When I first moved to Germany, grocery stores were extremely intimidating. It wasn’t the grocery store itself, but rather, the military-like precision and speed of the check-out process. Most German grocery stores are staffed by dour, glaring clerks who do not stand for chit-chat, questions, or anything that will slow down the check-out speed (Are they paid by the rate they pass people through the register, or evaluated based on the length of the lines at the store? Or maybe it’s the customers who can’t abide any delay, and the grocery store clerks have adjusted their attitudes and habits to conform to these standards?). Whatever it is, it is not a pleasant place for idling and making friends (despite what Jules says).
My mom would probably be in check-out hell here in Germany. I remember as a kid in Alaska being absolutely mortified by my mom’s casual chatter with the store clerks (usually because it involved us, her children). She always brushed off our complaints and said that the clerks enjoyed the friendly discussions and that we had no reason to be embarrassed. She was probably right. But here in Germany she would probably be considered a public nuisance (sorry mom)!
So German grocery stores involved a period of adjustment. But over the years I’ve learned, and at this point I actually have several tips for how to survive the process without yourself feeling like a public nuisance (I know. I know. Only in Germany do you need to know the “rules” and “process” for checking out at the grocery store!):
1. Pay with cash if you can – it is much quicker.
2. If you have exact change, it is always greatly appreciated. Paying with large bills on the other hand will usually elicit the question, “do you have anything smaller?”
3. If you don’t have enough cash, use a debit (EC) card. I’m not even sure whether all grocery stores accept credit cards.
4. Don’t ask for change in specific denominations or ask if there is an ATM style cash-back option at checkout. They’ll probably just look at you like you are crazy.
5. Bring reusable grocery bags and have them out and ready to go – you have to pay extra for plastic bags. If you do have to buy plastic bags, they are usually under the conveyor belt. Select the number of bags you need and put them on the conveyor belt with your groceries. Also, make sure to put them first in line on the conveyor belt because you need the bags to be rung up first so that you can immediately start filling them with your groceries.
6. There are no baggers, so expect to bag all of your own groceries. Don’t spend any time worrying about a good balance of weight or smashing things – you just need to load it into the bag as quickly as possible.
7. You can think ahead regarding weight distribution by lining up your groceries on the conveyor belt in order of weight so that the cartons of milk, bottles of wine, canned goods, and potatoes are rung up first and will thus be the first into the bag (smart, right? And conversely make sure that eggs and flowers are the last items to be rung up).
8. And bag everything FAST for a couple reasons: (1) nobody will stand for delay; and (2) the space at the end of the checkout conveyor belt is often not large enough to hold many items and a growing pile of groceries will back-up the scanning process.
9. If you can’t bag things quickly enough, just dump it all individually back into your cart or basket. There is often a ledge by the front of the store where slow baggers can rearrange and bag their groceries in their own sweet time.
10. Always say schönen Tag or schönen Abend when you leave – it’s quite rude not to say anything.
With these handy tips you should survive the experience! Of course, all of this is a little tongue-in-cheek and you don't actually have to be afraid of the grocery store... at least not that much.