To the surprise of many newly arrived visitors and expats, South Africa is a very Westernized country - at least on the surface. This will become evident when you turn your attention to (almost) the first task at hand upon arrival - shopping. Most likely you will find yourself with rather more choices than you bargained for.
The main grocery chains in South Africa are:
Woolworths is probably South Africa’s most upper-scale grocery store chain. It has a reputation for excellent service and good quality, especially in its produce section. You’ll find a Woolworths stores in all the metropolitan areas. Aside from a few megastores, there are also a number of smaller stores conveniently located adjacent to large estates, so that you don’t have to brave any traffic for your late-afternoon grocery run. Some of its larger branches also feature an extensive home goods and clothing section. For South African standards its groceries are rather pricey, but most expats are dazzled by the excellent quality. It’s hard to go back to anything else after you’ve shopped at “Woolie’s.”
Spar is similar in price range to Woolworths but tends to have a broader selection. Especially its SuperSpar centers are known for their large variety of imported brands such as Nutella, Starbucks coffe, and Pillsbury cake mixes. If you are missing certain foods from home, you’ll much more likely find them at Spar than at Woolie’s. Spar stores typically also have an extensive meat selection, nice delis with a wide range of freshly prepared meals, and a large and excellent bread selection which will appeal to the European native.
Pick ‘n Pay is South Africa’s bread and butter grocery store chain. It offers a wide selection of foods as well as a few aisles of clothing, and the prices are very competitive. The selection is similarly broad as that of Spar, with perhaps less of an international twist. However, most foreign items can be imported by the store of your choice if you approach the manager and request an item. Pick ‘n Pay is a good place to stock up on your basics like packaged goods and cleaning supplies.
Checkers stores are comparable to Pick ‘n Pay with a similar selection and price range, and are another good option to stock up on household goods and cleaning supplies. The Checkers Hyper centers are very large and include a wide range of household goods and toys and even outdoor furniture. It is the closest to an American Target store you will find in South Africa.
In addition, you will find a number of smaller specialty stores, like Fruit and Veg City and a number of butcheries and bakeries. South Africans take their meats very seriously and the proof is a wealth of excellent and mostly privately owned butcheries. Where you end up going will depend on your personal tastes and budget, and you will probably end up making the rounds between several stores. The nice thing is that you’ll most likely find at least one store conveniently located close to where you live.
If you’re used to buying in bulk like at a Costco or Sam’s Club, you will find that Makro is the most comparable South African version of a volume discount store. In fact, the Marko chain is owned by Wal-Mart. However, even though they mostly sell bulk items and do have a product range similar to Wal-Mart, you will find the prices at Makro not nearly as highly discounted. In addition, you’ll most likely have less fridge and freezer space in your home, making large purchases less practical. Most expats living in South Africa find that they adopt a shopping style more conducive to the local lifestyle, meaning more frequent and smaller grocery trips, which makes the large discount stores less attractive.
Also owned by Wal-Mart is the chain Builder’s Warehouse which is a good place to find any building and home improvement supplies including lighting, plumbing, flooring, and everything you might need for gardening, patio, and pool. Especially if you are renting an unfurnished home, you will probably make good use of Builder’s Warehouse when it comes to curtain rods for your windows or a braai for your pool deck, as well as the seemingly hundreds of power strips and converter plugs you will find yourself in need of (to make up for the fact that there are never enough power outlets in a typical South African home, and that many appliances, even though sold in South Africa, do not come with the correct plug for a South African power outlet).
When newly arrived in South Africa, you’ll most likely need to stock up on appliances you might need due to differences in voltage and TV standards. All appliances and electronics can best be purchased at Incredible Connection, HiFi, Stax, Dion Wired (free delivery of online orders), or Hirsch’s.
Pharmacies/drugstores are often called “chemist” in South Africa.
Dis-Chem has the largest and most well-stocked stores; if you can’t find an item anywhere else -from electric toothbrushes to fish-oil vitamins - chances are it’s sold at Dis-Chem. Dis-Chem has fewer locations but one of the largest product ranges, including additional services such as mail-order and courier delivery, clinics, and vision screenings. It also has the largest availability and best pricing for prescription drugs, but be careful not to go during peak shopping times, as the lines can be very long.
Clicks is another drugstore chain which can be found in almost every shopping centre and often next to doctor’s offices, making it a very convenient source for your prescription drugs.
MediRite pharmacies are conveniently located in Shoprite and Checkers stores.
For more information on pharmacies, refer to our article on “Going to the Doctor in South Africa”.
A word on store opening hours: If you’re coming from Europe, finding some stores closed on a Sunday might not surprise you, but if you’re coming from the United States where everything tends to be open around the clock, you might have to adjust your expectations. Most South African grocery stores are open from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm or even 8:00 pm on weekdays, but might close slightly earlier on a Saturday and as early as 2:00 pm on a Sunday. Many non-grocery stores are closed entirely on Sundays.
Another shopping-related tidbit of information you should be armed with in South Africa: Returning an item you have purchased is most likely not as easy as you are used to. Even though you’ve kept your receipt and original packaging, chances are you are either too late (the return window is often as short as one week) or you can’t give a satisfactory reason as to why you are returning it. You best conduct your research before your purchase so that returns are kept to a minimum.
And lastly, wherever you do your shopping, make sure you tip the parking guards. About 2ZAR is the most common, but of course more is always appreciated. These guys often travel far to take up their daily territory of cars to watch, and while you might not be used to the notion of someone watching your car or putting your groceries away for you, in South Africa it is part of your daily errands to make sure you support these often self-proclaimed “guardians” of your car.
By Sine Thieme, an American repat just returned from a three-year assignment in Johannesburg with her husband an four children, where she loved the weather, the people, going on safari, and the fact that you never quite knew when exactly 'just now' would be.
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