I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: In all my time at Joburg Expat (approaching 7 years), I have yet to come across any expats who look forward to leaving South Africa.
There are many reasons (I’ve recently found 30 of them) why people don’t want to leave South Africa, chief among them the outstanding climate, the friendly people, and the laid-back lifestyle.
But when you talk to anyone who’s made their home in Johannesburg or elsewhere in the country and ask them what they’ll miss most about South Africa one day, I’ll miss Woolies will come up almost immediately.
Woolies, of course, is what South Africans fondly call the grocery chain Woolworths.
When we first moved to Joburg, I thought that Woolworths was in some way connected to the English department store of the same name, the one I associated with cheap discount goods sold in cramped aisles and large bins to sift through, so I was a bit apprehensive. But there is no connection. Woolworths was founded in 1931 in South Africa (with its first store in Cape Town), and the English chain it actually was, for a time, associated with and modeled after, is Marks and Spencer.
Of all the reasons to be proud of South Africa, Woolies should be at the very top. It is, in my humble opinion, the world’s best grocery store. In all my years in Germany, Singapore, and the United States, I haven’t found another grocery store I’d rather spend time in and shop at than Woolies.
After we left South Africa, I thought that perhaps my infatuation with Woolies was misplaced. That perhaps I suffered from pure nostalgia, that I bunched Woolworths together with all sorts of irrational loves viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight that wouldn’t withstand the test of time.
But I’ve just been back to South Africa, and one of my first errands was to go shopping at Woolies to fill my second suitcase brought specifically for that purpose. Immediately I was drawn into its bann again and remembered how much I loved it. It felt like coming home. I was practically giddy pushing my cart through the aisles, and it was super hard not to fill it up with everything in sight.
Only my husband’s valiant efforts kept me from loading up on biltong, on account of the biltong-sniffing dogs at American airports. Same for the little sausage sticks called Cabanossi that I could snack on all day, and have never found in American grocery stores.
Instead, we decided to buy a biltong machine, complete with biltong spices. My excitement to try it out is somewhat dampened by the fact that it’s the wrong voltage meaning the built-in fan won’t work, and the required light bulb doesn’t fit into the socket. It will require so much tinkering that it would have been easier to build it from scratch. I’ll report on my biltong-making venture at some future time.
It was also very hard to pass by the yogurt, the cheese selection, and the snack shelf. Yum!
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I love Woolies so much. Mostly, it’s a combination of two things: quality and convenience.
The quality of the food you can get at Woolies, particularly the fresh produce, is consistently outstanding. You know how you will get a bad batch of peaches and think to yourself, oh well, they can’t all be good, and move on? Not at Woolies. Every single batch of anything I’ve ever bought there was good, or better than good.
While shopping at Woolies definitely puts you at the high end of grocery stores in South Africa, it’s still not very expensive, particularly when compared to food prices in the United States. Woolworths has a large range of its own branded goods, in fact you won’t find many branded goods on its shelves. This might initially be a turnoff to the newly arrived expat looking for Nestle chocolate chips or Honey Nut Cheerios, but trust me, you’ll come to love the Woolworths brand so much that you’ll cry big tears when you no longer have access to it.
Interestingly, Woolworths doesn’t have a deli with cut-to-order cold cuts like so many other grocery stores. You’d think that’s a big downside but it never bothered me. They do sell a few packaged hams and cured meats that were always enough for me, and not having to wait in slow deli lines was actually more of a bonus than a drawback.
And it looks like you can now even get German soft pretzels at Woolies, as well as other artisan breads, which used to be the only weakness when making a Woolworths shopping run.
But even more than the excellent quality, it is the convenience of shopping at Woolies that won me over so quickly.
Whoever is in charge of Woolworth real estate and store locations is a genius. If you like it just five minutes from home, go to the little Woolies with just four aisles that you can be in and out of in ten minutes. If you like a wider selection, go to the large shopping center you do most of your errands at, and there will be a large Woolies there as well. But even there, you won’t be overwhelmed by miles and miles of aisles with too many choices. By actually limiting choice and instead focusing on good quality products, Woolies makes grocery shopping so much more enjoyable. I remember my first shopping run after we returned to the U.S. and how exhausted I was after comparing a bazillion brands in vast superstores. Turns out, unlimited choice is not nearly as great as it’s made out to be.
Woolworths somehow manages to bring back the little mom and pop store experience of old, but with modern-day quality and selection. I also like who they are as a company, as described in their Good Business Journey initiative.
Note: This post was written without any incentives or sponsorship by Woolworths