Friday, October 8, 2010

Shopping

brood automaat
a machine that sells bread...
Shopping is where you will find the biggest and the most annoying differences between the US and Belgium. Although Belgium isn't nearly as bad as Germany or England, shopping hours are restricted and getting used to this requires good advance planning. This is especially true for people coming from the US where one hardly has to worry about shopping hours.

All Belgian shops are required to have one rest day a week. The rest day is easily the most annoying thing in Belgium and no matter how hard you try, the rest day always falls on the day you need the store the most.

Shops are also limited as to the total hours they can be open for business. It used to be business hours were restricted to regular work hours and most shops were closed on weekends. That is still true in Germany and England. Add to that a two hour lunch break and to go shopping one either had to take time off from work or move one's work schedule around on certain days.

Fortunately that is no longer the case in Belgium. These days you can find shops that are open nearly every day of the week and at all times during that day. But it does require some flexibility on your part.

First, remember that your favorite shop, be it a bakery or bike shop, has a rest day when it will be closed the entire day. If you plan to be in Belgium for an extended period of time, it is good to memorize that day. As a rule certain types of shops favor certain days. Bike stores for example tend to close on Sundays or Mondays. Bakeries on the other hand are nearly always open on Sundays. Grocery stores most often close midweek on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Second, nearly all stores will be closed between noon and 1PM for lunch break. Most will also close at 6PM in the evening, although supermarkets tend to stay open until 8PM. Except for bakeries, most stores won't open until 9 or 10. Sundays can be very problematic and it is not unusual to find all gas stations closed on Sunday afternoons.

Supermarkets won't bag your groceries for you, and since 2009, they won't give you free bags either. You are expected to bring your own bags, or buy re-usable bags in the store. Most stores will give you old boxes if they have them, but it is better to go to the store equipped with a set of good bags. But always remember to start bagging as soon as the clerk starts ringing up your stuff.

While it used to be impossible to buy anything after 8PM that has now changed with the introduction of "nachtwinkels" or night time shops. These shops are only open in the evening and at night and they are only found in bigger cities. Night time shops are an extended version of the sundries stores one finds in US hotels. Except that they always have a large selection of beer and alcoholic drinks.

Smaller cities often have vending machines instead of nachtwinkels and in some cases these vending machines have expanded to occupy an entire wall and become a virtual store. Simpler vending machines that sell bread only are popular at bakeries and you can find one in nearly every village or town in Flanders.

Gas stations have also found a workaround to restricted hours and most are equipped with a debit card reader. Unlike other such readers, the readers at gas stations rarely accept anything but local debit cards ("bancontact"). If you plan to stay in Belgium for an extended period of time, it pays to get a bank account with a local debit card. Note that the cash dispensers (ATMs) outside banks do tend to accept foreign debit cards and Americans should have no problem finding an ATM cash dispenser in most cities.

The use of credit cards is not popular in Belgium. Most shops will not accept cards and those that do may charge you an extra 3-5%. Nearly all shops have a minimum and in some cases that minimum is quite high.  Furthermore, you won't be able to buy sales items with the card. Buying on credit is something Belgians frown upon. The commonly accepted rule is that if you can't afford to pay for it, don't buy it.

Although some gas stations will accept credit cards, most don't, and neither will their automatons that operate after hours. If you forget to gas up before the weekend and you don't have a local debit card, you may be in serious trouble. Your only hope at that time is to find a freeway gas station or to drive into a big city like Gent, Antwerp or Brussels.

Sales periods are regulated by law and Sales can only be had and advertised at certain times during the year. When the store windows show a Sales sign, the sales are for real so you better hurry and take advantage. You won't see any sales signs unless there is an officially sanctioned sales period. Call it truth in advertising.

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