Cultural differences

Food and retail in Switzerland

11:09 AM

In my previous post I listed what I adjusted to coming to India, but how one adjust widely depends on what background they have and what they got used to prior living in a different country. This post focus on retail and food rather than cultural things.

The Switzerland I grew up into in the 80’s was not a market of big international brands, it was not even that much a big market for brands coming from our immediate neighbouring countries. Back then there was two major supermarket chains: Coop (pronounced co-op as it is short for cooperative) and Migros. The both a very different culture, Coop sold branded goods as well as few in house brands, Migros was anti-brand, everything found in their store came from their own factories with their own brand names at the exception of 2-3 products from big brands for which they bought the exclusive distribution rights (read Coop their rival could not sell them). There were few smaller retail outlets chains and family owned grocery stores too but they were struggling, not because Migros and Coop made an effort to crush them, but because in Switzerland the notion of Maximum Retail Price dos not exist (yes even today) which mean every independent store owner can price a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes as they wish. Needless to say that the independent mom and pop store owner just has to price it higher to be able to make ends meet having to pay the rent of it’s store based on only one store, and because they are operating on a smaller scale, they don’t get the advantage of wholesale discounts to be able to sell at a lower price.
Coop could sell and still does sell a box of Kellogg’s corn flakes cheaper than the other because they are a massive nation wide chain, Migros didn’t sell that brand as you can start to guess, they had their own corn flakes brand like they had for everything from bread, to cosmetics, and they didn’t open themselves to outsourced products until the second half of the 90’s, and even still today still sell more of their own brand than anything else, I would estimate the ratio to be 90% Migros and 10% outside labels.
The two retail giants have been at the base of a household and political battle, the left wingers and syndicates preferred Coop for their cooperative nature and free market policy, while Migros was preferred  by everybody else, at least on the surface, because the fact remained that Migros could sell goods of same quality as a branded one cheaper because they had control over the whole production and distribution chain, so even the syndicate lovers would shop there but preferred not to admit it, or be seen doing it, so was the “war” in the 80’s (and even before from what I heard).
My parents having a tight budget back in the day, it was obvious we were Migros Fans all the way for years, which means that I didn’t grow up being brand conscious since brands were moderately advertised on TV and papers (the good old times where we had so few TV channels to begin with!) Then sometimes in the late 80’s my parents got introduced to the concept of shopping across the border in the pre-Euro era. A friend of theirs told them things like meat and wine was cheaper in neighbouring France, and because my parents like many were penny pinchers, they gave it a try, we lived 10 minutes away from the French border after all. Going to France to shop became a monthly or bi-monthly affair depending how much there was to buy and to stay within custom regulation limits, that’s the time my parents also invested in a separate freezer unit for the kitchen to store their loot. And of course this is the time where we first got to see what an Hypermarket looked like, because back then Switzerland had very few of these and none near our place. With it, we got to discover brands too, something we never had back home due to cost factors, but in France a box of branded cereal was cheaper than the Migros non-branded one, needless to say that my parents not only saved a lot of money on their grocery bill but also managed to get most of the pantry and freezer shopping out of the way in one single trip a month, leaving us just having to deal with buying vegetables in Switzerland every week. In their effort to pinch pennies on daily expenses even further so that we had money to spend on fun vacations in the Summer, my sister and I suddenly got a lot of our clothes coming from French brand factory outlets and yup even generic stuff from the Hypermarket as well. until we became outfit brand conscious as teens that it, period during which my parents made it clear that they would cover the basics but any frivolities had to come out of our monthly allowance…which pretty much put labels like Levi’s out of reach, no matter how cool certain of the posh kids in school claimed they were, when you have to buy your extra fashion clothing out of your own pocket…you suddenly think twice about brands, fortunately the posh kids were small faction in school and there were many other kids who had the same deal as us, and H&M the Swedish garment store was the only brand most people shopped at to be cool.

On the fast food front, contrary to what people think not all in the West are exposed to it, Geneva had it’s first Mc Donald opened in the 80’s and the price of a value meal was almost as costly as a “Du jour” (meal of the day) in a local cafe. People used to go there for fun, but never made it an habit because they had many other option for the same price or even lower for their lunch. For the longest time that was all there was. Burger King tried to rival the red giant, but it never really took off, and I’m not even sure it was still there when I visited in 2008. Pizza Hut was the other American giant to make it there, it is still in Zurich, but apparently it left Geneva altogether from what my mom told me, they had 2-3 outlets at their peak, and they were always deserted, and home delivery was even less of a strength, Swiss as a rule don’t see the point of home delivery for food, and even today they are at the most more likely to go to a restaurant of take out joint, order in person and go back home with their packed food rather than have one do the job. Back to Pizza Hut, it pretty much flopped because Italian family owned pizzerias are all over the place, and you could get a huge pie completely hand made, with flat crust and baked in a clay oven for about 15-20 CHF when the cheapest medium pizza at Pizza hut would set you around 25-30CHF and would be a deep pan greasy monstrosity…a no brainer as to why it never caught in my homeland huh? But KFC had to bow out faster than Pizza Hut, people didn’t see the point of fried chicken, we are a oven roast chicken nation, so a bucket of greasy poultry at a high price…no thanks.
When Swiss think fast food, it’s generally donner kebab, the Turkish answer to the burger, surface grilled lamb or chicken paper thin cut from the grilling loaf put in a pita bread or wrap bread with a generous serving of salad, veggies and a dollop of sour cream and chilli sauce, no fries, no chips, when I went back in 2008 these were even more popular than when I left in 2003, and are now absolutely everywhere. The other thing Swiss consider good fast food is Asian fast food stuff: your meal stir fried in a wok on the spot with a serving of steamed rice, to be eating in the outlet of packed to go. Most of the Asian fast food and Donner kebab joints are family owned or are part of small local chains of outlet. And of course the ultimate fast food stuff is the half baguette sub sandwich fresh from your local bakery, it has been there for as long as I can remember and might as well be the original food on the go stuff in the country. Subway still exists there but in all the time I lived in Geneva I never went once to their outlet, friends complained about the prices, and the fact their subs are made out of soft bread, we like the crunch of the French baguette too much mind you!

When I came back in 2008 one thing that wasn’t on the radar when I left in 2003 was Starbucks, and they have managed to do well enough, not super popular but well enough. The reason being that coffee for the Swiss means a medium cup in a cafe, with a individually packaged put of cream milk to pour in it and sugar to taste, no bells no whistles there. At the most you could get a cappuccino in select restaurants. Those who new what a latte or a mocha coffee was in the pre-Starbucks era where most likely those who visited places like London were chains of the same vein existed in the 90’s. So quite obviously they have cornered a market that no one else has so far in the country : the speciality coffee shop.
Where it actually put me off and it actually repelled a few of my friends back home is that Starbucks has just exported their basic package and culture of disposable cups in  country were people are mad recyclers and environment lovers, so while some of my friends venture that yeah a Vanilla tall latte is great, they are left a bit bitter at the fact that it comes in a paper cup with a straw even if you sit in the outlet to enjoy it, and that it actually cost a lot more than a regular coffee in a quaint old cafe who will serve it in a real cup. I haven’t tried Starbucks there, first because I’m not a massive coffee fan, then because living in India I know there is more to coffee than the “cafe creme” and there is no novelty to it for me, and then because I can’t justify paying that much for a coffee in the first place. In Zurich it seems MC D is offering them concurrence anyway, with their Mc Cafe concept, fancy coffee served in big ceramic cups in a sofa environment with a complimentary almond biscotti at still a cheaper price than Starbucks.   

The Swiss are actually extremely conservative consumer that will look for quality and value before going for brands and fad, the reason why maybe so many fast food giants flopped or still struggle, a reason why you won’t find a lot of big brands clothes, and a reason why the fruits and vegetable section in stores still offers seasonal things rather than all year round strawberries. People if given a chance will still roam open air markets to find maybe slightly pricier veggies but at a much better quality, and every city still has a bi-weekly markets going on.
In this light, I never really got bothered by seasonal availability of fruits and veggies in India, my initial frustration was at not finding seasoning ingredients as easily in stores as I can find now to cook flavours from home, which is no longer an issue because as I said many Indian brands are tapping into the world food sector to cater to the new class of well travelled Indians who thanks to the IT sector is getting more opportunities to work abroad on short and mid-term projects.
For many things India actually had me introduced to some concept I didn’t know about such as home delivery of food stuff, themed restaurants, branded clothing, and affordability of services such as tailoring, and beauty treatments, back home even a hair cut is something you think wice about, and it’s always an “on appointment” only basis, you can’t hop into a parlour and say, I want to have my hair cut…Now But services is an entirely different topic I will leave for another time.


  1. YAY!!! I remember Migros!!! We used to go visit my aunt in Bern and cousins in Interlaken every year when I was a teen in the 80's. (We also visited relatives in Hamburg, Berlin, Goslar & Leeuwarden)
    But anyhow,- I still have 2 eiderdown comforters I bought at Migros in the 80's. 
    Seriously, you couldn't buy such things in the US in the 80's- everything was still polyester & synthetic left over from the 70's.
    Had to buy duvet covers too- no one in the US had even heard of such things!!!
    They've really held up, and as I recall they were only like $150- so cheap for real eiderdown!!
    I have a set of white lace curtains I bought at Migros too- you know the ones EVERYBODY has in Switzerland? They're still hanging in there too- been through 5 houses in 3 different countries now.
    Ahhh memories.....

  2.  Yeah eiderdown and feather pillows and duvets were actually the only thing people used until the late 80's or early 90's when polyester and synthetic filling became popular, I grew up with these and the need to fluff them up every morning to let the feather breathe :)
    The traditional duvet you use with a flat sheet below was something I hated, I was so glad when IKEA popularised the "nordic duvet" which is a synthetic filled thick quilt that is longer than the feather one.
    Buy lace curtain you mean these sheer veil curtain thing right? They are still extremely popular in Switzerland and they pretty much las a lifetime, I don't think both my grand ma ever changed theirs from the time they got married, there are special whiteners to revive them should they turn grey and that is about how little care they need :)
    And Migros rules because their housebrands are more than often superior to branded stuff, and they always come at the top of the list or close to the top in Independant consumer panel testing, and cost a fraction of the price of a branded good available in other swiss stores. Heck just their chocolate brand "Frey" is as good if not better than Lindt

  3. Yes, I fluff the eiderdown comforters every morning out on the balcony while the maid cleans. 
    Yes, I mean the sheer/veil white lace curtain, my grandma used to boil hers on the stove with something to get them white. I just throw mine in the washing machine with a little regular clothes detergent- 'et voila!' they are like new again!
    I agree with you about Migros' quality- I have so many things (especially kitchenware) that I've bought that have lasted nearly 30 yrs now. I guess 'planned obsolescence' never caught on in Switzerland either?

  4. Nope it sure hasn't, Swiss are in general a nation of consumer that use something until it dies rather that because a fad is dicating you trash your old to buy the new. I'm pretty sure it's deep ingrained in the culture for many and probably why the country went recycling happy when the notion was introduced in the 80's. It is for the vast part a land of mountain and agriculture before it became a financial heaven. People are rugged, when you live in harsh climate and condition with many areas still pretty much cut from the world every winter until the second half of the 20th century, you just don't go throw things up because they are no longer "in" you want durable.
    The only problem now with things like electronics and appliances is that they die too soon, and reparing them cost far more than buying a new one :(
    But seriously I had branded appliances that went kaput in no time while Migros ones did go the distance.


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