Supermarket Sweepstakes: Grocery Shopping in Iberia

Since we all don’t live on “quintas” and grow our own food, or belong to co-ops where we share that food with others (who share theirs with us), we are among those who purchase our food – along with personal products and household supplies – at local shops, grocery stores, and super/markets.

In Spain, every town of any size has at least one major supermarket (in addition to specialty shops: fruit and vegetable stands, butchers, bakers and bread shops, fish mongers, corner markets inserted between “bazaars,” delicacy shops that we’d call delicatessens or delis in the USA … although their foodstuffs are totally different).

Olvera, our hometown in southern Spain, has two: Dia (Distribuidora Internacional de Alimentación) which is known by its Minipreço (“Low price”) brand name in Portugal … and Mercadona, a larger, full-service supermarket with everything departmentalized under one roof, and an annoying jingle that gets under your skin, erupting when one showers, shaves, drives, or otherwise isn’t thinking about grocery shopping.

Few Portuguese villages have such supermarkets. Instead, the “corner” market is where one shops when you run out of something essential or forgot to buy it while at a city-sized supermarket. And when you want fresh rolls or bread baked that day (two lunch rolls are €0.32). Or when you want to shoot the breeze, brushing up on your Portuguese with neighbors who are also there buying a thing or two.

But for major shopping excursions and expeditions here, most head to Castelo Branco’s industrial zone, where no fewer than five major supermarket chains have staked out territory alongside warehouse-size specialty stores selling breads, cheeses, fruits, and everything your pets and animals could possibly need (Agriloja).

We do our food and supply shopping weekly at these super/markets, visiting one or more frequently. Often back-to-back, on the same day.

While all of these mega-markets sell the same things (more-or-less), we’ve developed preferences for this place and that, according to the specific objects of our desire.

I suspect that what follows will promptly provoke passionate debate and dissension but, hopefully, discussion and dialogue as well … as we share our secret appetites and pleasures for where we consider certain “bests” in the food chain(s) can be bought and found.

If empirical research is to be believed, first among equals is Auchan (aka previously as Jumbo), the anchor store at one of our two major malls here in Castelo Branco.

According to DECO, Portugal’s largest (nonprofit) consumer association that’s been accorded “public utility” status, after analyzing almost 600 supermarkets in 70 countries, Jumbo was found to have the lowest prices of all large chain stores—especially in central Portugal. Further, the consumer watchdog’s research highlighted that Jumbo’s prices tend to be best across-the-board in terms of both fresh and frozen products, groceries, personal care, and household products.

The study found that “Jumbo was top of the table when it comes to cheap prices,” as reported the English online weekly Portugal News. “It was the number one choice for many shoppers in areas including Aveiro, Coimbra, Leiria, Lisbon, Setúbal, and Viseu.”

I can understand that: we relate Jumbo/Auchan to the ubiquitous discount Walmart Supercenters spread throughout the USA.

To realistically reflect the shopping tendencies of Portuguese families, Deco’s research put together a “hamper” comprising 243 products: 38% were a store’s own-brand products and 62% were branded.

We shop regularly at Auchan and, while we find that it’s the greatest numerator and common denominator in terms of one-stop shopping, we aren’t always thrilled with our purchases. To be fair, Auchan is the only place that carries our preferred Noir dark chocolate; and its own mouthwash – at one-third the cost – comes closest to the world’s leading brands in terms of swig and bang for the buck. Auchan seems to have a larger, consistent selection of “international” foods, and is the only place we’ve yet found for Ricotta cheese to make lasagna.

Trailing a close second to Auchan/Jumbo in Deco’s ratings is Continente, where “prices are, on average, two percent more expensive than Jumbo.”

While we sometimes do our weekly shopping at the Continente mini-mall outside Castelo Branco’s industrial zone, we’re not that impressed. Except on some of the special deals offered – like tables and chairs – in front of the store itself. This particular Continente appears to have very narrow aisles and rows, compounded by the number of shopping carts left unattended while customers head for items located in other aisles. We find the largest selection of paper goods at Continente (especially boxed tissues), and it’s the only place nearby where big people who like and use it can buy Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder.

On the other side of the industrial zone is our other major mall, where Pingo Doce (“Sweet Drop”) supermarket serves as its anchor store. Contrary to Deco’s research – which found Pingo’s prices, on average, six percent higher than Jumbo’s – we think much of the inventory at Pingo costs less. Do we do our major shopping there? No. But we do, especially, appreciate Pingo Doce’s pre-prepared, ready-to-eat servings from its café bar and (when available), its chicken and/or tuna spread submarine sandwiches. Hey, can you even buy the fixings of these tasty foot-longers for just €1.79 … let alone, spend time fixing them?

Largely due to “the prices of their fresh fruits and vegetables” and meat and fish supplied by external companies, and “therefore higher prices,” Deco’s survey found Intermarché, Minipreço, and Lidl to be the most expensive supermarkets.

But we believe that depends on what you’re looking to buy and spend.

Take Lidl, for instance.

Nowhere else – not at Jumbo, Continente, Pingo Doce, Minipreço, or Intermarché – could we find such a vast variety of freshly-baked breads and bread products (like the “misto” croissants of ham and cheese, or the chorizo-filled rolls), cooked on premises and put out, piping hot, while you’re standing there. At lower prices than anywhere else. We think the cuts of meat at Lidl are butchered and cut closer to “American-style” than anywhere else.

At Lidl, I can buy “real” orange juice from the freezer case, similar to Tropicana and Florida’s Natural brands back in the USA. Elsewhere, the orange juice is made from concentrate, sold in boxes or containers displayed on the shelves, and tastes more like Tang orange drink than real juice (zumo). The store’s “Diez” cosmetics, groceries, and other products give the competition a marathon for our money.

What’s more, shopping at Lidl is like going on a treasure hunt: you’ll never know what you’ll find – clothing to small appliances, hardware to DVDs and CDs – in its bin aisles. It’s the closest we’ve come to finding close-outs carried by the likes of TJ Maxx, Tuesday Morning, or Big Lots here today, gone tomorrow, in Castelo Branco.

So much for plugging Lidl … except to say that we truly dislike shopping there. Every Lidl we’ve been to feels cramped, dirty, and takes forever to check out (as there’s usually only one, maybe two cashier lines open). During these times of pandemic pandemonium, it appears that other grocery chains take greater care in social distancing (at least on the conveyer belts) and sanitizing the credit card terminals than does Lidl.

The only Aldi we’ve been to, Portalegre’s, in many ways is similar to Lidl. According to what we’ve been told, it’s the only place where real sour cream is readily accessible!

Contrary to Deco’s claims, we’ve found the best buys and lowest prices on certain items – store-brand cleaning products and supplies, even wines at times – at Minipreço, directly opposite Continente. It’s not a place to wander up and down the aisles. You can’t. But to run in and pick up certain cheaply-priced items, Minipreço can’t be beat.

(Unless, of course, Auchan, Continente, or Lidl have those items on sale.)

And then there’s Intermarché, part of the Minipreço and Lidl troika.

I’m here to tell you that, yes, it is higher priced! And that you’d better be careful when buying items promoted as “on sale” as, all too often, what rings up at the register is the regular, not sales, price of items. Quite a few times, we have had to point out the disparity to the cashier, showing her the product’s price as listed in its weekly sales flyer.

Yet, ironically, we spend more of our time and money at Intermarché than at all of the other supermarkets.

One reason is its location: Yes, there’s an Intermarché (attached to its sibling, BricoMarché) in Castelo Branco’s industrial zone. But the one in Alcains is much closer to us and it’s far more convenient to run out for something we “need” (or forgot) when the destination is ten minutes, not thirty, away.

Results of Deco’s recent research were released in early June 2018. Two types of consumers were profiled in the study: those who spend €150 a month on shopping, and those whose monthly shopping costs up to €400. “Those who spend more also save more,” it concluded.

Russ and I do spend more than €400 each month on our supermarket shopping, so we should have saved enough to be able to enjoy eating out at one of the area’s fine dining establishments.

Not now, of course. But sometime later.

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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4 thoughts on “Supermarket Sweepstakes: Grocery Shopping in Iberia

  1. Wondering what supermarket people in Portugal use for higher quality products than those stocked in the above? Lidl is always cheap, but the quality isn’t great (by European standards at least!)

    • Here and there is an Aldi … but it’s comparable (we think) to Lidl, Mark. Except, perhaps, in the largest cities (Lisbon, Porto), we don’t have Carrefors in Portugal. Often, we suspect that the highest quality products come from “specialty” shops: butchers, bakeries, fruit and produce shops, etc. Yet, there are certain products (branded or generic) that we simply cannot find either in Portugal or Spain: really good dish detergent (i.e., Dawn), eye drops (Visine), stick deodorants, etc.

  2. Here in Portalegre, we find ourselves shopping at Aldi. Small, usually quiet, one or two options for each product/item (instead of 10 types of mustard, you have two), emphasis on bio products, and – of course – the much loved LIDL-like surprise bin isle. As a bonus, you can almost touch the sheeps grazing along the fence 😉 Not good for fresh produce, though; but we leave that for Saturday’s farmers’ market (and our horta).

    • Very true, João. But in Portalegre, we also find E LeCrec (the only one in this part of Portugal!), Intermarché, Mini Preço, Lidl, and Aldi … all clustered together, along with Agriloja and other major shops for comestibles!

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