There are many things a foreign expat – such as myself – misses about South Africa after returning home. But one of the laments you will hear most often is how sad an affair grocery shopping is without “Woolies”.
The fact that South Africans have given such an endearing nickname to the grocery store chain Woolworths only goes to show how fond they are of it.
And it’s not just a matter of pride for South African natives. Everyone who’s shopped there loves it. In my humble opinion, after living in South Africa for three years, Woolies is the world’s best grocery store.
I grew up in Germany and have lived in Singapore and the United States, but I haven’t found any grocery store I’d rather spend time in and shop at than Woolworths.
By the way, there is no connection to the English department store of the same name.
Woolworths South Africa has been around since 1931 when it opened its first store in Cape Town. It was briefly partnered up with Marks and Spencer in the U.K. but has since become independent again.
When I recently returned to South Africa for the first time after moving away in 2013, one of my first errands was to go shopping at Woolies.
I had brought an empty suitcase specifically for that purpose. I was beyond giddy pushing my cart through the aisles, like a kid in the candy store, and it was super hard not to fill it up with everything in sight.
Only my husband’s valiant efforts kept me from loading up on biltong, on account of the biltong-sniffing dogs at American airports.
Same for the little sausage sticks called Cabanossi that I could snack on all day, and have never found in American grocery stores. It was also very hard to pass by the yogurt, the cheese selection, and the snack shelf. Yum!
Why, exactly, do we love Woolies so much? For me, it’s mostly a combination of quality and convenience.
The quality of the food you can get at Woolies, particularly the fresh produce, is consistently outstanding. You know how you will get a bad batch of peaches and think to yourself, oh well, they can’t all be good, and move on? Not at Woolies. Every single batch of anything I’ve ever bought there was good, or better than good.
I was practically salivating each November in anticipation of the new mango season, knowing that every single mango I’d buy at Woolies would be absolutely perfect, firm and sweet and out of this world delicious.
While Woolworths is definitely priced at the higher end of grocery stores in South Africa, it’s still not very expensive, particularly when compared to food prices in the United States.
Woolworths has a large range of its own branded goods that are reasonably priced. (In fact, you won’t find many branded goods on its shelves. This might initially be a turnoff to the newly arrived expat looking for Nestle chocolate chips or Honey Nut Cheerios, but trust me, you’ll come to love the Woolworths brand so much that you’ll cry big tears when you no longer have access to it. The scones from the freezer, for starters. Or the malva pudding. The meat for sure. I could go on and on.)
Another thing Woolworths doesn’t have is a deli with cut-to-order cold cuts like so many other grocery stores have them. You’d think that’s a big downside but it never bothered me. They do sell a few packaged hams and cured meats that were always enough for me, and not having to wait in slow deli lines was actually more of a bonus than a drawback.
But even more than the excellent quality, it is the convenience of shopping at Woolies that won me over so quickly.
Whoever is in charge of Woolworth real estate and store locations is a genius. If you like it just five minutes from home, go to the little corner Woolies next to your neighborhood, the one with just four aisles that you can be in and out of in ten minutes.
If you like a wider selection, go to the large shopping center you do most of your errands at, and there will be a large Woolies there as well.
But even in a larger Woolworths store, you won’t be overwhelmed by miles and miles of aisles with too many choices.
By actually limiting choice and instead focusing on good quality products, Woolies makes grocery shopping so much more enjoyable.
I remember my first shopping run after we returned to the U.S. and how exhausted I was after comparing a bazillion brands in vast superstores. Turns out, unlimited choice is not nearly as great as it’s made out to be. It’s exhausting.
Woolworths somehow manages to bring back the little mom and pop store experience of old, but with modern-day quality and selection.
This concludes my Ode to Woolies. If you’re living overseas and perhaps pondering a posting to South Africa, I hope that I’ve succeeded in watering your mouth a little. Yes, there is Culture Shock aplenty when you move to a new country, and South Africa is no exception. But there are also a whole lot of Expat Joys to be found.
Woolies is one big joy!