Food  |  Life

Despair and frustration at the supermarket: A rant

Posted on May 28, 2015

I had intended to write about something reasonably interesting to break my months-long silence here, but as I’ve just come back from the supermarket, and, as usual, am feeling irritable after the experience, I’ve decided to write about that instead. Grocery shopping is decidedly un-glamerous, but as it’s also unavoidable – and unavoidably frustrating, especially recently – I will write about it.

I’m fortunate enough to have a supermarket just around the corner from my house, although calling it a “supermarket” actually feels like a fairly significant stretch of the word, since the whole thing occupies about the same amount of floor space as my apartment and has a thoroughly dejected feeling to it. This, from what I’ve seen, seems completely typical for supermarkets in Rome, at least the ones found in the city centre. While I prefer to buy as many of my groceries as possible at the actual market, where tomatoes don’t come shrink-wrapped together on a styrofoam tray, I’ll admit that the supermarket is indispensable for pantry-stocking essentials and all those bottles of milk that we seem to work our way through at an alarming rate.

My local supermarket used to be part of the Despar chain (which my computer has just auto-corrected to “Despair” several times in a row, which might actually be more accurate). It was, all things considered, okay. It always had the right types of milk, yogurt, and coffee in stock, and it sold my favourite brands of canned tomatoes and dried pasta. The service was surly and the whole thing looked like it needed a good once-over with a dusting cloth, but it got the job done.

Then, one day, everything went out of stock at once. The shelves were bare – entirely, post-apocylypse levels of bare. Curiously, the store remained open – perhaps someone wanted to buy the single sad-looking orange lying forgotten in the corner of a plastic crate, which, at this point, comprised about 75% of the store’s inventory. A few days later, the shelves started filling slowly up again, but with different merchandise. A few days after that, a new sign went up outside. And finally, the entire store was re-arranged, taking the layout from crowded but moderately efficient to crowded and completely nonsensical. The transition was complete: My neighbourhood grocery store had just been taken over by the Coop chain.

This wouldn’t have been an issue – and certainly not worth writing about – if it were simply a managerial change, if it stopped with the new sign over the door and the new, bright white uniforms on the same surly employees. But: they changed everything. The entire store has been filled exclusively with Coop-branded merchandise (including Coop batteries and Coop corkscrews), and that Coop-branded merchandise is, objectively, terrible. I say this after eating disgusting Coop yogurt which tasted vaguely like plastic, doing battle with a roll of cling-wrap that clung to precisely nothing, and attempting to mop up a spill with a wad of Coop paper towel that disintegrated into pulpy fragments as soon as it touched liquid. To add insult to injury, they are constantly, continually, out of stock in both milk and eggs, which, together, are about 80% of my reason for even entering a supermarket in the first place. I’m sure the fresh produce isn’t actually Coop-branded, but it is deeply depressing, languishing in a few bins next to the door in an aggressively pre-wilted state, onions already sprouting and slightly shrivelled cucumbers covered in some kind of ominous white residue.

And then there are the trolleys. As I’ve mentioned, the grocery stores here are small. The aisles are approximately the width of three-quarters of the average North American shopping cart, and the lines for the check-out counter (there are technically two, although I can say with 100% certainty that only one will actually be open) frequently snake their way past the bottled water section (bottled water always occupies an astoundingly large section in an Italian supermarket) and back into the pasta aisle. Space is at a premium; the ability to maneuver wheeled contraptions around is clearly limited. And yet, Coop, having clearly conducted a series of studies on how to transform grocery shopping into a frustrating and potentially dangerous situation, has seen fit to get rid of the previously-used, perfectly functional baskets with handles and replace them with gigantic plastic carts that take up the floor space of an extra person, require you to bend down to floor level to deposit and then retrieve your groceries, and, despite technically having wheels, sort of scrape along heavily behind you as you drag it through the store. Put two elderly ladies and their carts in the same aisle at the same time and a traffic jam instantly forms.

I will, of course, switch to the competition, a nearby Carrefour supermarket that has the most baffling layout I’ve ever experienced (a sort of maze-like funnel with little annexes of products opening up where you least expect them) and is always full of tourists putting together “picnic lunches” of pre-packaged prosciutto and industrial mozzarella di bufala thanks to its proximity to a tour bus stop, but always manages to have milk in stock and a few decent brands of yogurt that don’t taste like plastic. The service is, as expected, surly. There is frequently a line at the checkout counter that manages to block half the store and the entrance door. But really, I don’t ask much of a supermarket. Just let me choose from more than one brand of product and I’m reasonably happy, even when I’m stuck waiting in that infinite line that’s snaking its way through the store.

I’ll leave you with these photos of much happier food, which is clearly not being sold in a supermarket:

An outdoor market in Rome - photo by Sara White
An outdoor market in Rome - photo by Sara White
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Comments on this post

alice Kiandra Adams 29 May 2015 at 12:32 am

And for the defence…..
COOP is one of the only 100% Italian supermarkets left, it was started in the ‘red belt’ of Toscana and Emilio Romagna, and It has incredibly high ethical standards compared to other supermarkets and a far greater range of Environmentally Aware cleaning and household products (the Vivi Verde range) and far more fair trade than any other chain. Carlo Petrini once said “if I had to shop at the supermarket I would shop at the COOP”. Look out for the Fiore Fiore items which are the top quality Coop products (including salted butter). Ok, so I love the COOP as far as supermarkets go.

Eleonora 29 May 2015 at 1:15 am

I stand, like Alice, in the pro-COOP camp. I’ve never had issues with the quality of their products, and always found the quality-value ratio quite balanced.
Your place sounds like it needs some time to acclimate. Have faith in the COOP!

Katherine 31 May 2015 at 8:06 pm

I used to always go to Carrefour — there’s a tiny one on Via del Governo Vecchio, or I used to prefer the one right near the Pantheon (what a funny sentence to type!) The worst for me was that in the first apartment I lived in, in zona Flaminio (near Ponte Milvio) I didn’t realize until I had already moved in that there was NO supermarket at all in the vicinity, in less than a 20 minute walk. So I had to do my shopping in the city center and carry it home (when I could fit!) on the bus and tram. Oy. Now it’s one of the first things I check for in a neighborhood when I need to look for an apartment!

Heather Di Maio 2 February 2016 at 3:22 pm

My exact feelings about going to the supermarket in Milan. Dodging carts, people on top of you in line (there’s only ever 2 open registers out of 6)… it’s giving me anxiety just writing about it! Perfectly put!

zaker 14 April 2016 at 7:57 am

THIS IS GREAT I LIKE IT. AND THANK YOU SO MUCH!

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