Retail Hell = Retail Heaven

Take a look at this lovely mugshot.  What could that document be?  A form in triplicate from those famous Brussels bureaucrats, perhaps?  A bank statement?  My certificate of residence from the Bruxelles-Ville Centre Non-Administratif at De Brouckere, earned through hours of queueing and patience?  It certainly looks important.  If I told you it was a receipt, you might think it was for some big-ticket item.  Car owners might recognise the columns, the detailed itemisation, the disclaimers at the top.  They might think it described an annual service: every sump oil plug and radiator hose carefully listed, with a thumping labour charge and VAT added at the bottom.  They would all be wrong.  This, dear readers, is a supermarket till receipt.  I couldn’t fit both pages onto my tiny webcam screen unless I stood at the back of the room.  And I can’t do justice to the sheer bizarreness of my local discount supermarket in this humble blog post.  But I am going to try nonetheless.

I am going to tell you about Colruyt.  Back in England, even the deep-discounting supermarkets make at least some attempt to mediate the drone-like experience of trawling around for BOGOFs and special offers in a brightly-lit shed.  Even my local LiDL in Streatham had carefully placed lighting to make the fruit appear more brightly coloured; it had jaunty little cartoon signs in the car park to indicate family-friendly spaces in which parents could unload their children and their shopping into their waiting cars without having to trek across miles of tarmac; it had mood music attempting to cheer and soothe you as you gathered your week’s groceries.

Colruyt has nothing of the sort.  When my flatmate went there last week, he came back faintly traumatised, with stories of a baffling layout, deafening announcements in Flemish, and great difficulty finding and carrying what he bought. Oddest of all, John spoke of a crippling confusion about what to do when he reached the checkouts.  I was puzzled: how hard can a supermarket be?

Today, I understood.

There are signs at the entrance that sternly intone Colruyt’s motto: ‘Alles voor de laagste prijzen / Tout pour les meilleurs prix’.  Everything for the lowest prices.  In England, this would just be marketing puff.  In Colruyt, it is a fierce statement of purest conviction.  Alles voor de laagste prijzen.  ALLES.  The integrity with which they pursue this ethic is total.  The pitted concrete floor is uneven, so that if you turn your back on the trolley you often end up in a mad chase to catch it before it pancakes a toddler.  Frozen goods are stored in dozens of ancient chest freezers with rusty lids, no labels and no windows: a frosty lucky-dip.  The steel shelves might have been taken from someone’s garage, so that if you could only detach the teabags from the pool of spilled sump oil sticking them to the shelf, you might find a torque wrench and socket set behind them.  Some shelves tower eight feet over goods stacked high on pallets, with no indication of how you might safely retrieve that three-kilo jar of mustard teetering inches above your tip-toed grasp.  The prices of low-price, high-volume items like dishcloths are listed all the way down to three digits after the decimal point – one tenth of a Euro cent.

But this is not all that is unique about the Colruyt experience.  Your trolley is better suited to Homebase than a supermarket, perfectly adapted to the wrong task, such as transporting a new front door or a score of fenceposts. It has approximately the weight and wheelbase of a medium-sized family car, with a long, low platform underneath (just the job for those awkward eight-foot courgettes, I suppose), and a fixed fifth wheel right in the middle of the other four whose sole purpose seems to be the prevention of any deviation from a straight path.

The store layout is bewildering: signage has fallen casualty to the cost-cutting ethic, and there is no help available to find anything, even in Flemish.  The layout was designed by a child. Tinned tomatoes are next to bleach and detergent.  Coffee lies next to mops.  A half-aisle, hidden among lightbulbs, extension leads and buckets, is devoted entirely to beer, tampons and crisps.  Shelves and shelves of comic-book porn is at child’s eye-level, while toys and games are beyond the reach of all but the giantest giants.  Bread, onions, potatoes and medicines (of course!) reside in what can only be described as a walk-in cupboard.

The deli and butcher is pretty special, too. You don’t just ask someone over the counter for a few slices of this or a couple of hundred grams of that. No: you complete an A4 meat application form, note the number, hand it in, and then wander off in a daze. Later, an eardrum-bursting PA announcement calls you back, if you can only understand it: ‘DE VOLGORDE VAN LOTNUMMER ACHTHONDERDNEGENTIEN IS KLAAR BIJ DE SLAGER TEGEN TE GAAN!’ This, of all the things I saw in Colruyt, is the one I understand the least: are Brusselites so overcome by uncontrollable meat lust that they have to be separated from their rundskop and filet americain by bulletproof glass? Other supermarkets here don’t do this, so I would imagine that it’s just another feature of Planet Colruyt.

For about half an hour I wandered around with an idiotic grin on my face, picking up useful items not on my list, awed by the sheer perversity of the place.  But there was a nagging question: where the hell is all the cheese, the fruit and veg, the milk, the butter?  I need not have worried.  Alles voor de laagste prijsen.  Less dedicated supermarkets might opt for a more effete solution to the question of refrigeration – open-fronted chiller cabinets, perhaps, or glass-doored cupboard fridges, integrated with the rest of the shop.  Not Colruyt.  In the back of the bread cupboard, strips of thick, heavy translucent plastic sheeting hang in a doorway, like an industrial bead curtain.  Push your trolley through these, as if parting fur coats in a wardrobe, and you walk into a kind of supermarket Narnia: an enormous fridge, powerfully chilled by overhead air ducts, and dimly lit by fluorescent bulbs, it is brimming with fruit, vegetables, dairy, and anything else that goes off at room temperature.  Pretty soon inadequate clothing will rush you, shivering, through another plastic-stripped doorway, to rematerialise next to the cleaning products (and tinned tomatoes) that you passed not ten minutes ago.  You look over your shoulder and swear to yourself that the doorway wasn’t there before. And who knows – perhaps it wasn’t?

Eventually, the time came for the tills.  When John returned from Colruyt last week, his difficulty with the tills was the part of his tale that I found hardest to credit.  Supermarkets make but minor variations on tills the world over, surely? How hard can it be?

I had reckoned without the fiery ideological purity of Colruyt Thought.  Not here the corrosive beep-beeping and conveyor-belted convenience of other supermarkets.  When I reached the front of the queue, I took my backpack off (one of the sources of John’s difficulties having been a lack of heavy-duty baggage, I had come prepared), and a man with a hand-held barcode scanner scanned items and then placed them into an adjacent empty trolley. I filled my backpack with jars and tins and potatoes until it bulged and clanked and strained its zips.  It was full.  What would I do with this light-bulb, this kilo tin of coffee, these dozen eggs, and this box of laundry detergent the size of an old-fashioned compact television?

‘Avez-vous des sacs plastiques, monsieur?’

Monsieur returned a Belgic shrug. What tainted naïveté!  What execrable deviance from the collective ethic of ‘Alles voor de laagste prijsen!’  Of course there were no plastic bags!  Colruyt exists for car drivers, and you just push the trolley out to your car and load directly into the boot. Plastic bags, in this system, are nothing more than a wasteful bourgeois affectation!

I heaved the bag onto my back.  The lightbulb went into my jeans pocket – fear not, dear readers, I have not had to pick any glass splinters from my thigh.  I scrounged a manky cardboard box that had been sitting in the car park, and, having stashed the eggs and the coffee, put it under one arm.  I put the detergent under the other.  I took two steps forward, and realised that I hadn’t yet paid.  I put the boxes down.  I fished for my wallet.

The checkout man slotted his barcode scanner into a giant console on which I am almost (almost!) certain I saw flashing lights and reel-to-reel tapes spinning to and fro.  I inserted my bank card.  I punched in my PIN.  The console rumbled, whirred and spat out the till receipt that you see above.  I bent down for my boxes.  The weight of my bag almost overbalanced me.  I recovered.  I left the shop.  And I walked the 1.2km back down the rue des Patriotes to the Maison Wonk.

So I am writing to let you know that I have experienced the future.  Colruyt is what I imagine shopping might have been like in a stagnant Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, with the important difference that it is fully-stocked.  The dedication to ‘Alles voor de laagste prijzen’ is as pure as the driven snow, and that, on my salary, is no trivial thing.  It makes not a single concession to convention, convenience, presentation, comfort, ease of use or reason; still less to mendacious corporate pretensions of being your friend.  Confusion, alienation, the ontological insignificance of the individual, physical labour and arbitrary power are all central to the experience of shopping there.

Colruyt is entirely driven by its near-autistic pursuit of a solitary aim.  Everything else is subservient to ‘Alles voor de laagste prijzen’.  It is, in short, the ultimate male-friendly supermarket.  And I LOVE it.

5 thoughts on “Retail Hell = Retail Heaven

  1. all that and in Flemish, too! hope you got 2kg throat pastilles for future expeditions! Harry's (dutch)Mum

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