Friday, April 3, 2009

Groceries: Safeway, Coles, ALDI, The Big W, Queen Victooria Market

So first things first. Safeway is still Safeway, albeit a subsidiary of this Australian company called Woolworths. Wal-mart is known as "The Big W". There's also a grocery chain called Coles which, for all intents and purposes, is just like Safeway with respect to what kind of things they sell and how much things are priced. I don't know how people decide whether to shop at Coles or at Safeway since frankly, they're just too similar. Finally, there's a smaller chain that sells really good cheap stuff called ALDI. I personally do not know how ALDI even makes money. Everything there is ridiculously cheap and in some ways, you can think about it like a 99cent store from the States, but the quality of the products are much better. They'll have random influxes of certain types of items. For example, a few weeks ago, they were selling heaps of camping gear, i.e. tents, sleeping bags, torches, tarps, fishing gear, and this week, I could buy acoustic guitars. I think the way that they compete with other larger supermarkets like Safeway is that they have a smaller selection of items and their hours are not as expansive. I recently bought a spindle of 50 DVD-R's from ALDI for A$20, which is like ... US$12? Yeah I don't know how they make money.

I confess that the first few weeks that I was at Melbourne, I was just eating out all day. There are massive amounts of small Chinese restaurants in the Chinatown District, so I can get a big bowl of noodles for A$8 or fair lunch meals for A$5. I mean even if I bought the ingredients and cooked it myself, I don't think I could make it under A$5. The main reason being that I was talking with older Unilodge residents and they said that it becomes pointless to cook during the year since the shared refrigerators become so packed with food that you can't even put your food in them and so many people use the kitchen that you can't find space to cook. So thus I didn't buy any food containers or cooking needs like oil, soy sauce, rice, salt ... And I would just eat out. It was fun. But in hindsight, it was stupid. Not that many students cook. It's more than what I'm used to at Berkeley, but honestly, we're all Uni students and how many actually cook for all of their meals. I'm currently in week 5 at Uni and the kitchen is rarely packed and the fridge always has extra space to stuff more food.

Now, I cook all of my meals and I rarely eat out. It took me a while to get a little routine going. When you get to a new area, you don't really know where the best place is to get the cheapest groceries. However, there are some things that just never change, no matter what part of the world you're at: Safeway is ridiculously overpriced. It takes a bit of time buying groceries, since not only are you using a new currency, the groceries are also being sold by the kilogram versus the pound. I try not to think of things in terms of US dollars since I feel I'll become more Aussie if I learn to take things for what they are: in Australian dollars and in kilograms. You just do a ton of window-shopping and get a feel for what are good prices and you slowly pick up what are the "right" prices. The price of groceries here (even more so than in the US) really fluctuate. For example, there was a flooding in Queensland (northern Australia), and bananas were like A$3/kg, but then the next week, they were suddenly A$1/kg. Price fluctuation for groceries is massive.

For all of my eating needs, I mainly shop at Safeway, ALDI, and the famous Queen Victoria Market. At Safeway, I get a lot of the processed foods, like muesli (rolled oats+nuts+dried fruit), yogurt, bread, spreads (hummus, Pate), roasted chicken. At ALDI, I buy many canned foods, like canned tuna and odds and ends like shampoo, soy milk, and muesli bars. Queen Victoria Market is the fabulous place where I buy all of my fruits and veggies and sometimes, meats.

Now grocery shopping (or shopping in general, for that matter) is pretty interesting in Australia. First off, the smallest unit of Australian currency is this dinky coin that's A$0.05. There are no pennies in Australia, but that does not preclude things from being priced in non-factors of A$0.05. So what they do is round the final total to the nearest factor of A$0.05. Round up or down, however the math works. Which brought me to an interesting thought. Say there's a product, ItemX that's A$0.06. Suppose I wanted to buy three ItemX's. Should I buy three of them at once or go through check-out three times separately? You follow? If I bought them separately, the rounding would make it so that ItemX was actually A$0.05, but if I bought them together, the final total would be rounded up to A$0.20. Chinese people like myself are so darn cheap ... Secondly, what's interesting is this idea of self check-out, where there are a set of booths in which you scan what you bought and check yourself out. You can even check-out if you have produce! You just put the fruit/veggies on a scale and select from a screen which fruit you bought. Of course, there's a store employee watching that you aren't hustling the store. But imagine that freedom they offer you! Another amazing fact that takes some getting used to is that home brand products are actually not that bad in Australia. Home brand at Safeway is the Woolworths brand, and I swear that their products actually taste good! It's something you would never believe if you're from the States. Remember Safeway cereal? Or Safeway pasta sauce? It's just all unpalatable. But in Australia, home brand is amazing - both cheap and tasty. So amazing.

I LOVE Queen Victoria Market. It's like a huge flea market, with a section for meats, veggies/fruit, and another for souvenirs. It's an outdoor market (except the meat section), and people lay out all of their goods for you to check out and buy. There are aisles upon aisles of produce. I would say that fruit/veggies are about two to three times cheaper there than at Safeway. I'm always surprised how much produce I would be able to get with so few bills. I would also argue that some of the prices I get there are even cheaper than what you can get at those cheap Asian grocery stores. And when the Queen Victoria Market is about to close, all the sellers lower all of their prices for their fruits to dirt cheap prices in an attempt to get rid of the fruit since the fruit had been sitting outside all day. So if you go near closing hours, you can get prices that are cheaper than cheap. Sometimes I feel like I'm stealing since the prices are so ridiculously low. To me, Queen Victoria Market is like heaven - I can live forever on those fruits and vegetables. The variety is also quite impressive. I can get anything from yellow capsicum to butternut squash to pomegranate.