Woolworths is probably South Africa’s most expensive supermarket chain, but also its best, by far. I have never found such good and consistent food quality anywhere in the world. The other (in my opinion inferior) nationwide grocery chains are Spar (where they have the best German-style bread, which admittedly can’t be found at Woolie’s, and a more international selection), Pick ‘n Pay and Checkers (the latter two the cheapest and lowest quality, but good for your cleaning supplies and some packaged foods).
What I miss from the U.S. in terms of one-stop shopping is made up by the existence of many smaller specialty stores. You just have to get used to the idea of having several stops on your grocery route, and perhaps never quite checking everything off your list. Some people swear by the Fruit and Veg store at Fourways, but I have to admit I haven’t tried it yet (mainly because fruits and vegetables at Woolworth are of such good quality). Fournos Bakery has excellent breads and pastries and a nice terrace to sip your cappuccino. If you struggle, like me, to find things like muffin liners and chocolate chips, check out Kadies, a bakery supply store in Kingfisher Shopping Centre. There also used to be a good seafood market at Fourways, but unfortunately it has closed.
There are also a number of butcheries and I highly recommend getting your meat at one of those. I always struggle with the names of the various cuts of meats in a new country (for instance, you won’t find a chuck roast in your regular supermarket, and a tenderloin is called “fillet,” rhyming with “millet”). In those cases, it’s best to go to a butcher and explain what you need. Star Butchery next to the Indaba Hotel (very convenient if you’re living in Dainfern or Fourways Gardens) doesn’t look like much but I’ve found the meat there very well priced and good. When I had to find large amounts of Bratwurst, Bockwurst and Brezeln last year for our traditional Oktoberfest, I did all my shopping at the Schwaben Butchery in Edenvale. It was a bit out of the way for me but a virtual paradise for any German or Austrian expat, and I snatched every last Laugenbrötchen they had while conversing with the employees in my native Swabian. Berliner Butchery in Deco Park caters to a similar market and has won numerous awards for its food offerings. It is on my list to check out next.
If you’re looking for big U.S.-style discount stores, Makro is your best approximation. It’s similar to Sam’s Club (and currently in negotiations to be acquired by Wal-Mart), but not anywhere close to the quality found at Costco. I’ve also found that their prices are not much discounted at all, leaving you with large quantities of food you won’t have any room to store. Unless you’re on a very tight budget, it’s not worth the trip.
If you’re an expat newly arrived in South Africa, I recommend finding your closest Woolworths and perhaps Spar and stick to those. You won’t be disappointed, and it will be the most convenient. You might pay slightly higher prices than elsewhere, but in a country with an exchange rate where you have to multiply everything by seven or worse, who can really keep track?
Also see my grocery shopping post on Expat Arrivals.