McVities on the Shelves

There seems to be a lot more importance placed upon supermarkets in SE Asia than in Europe or the USA. This may sound strange, but for quite a few reasons, supermarkets have become something of an expat obsession in the Asian region.

Firstly, when most expats arrive in Thailand or Malaysia for the first time they are amazed to find that the larger supermarkets (or hypermarkets) are not only the repository of household goods and food, but a sort of cultural and leisure-time Mecca for local people. In the beginning you look around and think, “Wow, it sure is busy for a Monday afternoon.” Then you start to scan the shoppers more carefully and realise many aren’t actually carrying a basket or pushing a trolley. In fact, they aren’t even holding anything in their hands. You then notice that there is a lot of promenading and chatting going on as well as very annoying groups of people browsing aimlessly, often holding court right in front of the tins of baked beans that you plan to buy.

This is a very SE Asian phenomenon. Perhaps because supermarkets tend to be air-conditioned, or perhaps because they now tend to have coffee-shops and all sorts of things attached to them, they have become a popular day out for all sorts of people, from families to groups of young teenagers. Not a lot of shopping takes place, but people dress up in their Sunday best and exchange scandalous gossip in the pet-food aisle.

Expats are also often obsessed with supermarkets in certain parts of the region, although it does have more to do with shopping than just hanging out. Bangkok is a good example. People discuss the merits of Villa versus Big C with the type of intensity usually associated with politics or religion. Finding ingredients from Australia or the UK is of great importance, and some will scour a huge number of different enterprises on the look-out for vegemite or a certain type of chocolate.

When I lived in Myanmar this was taken to extremes. I will always remember the day a colleague turned up at work with a large back-pack and emptied it out on her desk. Out tumbled packet after packet of chocolate biscuits. We all looked in astonishment. “City Mart has McVities,” she screamed. “I bought all of them.” This particular brand of biscuits had never been seen inside the country before, so it was cause for quite some celebration. It doesn’t need to be added that we all clamoured to buy one or more packets from her. And the day I found tuna had been stocked again after disappearing from the shelves three months previously, I have to admit I bought so many I had to give about twenty tins away when I left the country a year later.

In places like Malaysia and Thailand the growth of super-supermarkets is unprecedented. ‘Bigger is better’ scream the ads, and in fact Tesco’s and Carrefour are now only places to enter if you have breadcrumbs and a very long string.

However, you won’t hear me complaining. In Koh Samui I can manage to do all my shopping in one place. I mean all my shopping. I popped into Tesco’s the other day and came out not only with my grocery shopping but with three t-shirts, two ink cartridges, a bath towel, two free-weights, a desk lamp and a bookcase. The only problem was that I’d arrived on my motorbike.

So next time you head for a large supermarket in SE Asia take it easy. Savour the experience and enjoy it as the local people do. And if anyone knows a supermarket in Koh Samui which stocks dried apricots, please let me know.