Sadly, I have not been asked to step in to the Dale Winton role on Portuguese television. Rather, this is a post about the supermarket life of Portugal. I’ve been meaning to write this for a while as, first of all, a similar post was a hit over at my old blog in Poland and also because I really think the way people buy and interact with their food can give you quite a lot of insight into the culture.
So, supermarkets in Portugal, here we go!
Recently undergoing a rebranding to this “healthy” green, no-one is fooled by Mini Preço. Called “Mini price” in translation, they offer the cheap end of everything. The result of this is that their meat always looks a little bit suspect, in a “might be from a dog” kind of way and flies often outnumber customers in the fruit and veg section by a factor several hundred to one. I’ve yet to find an onion there which hasn’t started being liquidised by nature before I bought it.
They do have some good homeware and a pretty good bakery selection though, so it’s not without its merits. I see Mini Preço as a place to pick up my pastries and anything homogenous, like milk, on my way home. I’d feel pretty foolish if I tried to do a weekly or monthly shop there, mind you.
Lidl are up next, and follow their tried and trusted method of providing a pretty good range of fresh stuff, an excellent bakery and reasonable meat and fish selection at fairly low prices. Their downfall, as always, is that they pretty well only stock their own brands, and so much of the domestic cleaning and hygiene goods, along with frozen foods, condiments, etc are a bit sub par.
That said, service is pretty good, and queuing never takes too long, while they also offer a decent range of locally adapted products, meaning fairly faithfully reproduced Portuguese pastries are in abundance and cheap and, especially during holiday periods, bacalhau is everywhere. Lidl are probably my second choice of market, and I might shop with them a lot more were there one nearer to my home, as opposed to near my workplace.
Pingo Doce, with their patronising “sweet drops” name immediately got off on the wrong foot with me. Despite this, throughout my time in Portugal to date, students and friends alike of a Portuguese persuasion have tried to convince me that it’s the place to shop. So far, I’m absolutely bewildered as to why this is. To begin with their stores are typically quite small, so their range is limited and, much like Mini Preço, though on a lesser scale, it has to be said, their fresh vegetables and so on are not always that fresh and perish pretty quickly. Add to that that their product rotation is completely unintelligible and it makes for a fairly frustrating shopping experience. Perfectly ordinary goods will be for sale perhaps once every ten days and then disappear until the next time. I don’t know if this is in line with specific milestones on the lunar calendar, but there we are.
Then there’s the service. This is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pingo Doce. After leaving Poland, I thought I’d seen the back of aggressive customer service for good. Sadly, Pingo Doce have ensured this is not the case. The cashiers tend, in the main, to bark at you, openly tutting if you ask to pay with card, and almost never using a full sentence, making eye contact and – god forbid – NEVER smiling! Add to this the utterly bewildering policy they have whereby they never open new tills for large customer queues, which is combined with their other till policy to devastating effect. After serving one customer, it appears to be company policy that the cashier stands up, without even speaking to the next customer and then either: A) speaks to a different cashier about something, B) makes an announcement over the tannoy C) does a set of twenty 5 metre shuttle runs in the personal hygiene aisle or D) has a little sleep. On Sunday I “popped in” to Pingo Doce to buy some chocolate. It took me 28 minutes to be served. There were about ten customers in the shop. Maybe it’s my Britishness that allows this to wind me up? Who knows. They do sometimes have good cheese, but frankly, I hate the place!
I’m not going to dress this up, as Continente has been my choice of Supermarket since I arrived in Portugal. With a good range of fresh, frozen and other foods, that immediately ticks a lot of boxes for me. Prices are a little higher than at many of their competitors, but the whole shopping experience feels refined. Queues, even in their flagship store in Colombo, which is big enough to have multiple postcodes, has a sensible queuing system and I didn’t queue for more than about ten minutes on Christmas eve, during the usual apocalyptic rush. They have a load of other stuff as well, like homeware, car tyres (it’s never come up, as a non-driver, but thanks!) and electronics.
But the main reasons to shop here, besides food quality are that they are actually nice to you. If you’re lost, people are helpful. Cashiers don’t just growl. It feels like they’re trying to improve your customer experience. They also have a very good loyalty card proposition which, if you’re a
cheap bastard frugal shopper like me, you can use to negate the price differences from other stores. All of the above means that Continente gets two thumbs up from me.
SuperCOR By El Corte Ingles
A final little hat tip to these guys. If you know British supermarkets, think Waitrose and you won’t be far away. They have excellent customer service, terrific products – including a lot of imports, for foreigners – but, like Waitrose, pretty much no-one can afford to do their regular shop here. That said, my girlfriend’s family have fed me some truly outstanding patés, breads and other bits and pieces from them, on special occasions. So in that sense, it’s a store worth investigating.