Tuesday, 24 May 2011

On Switzerland: No, You Can't Go Grocery Shopping At 2 a.m.

"The stores are fucking stoooopid here. I hate that nothing is open past six cause I like to shop at night. Open your stores and make some MONEY you idiots."

I came across the above quote on a Swiss expat forum before I ever left Canadian soil. And though perhaps not always voiced quite as eloquently as was managed by this talented wordsmith, the lack of 'convenient' shopping is a grudge that many expats hold against Switzerland.

In Kamloops I could shop on Sundays, I could go to the grocery store until midnight, and if I woke up at 3 o'clock in the morning and realized with burning fervour that I needed to rush to Wal-Mart to do some Christmas shopping, well: that was possible. Oh, and let's not forget that with the exception of Christmas Day, every single business was open on every single statutory holiday. In short, if I wanted to shop I could shop.


Because we are a society that if we aren't shopping and running around to different stores, we don't know what to do with ourselves. Stores pander to the North American consumer fire monster and try to make everything as convenient as possible so that we will happily keep throwing money at any person who wears a nametag and stands between us and the 'Move, I'm Trying To Speed' bumper sticker.

Soon-to-be-Swiss-expats who hail from countries that have consumer fire monsters stamping around, shopping hours here vary from canton to canton, but this is a generalization to know about Switzerland as a whole: No, you can't shop on statutory holidays; No, you can't go to the grocery store past six o'clock; Yes, your village Coop and post office will probably close for two hours in the middle of the day so the employees can break for lunch; and No, you will not be able to shop on a Sunday.

Deal with it.

The fact that stores are closed on Sundays is the biggest shopping grievance of disgruntled expats, and some people on the forums take it very personally that everything is closed on this one day. On this matter I have read forum complaints that range from people believing that it should be within their own right to decided when they will and will not shop, to people moaning that closed shops on Sundays make them feel sad because they're all alone in a strange country with nothing to do, and the Swiss are bastards for not caring about that.

But as people angrily decry that it should be their right to buy chicken and underpants past six o'clock or on Sundays, who they are conveniently forgetting about is the person who has to be working in that store in order to serve their consumer fetish. The Swiss have not forgotten about this person, and I can really appreciate this.

Switzerland's customer service philosophy isn't necessarily 'the customer is always right', and though the stores here are obviously meant to serve a consumer purpose, there is a limit to how much service they're going to provide you. We, the consumer, are not demi-Gods here in Switzerland. The people working in these retail shops and grocery stores have all been superbly trained and with such training comes a respect by their peers for a job well done, and a job well done demands job satisfaction. Not having to work late into the evenings, and getting one weekend day off every week that their family and friends also (on average) have off, contributes to job satisfaction because their personal life is prioritized, and I applaud the Swiss for this line in the sand. And though this line is moving, I hope that it doesn't waiver too much because I really respect this about Switzerland.

Of course the angry people on the forums, when finding somebody in favour of Switzerland's current shopping hours, immediately attack the lone voice of dissension by shouting SOME OF US WORK YOU KNOW, as though to imply that just because you don't have a problem with the store hours this must mean that you have nothing to do with your day but have it revolve around said hours. Sorry, angry forum users, but that's not a valid argument. A lot of Swiss people work weird hours, yet when you tell them about 24/hr shopping in North America, they look shocked and shake their head in general distaste.

Sure WE the expat coming from consumer fire monster countries might shake our heads at the 'disallusioned' Swiss because obviously they are so regimented here they can't open their minds to the wonders of  round-the-clock shopping, but it is in my opinion that what convenient shopping has actually done is create a nation of people who are more quick to feel put-out when they can't have what they want when they want it.

And when you continue to carry this disgruntled prejudice around on your back in a different country that has a different lifestyle and different cultural priorities, well--that must be really inconvenient.


M'dame Jo said...

Sundays are made for hiking and skiing :)

30 years ago, stores were closed over lunch everywhere, then it changed in Zurich, Geneva, then Lausanne, etc. While I agree that the way it was 30 years ago works best for the traditional dad-at-work mom-at-home scheme, society has changed and I like the current status (somewhere in between). I wouldn't want shops open on Sundays (it's so sad to feel helpless because you can't shop!), but I am glad that shops are open during lunch and a bit later on weekdays (7pm mon-fry and 6 pm sat in Lausanne) because it makes it easier to plan your week when working. Moreover, there is often a couple of malls open until 8 or 9 pm once a week where you can shop too. Also, there are small shops in railway station if you need some milk or bread. It's convenient enough and respective enough.

In Italy or Spain, shops are open late, yes, but are usually closed from noon to 3 or 4 pm... I wonder what expats say there.

Dad said...

Good one Cait.

jess said...

I agree - why move to another culture if you are going to expect your own culture when you get there. That said, I lived for almost three yrs in CH and I can say that personally this was my biggest pet peeve. It was highly, highly inconveinent. We were often on our way to a friend's for dinner and wanted to stop and buy flowers or wine - couldn't do it. Or we ran out of milk or something on Sunday - couldn't do it (cept for those litlle coop gas stations). it forced us to be EXTREMELY prepared. which is more rigid than my personality. not so much a cultural hing. i do know what to do with myself. i don't usually ever shop on Sundays. but when i need something at the last minute, you'd better believe i appreciate being able to get it. we have a lot of people in the US who need money/jobs so it works. we have round the clock jobs. switzerland's government makes sure that is not really a necessity. people are taken care of.that's great. and the fact that things are closed after 6 shows an emphasis on being home with the family. that's great, in theory. but it's not always what people do with their evenings. a lot of people just drink wine and have an apero, which is another fantastic aspect of the culture, but there's too much drinking, if you ask me (tangent, i know!)
the government also subtly (and sometims not so subtly) emphasizes women staying home and not working. My husband and I mutually agreed that our life would SUCK if I worked because we'd spend our whole weekend, or saturday at least, catchign up on errands. instead, i did not work so that I could do all of the errands and we had our weekends free. i think that this is a sexist side to the govt. policies that i don't appreciate, and a lot of swiss happen to agree with.

i love that you are voicing your opinion on these rules. keep 'em coming!

M'dame Jo said...

Shops closing in the evening and on Sundays is sexist? Inconvenient, maybe. I don't know a single stay-at-home mom or stay-at-home wife among my friends. All my girlfriends work and have a career and won't stay at home just to be able to run errands.

It's really a matter of habit and organization. I wouldn't look too deep into it. When I was in California, I was stopping at Whole Foods on my way home from work, the same way I do here. The only difference is that it wasn't a problem if I was running late. I go groceries shopping on Saturdays. It takes 30 minutes of my day, it's not that terrible.

I've often read the comment that shops closed on weekend is a sign that the mentality is family oriented. Mmmmmmaybe. But I am not family oriented, my friends aren't family oriented and we don't spend our everything and weekends with our family. I don't see what it has to do with shops closing at 7 pm. Cooking a good meal, going out with friends, going to the gym, learning a instrument, volunteering, go out for a walk, etc. There are many things that don't involve drinking or spending money. That'd be a sad alternative ;-)

I understand that it's inconvenient when you're used to shop around the clock. It's a matter of habit. Plus it's not a typically swiss thing. Go anywhere in Europe, you won't find a supermarket open at 3 am. Opening hours and days may be different (see my Spanish example), but there will always be closed times and days.

Living in the center of Lausanne, I appreciate the quiet Sundays. The (semi) silence a day a week is appreciable (and welcome).

T said...

I totally agree with this post Caitie. I think that maintaining that respect for workers (min. wage or salary)as human beings who have the right to plan and organize their life OUTSIDE of work is really something to admire about most European cultures.

Knowing that no matter what you always have Sunday off or never have to work past a certain time is an extremely rare privlege in North America and also exhausiting when you don't!

I also think it encourages people to plan better and be more organized about when to do their shopping or have errands completed. I can imagine that this would be a positive contribution to society if everyone could learn those skills!