• 5 Expat Shopping Tips

  • Talking with a friend today who is a new expat in the area, it made me remember the trials and tribulations of shopping for the first time in a new country. Something so simple and taken for granted in your home country becomes a huge multi-week expedition when you are in a new country. The first weeks of any assignment start with an enormous amount of time spent in stores and spending money to set up your new life. If that country also has a language that is new to you, then double that time.

    Media often talks of the global spread of commerce and yes, it is true that there are international brand names to be found in many major cities around the world. But often these also sell at a premium when not in their 'home' location, so the faster you get to know the local brands and stores, the happier your bank balance will be.

    What is so different in this ‘Global world’ then?
        •    Shop names, Brands and Pronunciations of these
        •    Sizing: clothes, shoes, belts, weights, lengths, volume
        •    Food varieties
        •    Pricing structure: deal types, rebates, sales and tax

    Yep, in fact most things. Take that Swedish furniture store that many expats rely on for fast furniture... in English we say "I-KEE-AH", in French you say "ICK-KEE-A". Asking directions to such a place and you need to get this right! Even McDonalds changes its menu offering in different countries, in France they offered a salad option way before this was introduced in any other country. Clothing stores under the same big brand name carry different styles, cuts and colours in different countries as these trends are country specific. A favourite people watching game of mine in Europe is 'guess the nationality' when looking at the clothes they are wearing. Many people are unaware how much their clothing choice is dictated by their country of residence and the norms that society places on clothing.

    Shopping in your home country, if you are anything but the ‘standard’ proportions, is a battle. Women especially suffer, as we are not straight up and down, or maybe some of us are, but then we vary so much. So much more then men do. You search for ages to find the one brand of jeans that looks right on you. Then you buys two pairs, at least. Underwear needs replacing every now and then, and finding that perfect bra is fraught with multiple fitting room trips. Now transfer yourself to your new country and the whole process has to start from scratch again.  Unless you are very confident of your size - then ordering the same things online instead can be an option, but beware of import tax duties that vary dependant on sellers and buyers locations. These extra taxes can easily double the cost of a product.

    SHOPPING TIP 1: Before you move stock up on your favourites for the essentials and make a list of these for ‘return home holiday purchases’. It is fun shopping in a new place.. so long as it’s on a whim like when you are on holiday and not a 'need as in now’ which normal life requires.

    Men and Children are a lot easier to buy for. But you do need to get used to the labelling of sizes and cuts for them as well. I have a super slim girl, who since birth has only ever found one pair of shoes in a shoe store to fit her, so for her choice of style didn’t come into it, if the pair fitted, we bought them! With clothing she fits wonderfully into French, Spanish and Italian brands but the UK, German and US brands are cut wider and just do not work. When we lived in the States every time I bought a pair of ‘skinny leggings’ they would be baggy on her and to get the length we needed, I would have to take in the elasticated waists by 2 inches (or 5cm, depending which scale you work on). So ideally, she is always with me when I get clothes for her. But a busy life means that is not always possible.

    SHOPPING TIP 2: Measure all your family and write down their sizes in the units of the country you are living in - cm or inches, to have one hand when shopping. Keep a tape measure in your bag with this list to check garments.

    So if you are a tall lady trying to shop in the Mediterranean countries, where average height is small, then you will face problems. It is very rare to find female shoes in size 42 or above in France, Spain or Italy. For larger or longer clothing, look for specialist stores, these are far and few between, so online shopping and your local postman will become your friend.

    SHOPPING TIP 3: Online shopping is also different by country. Translate your needs into the local language when you are searching for something specific. Start with a description of the precise name is unknown to you.

    Some countries have had free delivery and returns as standard for years… but many still expect you to pay this, both ways. Free delivery locations, such as in local newsagents can be offered for less or free delivery; but these will be branded differently in each country. Make sure the terms and conditions are read well, as in many countries customers are not always seen as right!

    The first time you go grocery shopping, allow 2 hours. Seriously. Learning a new store is hard, but a new store in a new country with a new layout and new brands - it takes time to learn and get efficient at the weekly shop. This, rather oddly, hit me the most when I moved from Switzerland to the USA; in theory moving to the States meant I was back in my native language. Well almost, as I am British so we do say some things differently to Americans: Cling film instead of Saran wrap for instance.

    SHOPPING TIP 4: Be prepared to change your expectations on how foods taste. Different can be better. Experiment.

    Switzerland is a country where most people shop on a daily basis for fresh food and small packaged items that they pick up on their walk home from a tram stop or work place. In the USA, the car is king and the shopping cart is twice the size of a Swiss one. I went to buy butter (yes, buTTer not buDDer), so I went looking for the dairy aisle and the butter section. Well, it was a butter section in Switzerland but in the store I was in, in the States it became a butter aisle… and everything was packaged in such big portions. Where to start? I picked one at random to try and was disappointed. I then spoke to some friends who said I would be lucky to find good European style butter. Easier to just change my expectations. As I got to know the brands by sampling, I am sad to say a lot of food went to waste those first few weeks as everything came family size, and my family just wasn’t in the same 'taste bud zone'. Even bread tasted way too sweet. I drove out to a special ‘hand made bakery’ and even that bread was sweet compared to European breads. I think this is the reason many Americans can’t understand the Brits love of Marmite - the bread is too sweet to put it on!  The sad thing is, after the first year, our family taste buds had acclimatised to the new food and these differences were no longer so apparent as at first.

    SHOPPING TIP 5: Learn the local measurement system and how to ask for quantities before shopping at a market - Write these down on a ‘cheat sheet’ card to keep at hand in your bag, or digitally on your phone for quick reference.

    Most people know that different countries use different measurement systems e.g. miles and kilometres. But were you aware that the US Gallon is smaller than a UK Gallon when it comes to petrol? (Explanation here) If you took a look inside my hand written recipe book, you would see all of the following measurements next to recipes as I have had to swap between them dependant on country: quarts, pints, cups, ounces or grams. Once, I gave away a set of kitchen scales to my American friend who loved some dishes I cooked and asked for the recipe. I gave her a copy of my British recipe that listed ingredients in pounds and ounces, but then she had no idea how to progress since her scales only showed grammes. Having spent several years now in the States, I did get used to using recipes that asked for cups, but the thing that I constantly find odd is when a recipe calls for a ‘stick of butter’. My brain does not compute that one easily. Oven temperatures, no problem, as since I was a child I have alternated between Gas Marks, Celsius and Fahrenheit scales, and I switch effortlessly in my head on those… but give me a stick of butter and I am off to google the equivalent online since outside of the USA butter is not pre-packaged in 'sticks'. Luckily we even have apps on our phones that do these conversions for us now.
    What do you find difficult to find where you now live? Any home tastes that you can't be without? Did becoming an expat make you learn new recipes to be able to recreate the taste of home away from home?





    I loved it when we lived in Hong Kong, because I am short and very petite, I struggled (in those days) to get clothes to fit me, when we moved to HK we had no end of choice, our only problem was that our feet were now to big for their shoe sizes (I'm a size 35 or 3 and still struggle in the UK) and we could never get a bra to fit us in the Chinese department stores!


    Clothing sizes are a conundrum wherever you land. When my 6'2" brother headed off to Japan to teach English for a few years he had to stock up on trousers and shoes before he went for the same problems you had in China. But he was very easy to spot in Tokyo train station rush hour!