Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Freedom of choice (Ελευθερία να επιλέγουμε)

The opening of a new supermarket is seen as a source of entertainment for us islanders who live in too small a place to maintain a wide and varied leisure market. Shopping and the opening of new megastores fulfills the need for the locals to see and do 'something different'. AB Vasilopoulos’ only store in Hania is located very close to my workplace. When I lived in Athens, I'd been to one of their other branches. I found the prices more expensive at the time, which I thought was mainly due to its stocking imported products like Cadbury's chocolate and Marmite, items one can never find in a neighbourhood supermarket, although this is also changing: more foreign products are becoming available in supermarkets as ex-pat communities are growing in Crete. For this reason, ABV is perceived as a supermarket for discerning shoppers with well-padded wallets, a belief that is well supported by their recent television advertisement. The supermarket admits that in the past, it may have had higher prices, but it now claims that its prices for basic staple products are the same or lower than other supermarkets, a sign of economically difficult times hitting the luxury end of consumerism.

ab vasilopoulos comes to hania
Advertising pamphlet for AB Vasilopoulos

I first used this supermarket out of curiosity (ie for its entertainment value). I did not expect to find what I saw. The supermarket shares very few features with other supermarkets in the region. Despite its limited space, it creates a 'shopping experience'. As you walk in through the entrance, you find recipe cards, information pamphlets about recycling, product quality checking, sustainability, and all manner of food and social concerns. The most documentation you will find in other supermarkets mainly has to do with special offers, monthly brochures and coupon collection pamphlets with which you can acquire, say, a set of porcelain dinner plates at a low cost if you manage to collect 100-or-so coupons, gaining one every time you spend (say again) 3 euro, and you still pay a certain amount of money to acquire them, despite your coupon collection!

The first goods bay you come across is the fresh produce section, which may sound natural to most people outside Greece, but in Hania, this is not at all common. The main entrance of most supermarkets is on the opposite side of the loading bays, so that the fresh produce section is always at the deepest most windowless corner of the store. Appearance and image play a great role in this supermarket. Both paper and plastic bags were available; in this way you could go for the former if you wanted to be environmentally friendly, or the latter if you wanted to be practical. There was also a box of tissues at hand if you got your hands dirty. None of these choices or conveniences are available in other supermarkets in Hania. This kind of respect for the customer is a novel approach in a country where, until only recently, food store assistants could be seen smoking at the same time as slicing salami.

The display cases for most of the fresh food products at ABV are placed in "islands" (as depicted in the picture in the advertising pamphlet above) making them look more appealing and fresher, while the shelves are reserved mainly for non-food products and boxed items. The staff uniforms resemble suits rather than the simple aprons supermarket assistants usually wear on top of their normal clothes. Their mannerisms - polite discreet smiles, knowledge of the products on their shelves, adherence to formalities such as asking for identification when paying by credit card - show the greatest deference to the customer; it conveys the trust that is often lacking these days in food-related businesses. These people almost looked like police officers, with their gray trousers, white shirts, red kerchiefs and blue cardigans. Even though there was a heatwave outside, these people were over-dressed within reason - the refrigeration and air-conditioning is set at such a high level (presumably to ensure the quality of the fresh products), that I was practically shivering in the store. It may have been Dubai outside, but indoors, it felt like Siberia.

My main price comparison index is based on the cost of milk. I was surprised to find that the brand of milk I usually buy at INKA (not the cheapest) was being sold more cheaply at ABV. But that was about all that was cheaper. Basic fruit costs more per kilo here than at other supermarkets, even though bananas and apples come from the same sources (nearly all the bananas sold in Greece come from South or Central America). Strawberries were over-priced (a pamphlet explained where they came from and praised their quality), while the feta cheese I usually buy from Carrefour (the only store to stock my preferred brand) was being sold at ABV at a cost of 2 euro more per kilo. After a more thorough search at the deli counter, I found that the cost of the same cheese in pre-packaged form was 9.68 euro per kilo, while the same product was being sold in bulk (ie you could buy the amount you want) at approximately 7.55 per kilo, which is what I was used to paying for it at Carrefour. More upmarket brands of imported products (eg Kikkoman soy sauce) were being sold in place of their cheaper counterparts (eg Blue Dragon). At the same time however, ABV also stocks its own-brand packaging for staples like rice, beans and sugar, and their prices were similar (if not cheaper) to other supermarkets.

Aesthetic appeal is very important in ABV. Many people will say ‘πουλάει βιτρίνα' (poulaei vitrina - he’s selling the ‘window display’). This was evident right throughout the store, especially at the impressive meat counter. There were cuts of meat that I don’t often see elsewhere: stuffed pork loins (in Greece, these are called ‘rollo’) with a variety of fillings and in different sizes, minced lamb meat (the mere collocation of these two words is laughed at in Crete), and veal (even though it was imported from France, it is extremely rare to come across it in Crete). As soon as I approached this part of the supermarket, the assistant called out the specials to me, and explained all the different cuts of meat in the display case. There were also many pre-packed meat cuts, something not so common in Crete, as people still like to see the blood and guts of the animals they buy for food.

ab vasilopoulos comes to hania ab vasilopoulos comes to hania
The amount of pastrouma I asked for was sliced freshly and each slice placed individually between plastic sheeting. This care in packaging is unheard of Hania; at any other supermarket, all the slices would have been placed on top of one another, leading to quicker product deterioration. The camembert is ABV's own brand (365); Marmite is imported.

I came to the conclusion that there was no real need to change my supermarket routine just because ABV had come to town. It is a useful place to pick up bread and milk (now that I know that it is priced competitively) and maybe the odd piece of fruit you have run out of at home, but you really need to know what you were paying before you come to shop here. Before leaving the store, I decided to make some specialist purchases, seeking out goods that I knew I wouldn’t find in other supermarkets. I didn’t really need to buy camembert, pastrouma and Marmite*; I've survived happily without them for the last two decades! These purchases cost less than 8 euro, and no one else in the house likes them, but it had that feel-good sensation of pampering oneself; my stroll through the supermarket also constituted a bit of ‘me-time’.

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Compare my ABV shopping experience with my regular supermarket shopping. INKA supermarket is five minutes away from my house. My branch is in the thick of the beach-tourism area of Hania. Last Saturday, Loumidis was serving freshly brewed coffee to everyone. I had some with a friend I bumped into. It gave us a chance to catch up.

loumidis coffee inka supermarket agious apostolous hania chania
Loumidis coffee making everyone a fresh brew at INKA. This is an advertising gimmick; it doesn't take place all the time, as it does in the New World supermarket in Wellington. When I went to this supermarket on my last trip in 2004, I often came across little old Greek ladies who remembered me from my years in Wellington, and I had my coffee with them.

The bread was fast running out and it was only 11am. It's popular with the tourists who also help the supermarket make a fortune in pre-sliced cheese and cured meats. As I drove my trolley to the deli counter, I bumped into the priest who had officiated at my wedding. He was doing his shopping with his wife, and they enquired into the condition of my health and family (όλοι καλά, I replied). I needed some chicken, and patiently waited for my turn to come at the meat counter. Some English tourists were pointing to the lambs' heads in the display while they gawked at the butcher hacking away happily over huge flanks of of meat. My turn came, but before I said a word, the butcher asked me: "Where do I know you from?" I couldn't remember seeing him anywhere before, but hopefully that doesn't underestimate my sense of belonging to my adopted hometown.

inka supermarket agious apostolous hania chania
The man on the left in the white shirt was cleaning people's car windows. Life is difficult for many people these days; he accepted my donation without asking specifically for it.

When I'd finished my shopping, I queued up at the till where a cousin was working. She may be a few times removed in the family lineage, but that doesn't stop us from bonding. And as it was such a beautiful spring day in May (warm without being overly hot), I decided to drive down to the beach (one minute away) and take a couple of gorgeous photos of happy people enjoying the spring weather in the middle of the Mediterranean...

golden sand beach near inka supermarket agious apostolous hania chania golden sand beach near inka supermarket agious apostolous hania chania

*Marmite is the UK equivalent of the antipodean Vegemite (which is of course far superior to Marmite, as all good Kiwis will tell you). They taste similar, and bring me closer to Wellington, even though the flight to New Zealand from Hania is 24 hours in duration.

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