The Swedish shopping experience

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Having just returned to Sweden after a much-needed vacation, I am reminded of the many subtle and not-so-subtle differences when it comes to something as mundane as going to a store.

Even before you enter the Swedish store, you have to run the gauntlet between the increasingly aggressive Romanian beggars. These beggars make a living thrusting their cups at customers while feigning various handicaps and/or waving pictures of their children, all of which supposedly have heart disease and require expensive surgery back in Romania.

In other parts of the world, store owners recognize that this kind of assault on potential customers is bad for business and have their security keep the entrance clear. Swedish merchants are either oblivious to the negative impact on business, or are prevented from doing anything about it due to a combination of local laws, the threat of negative news coverage, and local do-gooders just itching to show off their moral superiority by springing to the beggars’ defense. Either way, going to a Swedish store means getting hassled both coming and going.

If it’s a grocery store, your next action is probably to get a shopping cart. Swedish carts do not use the normal kind of wheel-locking system that kicks in if you try to leave the parking lot, but instead relies on a coin-deposit that unlocks the cart. The coin is then returned when the cart is back and again locked at the cart collection point. So far, so good.

The problem starts when you try to push the cart, especially on a slope, because the two rear wheels are not set. All four wheels swivel freely at a full 360 degrees, which makes the cart much more likely to start rolling sideways when you unload the cart into your car. As a result, dings and scratches are quite commonplace on Swedish cars. It can also be something of a back-breaker to control a full cart on a sloped parking lot since you have to twist-and-push in an awkward manner rather than just lean back a little on one side.

It should also be noted that no Swedish carts I’ve seen have any kind of restraint for young children riding in the foldable seat. Anyone who has had a two-year old in their life knows that no force on earth can keep an adventurous child from following their instinct for exploration and mischief. Unfortunately, that can mean a nasty drop onto an unpadded floor.

Well inside the store, the prices include sales tax. To Sweden’s credit, they are pretty transparent with pricing and provide per-unit comparisons between different products so you can readily see if the 625 gram jar of pasta sauce is actually cheaper than the other brand with its 485 gram jar.

What you will NOT find is alcohol, except extremely watered-down beer. The Swedish government does not trust the citizens to purchase alcohol freely, leaving the government-run liquor stores as the de facto monopoly. This flies in the face of European Union law, but nothing has changed despite the entry into EU some 20 years ago.

They also slap on a few hundred percent extra tax on alcohol, presumably to discourage drunkenness, but since Sweden is part of EU it just means everyone in the south buys their Swedish-made beer and booze in Germany instead. So: Swedish brewer makes beer, loads it onto truck, truck drives to Germany, beer is stocked at store just inside German border, Swedish consumers pile into their cars and drive to German border store, load up their cars and drive the Swedish beer back home. Then the Swedish politicans thump their chests about dropping sales in the Swedish liquor stores, considering it proof that their draconian taxation is improving public health.

Anyway. At the check-out, you will discover that there is no such thing as baggers. The very concept of helping people bag their groceries and giving the elderly a hand out to their car is completely foreign to Swedes. Instead, they use a system that can only be described as The Food Crusher.

Swedish stores use the same kind of conveyor belt check-out found elsewhere in the world. But since there is no bagger to receive the items on the other end, everything piles up with the first items getting relentlessly crushed against the metal edge. If you don’t take great care to place hard and heavy items first and fruit, bread, eggs etc. last, you will have a delightful mess on your hands. Cashiers cheerfully leave the belt running even as you pay, just to make sure your bag of chips is reduced to microscopic crumbs by the time you have a chance to rescue it from The Food Crusher.

Haggling, the cornerstone of any purchase in southern Europe, is pretty much a non-issue in Sweden. For one thing, Swedes in general are much too timid to haggle. There are of course exceptions, but Swedes are for the most part the wet dream of any aggressive street vendor; first they’re too polite to just ignore the jolly man attaching himself like a leech, and then they pay the ridiculous first price because, well, Swedes pay sticker price.

Those looking for a Wal-Mart will be surprised to find that Sweden is one of the few places on Earth that does NOT have a Supercenter in every little armpit of a town killing the local businesses. The reason is unclear, but the Wal-Mart concept exists … in one place, and one place only: Ullared, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. The store Gekås imports cheap clothes, tools, toys etc. from China and sells them for perhaps 20% less than regular stores due to the large volumes.

The natives find this concept so jaw-dropping that it is big business organizing shopping trips by bus for people in all corners of the country to go to Gekås. The store keeps a nearby campground and several rental cabins, because many choose to spend their vacation shopping there. Yes, multi-day shopping, from morning to evening, every day. There is a line to even get in the store.

So the Swedish market should be more than ripe for online merchants to make a killing. And while e-commerce is growing, it is hampered by excessively expensive shipping costs. For comparison, a regular US stamp is 49 cents. That covers the cost of bringing a letter from Florida to Alaska. Sweden, roughly the size of California, needs 7 SEK (90 cents) to deliver a letter. Media mail and similarly discounted rates do not exist.

Finally, while the Swedish sales tax is always included in the sticker price, it should be noted that it is a sky-high 25% (with a few exceptions). Not quite shoppers paradise.

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5 thoughts on “The Swedish shopping experience

  1. May I point out that Wal-Mart started out as one store in “a tiny town in the middle of nowhere” in Arkansas? Took a few years to take off? I’m not sure you know your subject. I’m willing to withhold judgment, though, because you seem so sensible.

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