The last couple times I was in the C1000 (a medium-size chain grocery store by US standards—pretty big over here) in Delft, I noticed that some of the shelves were low on stock and didn’t seem to be getting replenished. It’s a mark of living here for three years that I didn’t think this was odd.
In Massachusetts, if I went to Stop & Shop or another big, main-line chain grocery store and they were out of some item I wanted, I would feel entitled to complain. I had some idea that the grocery store was morally obliged to offer whatever I wanted at all times, if they wanted my business, including if that item was out of season. I was disabused of the normalcy of this notion shortly after we moved here. If I went to the store, particularly late in the day, they were apt to be out of all sorts of things I might want, like whole milk, or a certain cut of meat. Produce is sold much more seasonally. Over three years I became more philosophical about this, and the phrase “I couldn’t get more cereal today; they were out of it” could be uttered in our household without any real tinge of whining.
However, it turned out there was something unusual going on at C1000 this week, which was that it was closing. Friday afternoon signs went up announcing that Saturday afternoon the store would close for two weeks, to reopen then as a Jumbo (another chain grocery store). But on Saturday morning, whatever was left in the store would be 50% off.
We keep a pretty strict budget, and 50% off groceries certainly caught my eye. I was also certain that I wouldn’t be the only one, as the Dutch have quite a reputation for frugality. The store opened at 8 AM, and with American thoughts of Black Friday in my mind (the early-morning madness of which, to be clear, I have never participated in!), I hauled myself out of bed at 7 AM Saturday after a late night out and was standing in front of the C1000 at around 7:40.
We get daylight savings time this weekend but it was well dark as I joined a crowd of about a hundred people and growing (and not all ethnically Dutch by any means). I made bad Dutch small talk with another woman and wondered if we were going to get trampled to death when the security guy opened the door at 8. I wasn’t so far wrong. The security guy opened the doors, made an announcement asking people to “walk, not run,” and then was literally shoved out of the way as people flooded into the store. I feel stressed just remembering it. In the moment I was thinking that perhaps this had been a royally bad idea, but I was inside the store within probably three minutes trying to keep out of people’s way. By the time I was even stepping into the store, the first people—with utterly rabid skill—were already pushing full carts.
Half off: produce, nonperishables, meats, and the grocery-store wine and beer. Where would you go first? I was utterly shocked by what most people were filling the carts with: SODA. Soda and paper goods (toilet paper, paper towels) were the most common things I saw. I wasn’t looking to bring home half the store, but to stock up if I could on a few things we routinely buy: pasta, pasta sauce, Illy coffee, chickpeas…. Pasta was pretty well picked over by the time I got there (only boring macaroni remaining), and flour and sugar were totally gone. I made a quick sweep of the canned goods and as I crossed to the other side of the store had to laugh: the produce section was so unpopular compared to where all the snack foods were. Granted, since they hadn’t been restocking, some of the produce was slightly past its peak, but I grabbed some, and watched as a woman took 500-gram bag after bag of spinach.
I kind of wanted to ask her what she was going to do with all of it.
Tim met me and we decided to check out before the lines got too long. We paid €32 for two massive bags of groceries, which made me happy; and the college guys behind us paid very little for giant crates of Bavaria and a ton of frozen pizzas, which also made me happy. I don’t think it was even 8:30 when we left, and by that time a security guy was regulating how many people could enter the store at a time.
After we left I thought of items I should have looked for, and Tim said it reminded him of a talk he heard once at our old church, where someone said to imagine yourself in a vault full of money, told you have a certain amount of time to grab however much you can. You would leave, the speaker said, with your arms full of cash, thinking you almost got even more.
Curious, I went back to the store around noon, just to see if it was still standing (it’s about 3 minutes from our house, lest you think that’s too lame). Nearly every item was literally gone.
Random soup mixes and hair gels and the odd beer had been thrown into giant bins and most of the store closed off. Sad herb plants looking like they got trampled were being thrown out. I rescued the last of the mint plants and took it home.