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Shopping in the UK
The UK is a multi-cultural nation with a myriad of British and international shopping opportunities, meaning you can quickly feel at home. No matter which of the many expat destinations you choose, you’ll easily identify the high street of any small or mid-size town, with its increasingly uniform array of shopfronts: Boots, for beauty products, health supplements and medicine, Lush for organic cosmetics; HMV for music and entertainment; Topshop for the fashion enthusiasts, and John Lewis for the home lovers.
If you are looking for independent boutiques, specialty shops, or high-end designers, there are plenty of travel guides devoted to shopping in the UK. Our overview of shopping has a different aim: this guide tells new arrivals where they can quickly pick up groceries, packaged food, and household items for their everyday needs.
The “Big Four” Supermarkets
The easiest way to go about shopping in the UK is to look for a nearby branch of “the Big Four”. The term refers to the country’s largest supermarket chains, which together account for almost 75% of the market share for grocery shopping in the UK. These four retailers are:
- Asda (525+ stores)
- Morrisons (500+ stores)
- Sainsbury’s (1,370+ stores)
- Tesco (more than 3,500 stores nationwide)
Depending on the location and the size, these shops not only sell snacks, food, toiletries, over-the-counter medication, and household supplies, but have branched out into other areas offering stationery, clothing, electronics, mobile phones, gas, financial services, and even utilities — some of it only online. You can also order your groceries online and have them delivered.
While smaller convenience stores, such as Sainsbury’s Local, are usually located in city centers, look out for hypermarkets — e.g. Tesco Extra — for bulk shopping. Situated in large shopping centers or on the outskirts of town, these huge supermarkets frequently have in-store pharmacies, a butcher’s or baker’s shop for fresh meat and pastries, departments for electrical appliances, DIY, garden tools, and more. Another popular store for buying in bulk is the American company Costco, with 28 stores across the UK offering everything and anything from seafood to furniture, or opticians to car services at certain stores.
Other Popular Grocery Stores
Of course, the four companies mentioned above aren’t the only chains for grocery shopping in the UK. The big four now face competition from continental imports, like the German no-frills supermarkets Aldi and Lidl.
In the upper price range, head to the food hall of Marks & Spencer (colloquially called M&S, or Marks & Sparks), or the nearest Waitrose, which boasts a royal warrant for delivering to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. Its budget ‘essential’ range also means that you can enjoy high quality products without having to dig deep into your pockets.
The “Big Four” also all offer their own value brands, like M Savers or Asda Smart Price, which may come in handy for cutting down on living expenses. Iceland, another retail chain, is also known for fairly inexpensive convenience and frozen food.
Opening Hours and Sunday Shopping
Usual opening hours depend on the type of store and the location. Hypermarkets and superstores are open from Monday to Saturday, from around 6:00 or 7:00 until 22:00 or 23:00. Inner-city convenience stores normally open a little later and close a tad earlier, whereas high-street shops or independent retailers in smaller cities may only be open from around 10:00 to 18:00.
There are laws to regulate Sunday trading hours in the UK. Larger shops cannot be open for longer than six hours on Sundays, and only between 10:00 and 16:00. However, this law does not apply to airports and train stations, or to small corner shops and “off-licences” (corner shops where you can buy essentials and alcoholic drinks), which can stay open until late. However, off-licenses are not permitted to sell alcohol before 10:30 on weekdays, or before 12:30 on Sundays.
Special Dietary Requirements
UK supermarkets are extremely accommodating towards customers with special dietary requirements, with larger British supermarket chains offering many alternative food items which cater to allergies, religion, and ethical beliefs. Major supermarkets, such as the previously mentioned “Big Four”, offer a range of gluten free breads and alternatives to cow’s milk for customers with lactose intolerance. For example, Sainsbury’s “Deliciously Freefrom” range offers gluten free gingerbread biscuits, while Waitrose offers Swedish dairy free ice cream and gluten free soy sauce — the options available are endless.
It has become the norm in UK supermarkets to offer vegan substitutes to everyday products, such as with pesto, cheese and meat. In particular, the vegetarian alternative to meat, Quorn, is sold in all major supermarket stores, often offering an entire section dedicated to Quorn in a variety of forms such as burgers and sausages.
Equally, those who do eat meat can also expect a range of options, from free-range pork to halal chicken. Most Tesco stores sell Halal meat and around 25 Tesco stores across the UK feature a Halal counter in the supermarket, where they sell meat products which adhere to Islamic laws. These can be found in Birmingham, Bradford, Leicester, London, Manchester, Sheffield, and several other cities. Similarly, Morrisons offer branded Halal meat in most of their stores, and have even introduced Halal sweets with brands such as Haribo. In many supermarkets, including Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, lamb is often sourced from New Zealand, in which case the meat is almost always halal.
There are also several services which can guide you in knowing precisely where your food was sourced and help to find the products you might be looking for:
- The Halal Foodguide Service classifies lots of packaged foods sold in British supermarkets.
- HMC certified outlets that are officially considered halal are listed in this directory (e.g. butchers, caterers, restaurants, or takeaways).
- Just Kosher makes home deliveries for kosher food.
- Kosher.org.uk provides detailed information on kosher food and establishments in the UK.
- Goodness Direct is an online delivery service that is easy to search by “special diet” (e.g. vegan or gluten-free).
- Local retailers, such as Real Foods in Edinburgh or Planet Organic in London, also have online shops for organic, fair-trade, vegetarian, gluten-free, or lactose-free food.
- The health food shop Holland and Barrett can be found on the majority of high streets across the UK and offer many ‘free from’ products, as well as a wide range health supplements and vitamins.
Department Stores and Home Furnishings
In addition to food shopping, you may need to purchase home electronics, kitchen appliances, furniture, cutlery, or other household items. Department stores like the fairly common Debenhams — or a simple trip to one of the 20 IKEA stores in the UK — are probably the easiest solution.
Britain’s Best Shopping Centers
Sometimes you may want to escape the rainy British weather and head to an all-under-one-roof shopping center. There are numerous shopping centers in the UK where you can find a vast range of stores and buy virtually anything you might need.
Below are some of the most well-known UK shopping centers which might be near you:
- North West England
- West Midlands
- South East England
- Northern Ireland
- South West England
The Charm of Charity Shops
If you are on a limited budget, check out the shop finder of the Charity Retail Association. Charity shops are extremely common in the UK. They are thrift shops run by charitable organizations and staffed by volunteers who sell donated items. The proceeds are then donated to the respective charity.
A typical charity shop sells clothing, toys, household linen, china, and knick-knacks, but some offer furniture and electronic gadgets as well. Charity bookshops in university towns are a great place for second-hand book-shopping in the UK, or for getting rid of your own library before you move back home.
There are a few charity shops which can be found on virtually every UK high street. Oxfam is a popular organization which works to end poverty in developing countries. It has an online store where you can select preferred designers when browsing clothes. Similarly, the British Heart Foundation is well known for its high street labels and also has an online shop.
If you are living in London, the majority of central London charity shops have fantastic designer clothes, and the charity shops on Marylebone High Street and in St John’s Wood are a great place to find a bargain. If you browse thrift shops for vintage fashion, remember that you may need a size converter for clothes shopping in the UK.
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