areas on Sunday.

The Gas (Petrol) Station

Convenience stores with extended hours until 10:00 PM at gas stations is also a fairly new idea in Switzerland. Although most have an oven to cook bread and some fresh coffee, there is nothing special to buy even in an emergency.


Many Swiss do their shopping in France if they live on the border like Geneva which share it’s airport with France. Some food items are up to 4 times less expensive in France than in Switzerland. Before Switzerland joined the Schengen agreement to allow free border and fairly uncontrolled crossing, the custom officials would thoroughly check your groceries to see if you exceeded the amount of cheese, meat, and wine allowances (which was about one meal).  Remember the currency in France is the Euro so you need a 2 Euro coin to get your shopping cart there. The big supermarkets in France stay open longer and are mostly open on Sundays in this region (possibly to sell to the starving Swiss with few supermarkets open .

From Your Computer

If you want to forego the supermarket adventures which would be a shame, you could order most of your food online and in English at and have it delivered to your door.Le shop began as an Internet start up in the mid 1990s and had some tough years before the kinks were worked out and then MIGROS bought and financed  its growth in a society where fewer women, due to their jobs, can get to the store by 6:45 PM (or earlier if it’s Saturday)! And never on Sunday (it’s family day in Switzerland remember?)

You can keep track of your family inventory on your own LeShop page so your shopping list is always up to date. The goods will be left (prepaid online by credit card) at your doorstep or “hotel step”. I’m not sure that this would work everywhere in the world when no one’s home. And no one is home. That’s the whole idea of having it delivered!

Internet Swiss Shopping at LeShop: image courtesy of

From Your Pocket

Now with an app from for your iPhone and iPod Touch, you can shop anytime, anywhere. Perhaps you’re waiting in line at the post office or commuting home on the train. What better time to shop than when you want to or just update your shopping list?

iPhone ap. Grocery shop anytimer: image courtesy of


Sort Your Rubbish

It’s usually at the entrance of the Swiss supermarket that you find all of the receptacles and wall slots for the disposable of your various types of garbage before you go in and buy more. There’s usually at least a place for different types of batteries, recyclable plastics (refundable), milk containers (not refundable) and other articles depending on the size of the supermarket. But since there is such a choice of places to recycle absolutely everything you can think outside of the supermarket all over Switzerland, it’s usually limited at the entrance to the supermarket.

No Dogs Please

You will find places to tie up your dog in front of most grocery stores and other public buildings where dogs are not allowed in. Strangely enough, they are allowed into restaurants. In Switzerland, it’s still safe to leave your dog, but there’s no guarantee that the dog tied up next to yours is friendly.

Where to Park Your Trolley

The Swiss supermarkets do not allow the shopping trolley inside the shopping area so they are all to be parked together in the front just inside the entrance. When you’re ready to check-out you go and retrieve it then fill it up with your goodies.

The Shopping Carts and Hand-held Baskets

If you buy a considerable amount of food and need a grocery cart be sure to have a 2 Swiss Franc coin with you to release the shopping cart from the station. Although not nearly as gigantesque as US shopping carts (the aisles in the Swiss stores are narrower, especially in the center of Lausanne where space is at a premium) but they are getting larger than they used to be. Swiss people tended to shop daily for fresh food but like everywhere, more women are working and so have to go less frequently and buy more. There are also special “kiddy car” shopping carts (which you should watch out for so they won’t run over you! But the best innovation that is so Baby Boomer focused is the magnifying glass on the handle of the cart in case Madame or Monsieur forgets their reading glasses.

Return the cart to a station and insert the plug on the chain into another cart and you will get your 2 Swiss Francs back. There are also small shopping baskets in the stores for you to use.

How to find things (that you may not recognize)

Obviously you will recognize produce, cheese, eggs, breads, etc., but it’s trickier with packaged goods unless you can read one of the 4 national languages. Beware of things written in English! The Swiss love to use English to name or promote their products but it’s not always what you think it might be. Cereal, dog food or laundry powder? Sure there may be pictures on the box. But are you sure?

Do not look for mayonnaise in jars: image by flyheatherfly flickr

Along side of  the mayonnaise or with the condiments there are also tubes of meat paté, salmon paté and mustard and other unthinkable items found in tubes. I’m sure I could stand it spread on “toast” (that’s French for dried-up sliced bread made only for canapés).  But one of my friend’s daughter used to squeeze tubes of meat paté directly into her mouth after school as a snack. It’s not chocolate chip cookies and milk here! (In fact, in the land of chocolate, I’ve never seen any chocolate chips for sale here).

Do not look for eggs in the refrigerated section. Yes, they are just located in a room temperature aisle (usually somewhere in the vicinity of the dairy products.

You will probably know a lot of the 100’s of Swiss and French cheeses (made with cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or sheep’s milk), but do keep in mind that some are not pasteurized Therefore,  if in doubt, try to find out from someone. Every once in a while there’s a little story in the newspaper about the consequences of eating certain very soft cheeses. But nothing serious.

Miles and miles of chocolate aisles: image courtesy of bryangeek, flickr

On the other hand, you will have no problem recognizing the chocolate aisle which is so long that the exercise to walk down it will justify your purchases.

Asking For Something Behind The Counter

This can be scary. At least have a vague idea of how much one kilo is (about 2 pounds). You usually ask for cuts of meat and produce by the kilo or gram (but if all else fails, just tell them with your fingers how many are coming for dinner). Sales persons with large wheels of cheese will ask you where you want the knife to go before they cut.

Weigh And Label Your Own Produce

Respect the expiration date even on the fresh food!!! “Real food” with smaller amounts or no preservatives really does have limits, even cheeses. I was never able to convince my Mother from the USA of this when she visited. Things in her refrigerator would last forever.


Unload your own basket and bag your own groceries (and do it quickly as the conveyor belt tends to pile everything up before you can get to it and then there are the people waiting for you to clear your things off the belt so they can put theirs.

There are paper or heavy more durable grocery sacks available (with handles) but you pay 30 centimes and then you use them each until they fall apart unless you forget to take them to the store each time like me (I use them to recycle paper at my apartment). However, if you really want to play the local, you go to the supermarket with your own shopping basket (wicker is best) or large recyclable sacks (or for big families that shopping trolley that you parked up front).

Bag it, put it on the scale, type the product number, stick on the resulting price tag: image courtesy of

You can pay with Swiss Francs cash, usually also in Euros, and credit cards at the supermarkets. If you’re in the parking lot ask if they will give you tokens (“jetons”) or as in the case of MIGROs, a parking ticket to insert first to get a credit and then put in the original parking ticket before paying. More and more parking payment kiosk instructions have language choices including English.

“Bonne visite au supermarché et bon appetit”

END OF THE SAGA OF Swiss Supermarket Discoveries!

Don’t miss Part I Snacks, Part II Culture Shock, Part III Take a Hike!, Part IV What to Drink.

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Tags: American, Coop, Denner, France, iPhone, Lake Geneva, Lausanne, Migros, snack, store, supermarket, Swiss, Switzerland, trolley, “European Union”, “grocery cart”, “shopping basket”, “Swiss cheese”

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