Saturday, February 01, 2014

All About Grocery Stores in Uruguay!

Grocery stores in Uruguay are pretty good.

If you don't have anything specific that you're looking for, they seem quite a bit like grocery stores in the United States.  The big stores are usually air conditioned.  Little stores might not be.

The produce section is pretty good.  They don't have as many items as our stores did in the US, but they do have a lot of stuff, and it is all fresh.  I rarely see fruits that are way too underripe or overripe.  Stuff tends to be seasonal.  So, sometimes there are no strawberries or blueberries.  There are a few items that are organic (like, some of the fresh herbs), but most items don't say.  I had heard before that a lot of stuff is organic and just not labeled but at a cooking class with other "foodies" they said no, most of it is not organic.  It is tough for farms to qualify as organic, so if they meet the requirements, they will usually label it.  They said though that a lot of the meat (beef, particularly) may be close to organic because cows are usually grass-fed.

When you buy produce at grocery stores in Uruguay, you put it in a bag yourself, and then take it to an attendant in the produce department who weighs the item and prints a price and barcode sticker to put on your bag.  If you get up to the front without the sticker they can't weigh it there, so someone has to go back to the produce department for the sticker.

There are a TON of meats and cheeses in the deli section.  Many of the cheeses are not refrigerated.  They seem to love ham here.  There are pre-packed (refrigerated!) sections for meat and cheese, but it is popular to use the deli services where they package stuff fresh for you.  Cheeses seem to be hit-and-miss for us.  Mostly, we just miss good cheddar.  They have some "American" type cheese but we can't really eat that.

Uruguayan grocery stores do not have a large selection of imported products.  Many (most?) products say INDUSTRIO URUGUAYO, or they are from Argentina.  There are a few exceptions, but not a ton.  Whatever you're buying, there are usually only a couple choices for brands.  For example, if you're buying Ziploc type bags in the United States, there are like four brands, plus a store brand, and each kind has a few varieties, and several package sizes.  Here, you usually have three choices: Uruguay gallon zip bags that are pretty thin and have a seal that is tough to close, gallon Ziploc brand bags in a package of 9 bags? I think?, or I usually buy a variety pack by Ziploc that has 3 sandwich bags, 3 quart bags, and 3 gallon bags all with zip tops.  If you want brown sugar, there is one brand (bella union) and it isn't very brown (I may post more about that another time).  If you want molasses, too bad.  Vanilla is made by two brands, and they taste the same, or you can buy one (hard?!) vanilla bean at a time in a spice jar, from the same brand.  

They do have Heinz ketchup, A1 steak sauce, Worcestershire sauce and a few other things like that.  Devoto and Tienda Inglesa carry more import products than some of the other little stores.  Imported products are expensive.  When I buy Toblerones they are usually $80 pesos for 100 gram or $130 for 200 gram packages--that's like $4 for the small one or $6 for the large one.  When Jeff buys Haagen Dazs the tiny individual serving is about $2.50 in US dollars, and the pint size of Haagen Dazs is about $10 US dollars.  Ground beef is usually available in three kinds; I get the best one and it is $180 pesos per kilo (about $9 US dollars per kilo).  I think the cheapest ground beef is usually about $120 or $130 per kilo (about $6 US dollars per kilo).  Blueberries in season were $34 pesos for the tiny containers and now they are usually $49 pesos ($1.50-2.50).  For peanut butter there is only one kind and it has hydrogenated oil so we don't buy it.  Fresh salmon ranges from moderately to very expensive; at Devoto we usually pay $399 pesos per kilo (about $20 per kilo) and sometimes it is a few dollars more.  They do sell Nutella.  They have m&ms some places, and Oreos.  There is usually only one brand of pretzels and it has ingredients that we don't like.

The things we miss the most are our special "short ingredient list" brands in the United States.  Hydrogenated oils are still a big thing here.  Sodium benzoate is popular as a preservative.  A lady we know here desperately misses Karo corn syrup.  There isn't corn syrup here.  You can see a lot of the products that they carry on the stores' websites.

Personal care products are fairly limited.  They have a decent selection, but the products are very similar.  We definitely have not been able to find organic shampoo, aluminum-free deodorant, or fluoride-free toothpaste.  That stuff isn't a thing here yet.

Milk comes in bags, and it is almost always ultra-pasteurized, or UHT long-life treated.  Jeff can't drink it and I choose not to, so we buy fresh milk from a local dairy.  Raw milk is technically illegal here.  At grocery stores we have been able to find good cream that is just pasteurized regularly and doesn't have additives.  Boxed juices usually have sugar added (why, why, why?) but there are some "fresh" brands that don't, and they are yummy.

They do have a "healthy living" type section in many stores.  Our Devoto has a few organic ingredients there (flour and sugar), but it is mostly a sugar free/gluten free/salt free section.  The products are mostly full of other additives that we avoid, so there is little that we like from that section.  They do have rice flour and a bunch of rice products and some gluten free mixes so if someone doesn't care about additives and is just avoiding gluten, there is some stuff for that.  There are a couple stores that carry organic is Ecotiendas, in Montevideo centro, and another is called Mercado Verde (I think?) and it is near Arocena shopping.  They have another location in Punta del Este on the peninsula.

Some stores offer loyalty cards, but I don't think you need to use them to get the sale prices.  I think they are just for earning points towards reward prizes.  If you want a loyalty card, you go to the customer service desk, fill out a form with a lot of personal info, and then come back in about a week to pick it up.

As far as I am aware, there are two main competing grocery store chains in the Montevideo area: Tienda Inglesa, and Devoto/Disco/Geant.  I have also seen Tata and MultiAhorro, although I haven't really shopped at those.

Tienda Inglesas really vary in size--there is a huge one at Montevideo Shopping, which is relatively similar to a Walmart, with more food than other items, and another huge one across from Portones Shopping.  There is a regular "grocery store" size Tienda Inglesa in the Arocena shopping area, and a very very tiny Tienda Inglesa in Pocitos.  Tienda Inglesa has a customer loyalty card, and they frequently do big giveaways (often for cars) that you can earn entries into with your purchases; with your receipt they give you tickets to fill out and put in a box.  Tienda Inglesa does something kind of fun which is that (from what we have seen) they tend to have different around-the-world product themes.  So, during Italian Days (or whatever it is called) they have a broader assortment of Italian foods, and even a few little "souvenirs" from Italy.  They set up a special section of the store devoted to the theme, and sometimes some of the employees are dressed up to match the theme.  I saw them do this for Italy, Spain, and maybe Germany, but I don't remember well, and I haven't paid close attention, because I don't usually shop there.  One thing we do buy at Tienda Inglesa is soap.  They have a laundry soap that is a bar of soap that is just very plain coconut oil soap with no extra ingredients, and Jeff likes to use this.  

The Devoto/Disco/Geant chain is what we use most often.  When we were downtown in the Montevideo centro, we shopped at Disco and really liked it.  They kind of advertised having low prices, I think.  But the stuff there was fine.  Now, we mostly shop at Devoto.  Devoto is very very similar to grocery stores from the United States.  Geant is the biggest store in the area, the most similar to Walmart, in Parque Roosevelt (although I believe they just opened another one on Artigas in a new shopping center).  I should probably write more about Geant separately sometime.  Devoto/Disco/Geant also offers a HiperCard where you can earn points to buy prizes.  We do have one of those.  Unlike stores in the US, they ask you at the beginning of every transaction if you have your store card and if you don't give it to them at the beginning then you can't use it.  Of anywhere, Geant's prices are the best.  Devoto sometimes does giveaways (I remember one for a trip to New York), but they don't do them as often as Tienda Inglesa.

Our Devoto that we usually go to offers five separate shopping cart options:
1) regular shopping carts like in the US;
2) regular shopping carts like in the US, with a simple baby seat attached, for laying down infants (there are usually 2-3 of these per store);
3) large(-ish) plastic baskets that you can pull, and they have wheels;
4) another model of the large(-ish) plastic baskets that can be pulled OR they have a handle so you can carry them, they're a bit smaller than the others;
5) baskets just for carrying, like in the US.

Even when stores are busy, it is usually pretty quick to get through lines.  Stores usually have enough check-out lines open so that you don't have to wait for more than 1-2 people, and often you can just walk right up to check out.  There is often a line for people with 10 items or fewer, and many times there are signs saying that pregnant ladies get priority.  I have never seen a self-check out machine here.  When you pay, they often accept Uruguayan pesos or American dollars.  Sometimes if you want to pay with dollars the total has to be above a certain amount.  

They do give you plastic bags at the grocery store, and they are not the ultra-thin save-the-environment kind, they are good.  They don't charge extra for them.  But, they are also starting to encourage people to use reusable bags, and each store has their own reusable bags that you can buy up by the cash registers.  Some of them at our local store say "Yo no contamino."  ("I don't contaminate") large on the outside.

At Tienda Inglesa they don't offer money changing services but they told me they -kind of- do, because you can pay with dollars and they will accept them and give you change in Uruguayan pesos.  At our Devoto they have a cambio (money changing booth) up at the front of the store.  Stores often have little independent stores attached or in front across from where you check-out; our regular grocery store has that cambio, plus a small dry-cleaners, a locksmith/lock store, a 24 hour pharmacy with separate and shared entrances, and an Abitab (payment place) with a separate entrance but as part of the same building.  This type of layout is very common for grocery stores.  The Devoto itself also has a DVD rental place that is inside the store but I think it has its own check-out spot separate from the main check-out lines.

Most grocery stores have sufficient parking lots, especially when you're not in downtown Montevideo.  Some have underground parking, and some have large parking lots.  Our grocery store that we usually go to seldom has a parking problem, and most of the parking has little roofs to cover the cars.  During evening hours (when people get off work) it is a little more crowded.  Almost always, the parking lots have a worker or guard or two that stay in the parking lot all the time.  They often do friendly things, like help you carry groceries to your car if you're wrangling a squirmy toddler, or come up to you to take your cart so that you don't have to take it back.  They seem genuinely friendly.  At the Tienda Inglesa that is in the Arocena area, there is usually someone managing traffic in the parking lot, and helping people into and out of parking spots.  

Stores seem to be fairly worried about theft.  All of the normal-size grocery stores have self-service lockers (where it has a large number attached to a key) so that you can store any bags at the front, and they're kind of strict about it.  The Portones Devoto is attached to the mall, and if you walk into Devoto and forget to put other mall purchases in a locker, someone will come up and tell you you need to use a locker, and insist that you do so before you go into the store.  

There is also a procedure when you buy more expensive items, like electronics.  (It is the same experience that we had when we bought our GPS in Argentina.)  When I bought a printer at Geant, I pulled it off the shelf myself and took it up to the front with the rest of my stuff like I would have done at a Walmart in the United States.  No, they told me, I couldn't do that.  The process is this:
1. Talk to someone in the electronics department, and have them get you an order ticket with your name and info on it.
2. Take the printed order ticket to the customer service desk (like, the place you would go for returns in the US...I don't know whether they do returns here or not) and pay for it.
3. Take the PAID order ticket and receipt to a "pick up" type desk located at the exit of the store.  For Geant it is outside the store, but still in the shopping center.  
4. Someone at the desk reads your order ticket and looks at the items that are waiting to be picked up, to find your item.
5. They open the box, and pull everything out of the box, to make sure everything that is supposed to be included is included.  They put everything back in, and tape it shut.
6. Maybe they have you sign acknowledging that you picked it up, and they sign confirming that they checked it?  I think this happens on some paper, but I don't remember which.
7. You can take your stuff.
It is very disappointing!  I love the excitement of opening something new that I've just bought and pulling items out of the box to discover it all and enjoy it.  Watching someone else open your fun thing is no fun.  I feel kind of jealous, because I want the experience for myself, and a little irritated, because I don't want them touching my stuff, and because it seems like a waste of time.  It seems like it must be a fun job when new cool things come out...can you imagine being the one to get to handle all the new iPhones before anyone else gets to touch them?  Maybe it gets boring to them.

Anyhow, that is about all I can think of to tell you about our grocery stores here!  If you have questions, feel free to ask.  Sorry this is so long and without pictures.  I will try to add some pictures later, if I remember.  The stores are clean and usually relatively modern looking.  


Caleb Hart said...

This grocery store experience is pretty unique. I have never been to South America, but it sounds like a good time. My service group was dispatched to the Philippines a few years ago. The grocer stores are similar, as in they are not like American ones.

Anonymous said...

This is very useful. We are thinking about moving to Uruguay and your post is helpful. It seems as if things are similar in all of South America. I currently live in Venezuela and it is not awkward to buy electronics or expensive stuff like that, plus the availability of American foods are limited or very expensive. Thanks and I will be reading your blog.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a thorough report! I have a question about soy. It is rampant in the US and I am allergic to it. Is it common there? I know sunflower oil is common there but I wonder if soy ends up in the food, as oil for frying, etc.

Anonymous said...

Can you buy soymilk at the grocery?