London’s ASDA v. Prague’s TESCO

June 4, 2010


Thinking back about ASDA, I didn’t really have a good grasp on what it means to be an ethnographer. Consequently, most of my observations were visual, but I still think there is some substance in that.

The shoppers and layout of the entire ASDA store were scarily parallel with that of Walmart. For the most part, ASDA’s customers seemed uninterested in fashion. I observed mostly women by themselves shopping for food and clothing. Many of the customers were overweight, and ranged in age to appear between 30-60 years old. There was a food section where people could stop and get lunch, and seperate sections outside of the groceries for men’s women’s, and children’s clothing along with shoes. With the clothing, I noticed that there weren’t any imitation brands. For example, at Walmart you’d find polo shirts with little logos that obviously resemble those of big name brands like Abercrombie and Fitch’s moose or the eagle from American Eagle Outfitters. This could be because English people will buy a lable if they can afford it, but if they can’t, they won’t make a big deal about it and try to pretend to be the kind of consumer that they’re not.

ASDA had three different kinds of carts: huge ones, mid-size, and baskets. In the US we basically just have big carts or tiny baskets. I have never thought about it this way, but maybe the reason why we don’t have the mid-size cart is because when people go shopping it is usually to grab one or two things or to do the shopping for the whole week or even longer. Put simply, we buy more. I know that my mom shops this way, especially at Costco.

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In Prague, we visited an enormous Tesco; it had two floors. Having improved my skills as an Ethnographer, I really made the effort to use all of my senses to experience Tesco. I left with no pictures, which was my main focus at ASDA.

What I heard: Clanging of shopping carts. A continuous, high pitched, incessant, annoying beep. I assumed I wasn’t the only one annoyed by this sound. It was a universally annoying beep. People dragging their feet to make a swoosh noise. I used to drag my feet a lot. Sean Paul, an American reggae/hip-hop artist, was playing on the radio throughout the store; I certainly did not expect that. Followed by that song, came a pop song in the Czech language, so I felt like I was back in Prague again. Another sound that reminded me of the supermarkets from the states was the unmistakeable sound of a noisy, clanky freezer when you open the door to grab your ice cream. Over the announcements I heard a girl speaking in czech, and though I couldn’t understand her, she was speaking very quickly in a low monotone voice, just like the typical supermarket announcement sounds in the US.

What I smelled: By the bread isle, there was an unmistakeable smell of sweet, freshly baked bread with poppy seeds. It makes you think of your grandma. As I walked by the stands of wrapped products and grocery bags, you could really smell the plastic. Personally, I love this smell. I can remember smelling it when I was five years old because I, to this day, always serve as my mom’s grocery helper and go shopping with her. The leafy basil leaves that hit me out of nowhere in the produce section reminded me of the garden in my back yard. The strong smell of cured meat by the deli section reminded me of the exact smell of my friend Marta’s house. Marta’s parents are polish immigrants, so they cook a lot of traditional dishes using the same type of meat.

What I tasted: There wasn’t a whole lot in Tesco for me in terms of taste. There was a bowl of salt on a table that I tried. I sat for a while to see what purpose a random bowl of salt would provide by watching other shoppers use it, but no one ever approached that lonely bowl of salt.

What I felt: The first ethnographic observation that I had was something I definitely would not have consciously noticed before, the cold air on my ankles as I walked down an empty frozen food isle. Once I had noticed it, I got goosebumps. The other major observation in terms of feeling I felt has to do with personal space. As I mention in my “what I saw” section, people are not very apologetic about bumping their baskets or carts into another person. The personal space bubble here is definitely a lot smaller than what I am used to, but I thought it was kind of fun. You know that you’re really being immersed into a different culture in those moments where you feel uncomfortable; those are usually the moments when you would learn the most.

What I saw: Everyone was digging through the produce, putting their hands on everything. There was a huge bread pile where I watched some people dig for the most perfect, largest rolls. I also noticed the look of approval or accomplishment on each shopper’s face as each winning bread roll was placed into their bags. People were walking pretty briskly through the store, not taking their time until it was time to choose their “winning” produce. The way a lot of the shoppers were holding their baskets was pretty loosely and carelessly, and the baskets often banged into the displays and other people, same goes for the carts. There was a woman who was holding three shopping bags, one basket full of groceries, and two frozen pizzas under her arm. This gave me the impression that she was using the hypermarket to kill three birds with one stone for her day or week’s shopping. She was too busy to even grab a cart. Maybe she thought that she was going to be in and out, and ended up buying more than what was expected. On the opposite trend, I noticed several women who were shopping with grocery lists written on paper. Perhaps they have already seen the prices and have coupons for certain brands. This all plays into the idea of how Czech people are price sensitive. Sitting outside of the Tesco, I noticed people would stop and go over all of the things they bought, and carefully go over their receipts to look at what they had spent for what they’d gotten.


”Only great minds can afford a simple style.”
-Stendhal (One of the most original and complex French writers of the 19th century)

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