Top 5 tips for European Shoppers in the US

By: Snowflakes in California

It might sound silly to you or seem like a shallow thing to consider as a cultural difference, but I’ve had some very strange shopping experiences in this country so far. First of all, shop assistants are nicer and will always greet you when you enter a store. Do no be afraid of this, it's normal. Second, they might ‘bother’ you with questions (not done in Europe) as in “Are you looking for something in particular” or “Can I help you” but they do accept no for an answer so if you want to be left alone just say so. 

The first time I went shopping in the US was a horrible experience. I didn’t feel like entering any shop since I felt targeted and was afraid of constantly having to politely ward off employees. I don’t know if this is the case for every country in Europe, but in Belgium shop assistants will generally leave you alone until you call them. So here I was trapped in Bath and Bodyworks with a very persistent lady in front of me when I decided to just go along with it. I told her what type of scent I liked and after she showed me all the options (btw she nailed it) she updated me on all the deals I could get that day. Wait…. What? Yes, my European friends this woman actually told me how I could save money buying from her shop. Where in Europe you’re frowned upon for trying to get over to the sales rack preferably unnoticed, sales assistants here consider that normal. And yes, I did buy body lotion.

So, shopping in California has been about as different from shopping in Belgium as driving here has been. It doesn’t look different, but it is. As a very recent expatriate, and your humble servant, I’ll share the little knowledge I have gained concerning the topic in case you are planning a little shopping spree in the US or have never been here. I’m definitely not an expert but these are a few things I’ve picked up already: 

1. Never pay the full price
Rule number one and the most basic rule there is: you can always find a reduced price. Isn't that great? Sceptic Europeans might not believe this and I don’t know how this works, but it is in fact possible to buy all the things you need and never pay the full price. Of course this is easier for things like clothing, furniture, shoes, kitchen equipment and sports gear but you can probably get a lot of your groceries for a reduced price too if you shop around. Admittedly, some people are better at this than others (some just have more time), but there are tons of deals for tons of different products. It’s either a great marketing trick or the promised land, I haven’t figured it out yet… 

2. Online shopping
It was invented in the US and it has been perfected in the US. Ever heard of Cyber Monday? American stores know their audience and will often offer bigger reductions or better deals online. And the best thing about this is that you can do this in your PJ's. Can’t find a deal just yet? Be patient and wait. I know it’s hard. I had to order my wedding albums online and bought the first one at half off. Of course when I wanted to order two more all of a sudden the price went up. So there I was thinking that the system was tricky after all, trying to lure you in with the first buy and then BOOM normal price. But I waited a week and a half and got almost the exact same deal. So remember, the key words here are patience and online. 

3. Coupons are very much alive
It sounds like something from another life time, but never underestimate the power of coupons. Anyone who has ever watched ‘Extreme Couponing’ knows this. You do need to be smarter than the people who make the coupons though and that’s probably why I’m staying away from them for now. Only buy the things you need! Couponing can become quite an obsession here, I guess. It’s probably easier if you grew up with it and built up some sort of healthy resistance over the years, like my husband did. He got three large pizzas for 8 dollars one time using coupons and I could be wrong, but that’s pretty impressive considering American large is very large. And for all of you who don't enjoy cutting up magazines or advertisements: there are online coupon codes as well!

4. Outlets are a thing
A rare sight in Belgium, but a very normal thing here. There are two great outlet shopping centres in the San Diego area: one in Carlsbad and one near the Mexican border. Both are gigantic and offer a lot of brands. Whereas in European outlets you’ll mostly find leftovers nobody wants or you’ll have to drive to the other end of the country for a great selection. I usually shop at Nordstrom rack, the outlet version of the real Nordstrom: "Brands you love at up to 70% off". Doesn't that sound like music to your ears? And to be honest I’ve never actually bought anything at the ‘real’ Nordstrom. Maybe when I’m old and rich.  

5. Dare to ask for it
Even though I would NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS do this, some people just ask if there are any deals or reductions that day and it’s not always considered not done. It just depends on how you phrase it. I once saw a special on TV here where a ‘bargaining expert’ explained how to shop around and bargain for a price. Guess what? A shop manager actually has the power to give you 20 percent off on the spot. If you handle it right that is. So the dare devils among you can try this one out for themselves. All I am trying to say is that it is possible!

Apart from all those tiny differences, I think the main thing is that Americans are more vocal. The customer is (almost) always right here and nowadays an unhappy customer can do a lot of damage, just go on Yelp and you can see that. And that might be scary thing in a way, because who’s to say people are always honest judges? I like the fact that in Belgium and maybe even Europe it hasn’t come to that yet. But on the other hand, we do pay too much most of the time for mediocre service and nothing ever changes. 

Oh, and one more thing: why can’t every country follow California’s example and make sure that gift cards don’t expire? That would be great, thank you!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingSnowflakes in California is a Belgian expat living in USA. Blog description: A Belgian girl living in the Golden State.
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Contest Comments » There are 23 comments

Carlien wrote 5 years ago:

Big fan of your blog en love this post! Almost every girl loves to shop, so there's nothing silly about the differences in shopping between Europe and the US. It is even good to know, so I can be prepared when I visit the States ;) Hope we can shop together soon!

Chris, Mama Van Carlien wrote 5 years ago:

Good shopping advice. Those gift cards should be introduced here in Belgium as well!

Chabelly wrote 5 years ago:

These tips will come in handy when I'll visit you in the States (very soon I hope!) Some of them were very recognizable from my trip to the USA a few years ago :-) Funny and interesting to see how shopping habits can differ from country to country!

Gondy Leroy wrote 5 years ago:

You nailed it! Very good advice. I also learned to say "hi" when I enter the store and I feel very comfortable just browsing, even if it's a tiny shop. Dare I assign you a task for your first visit home: apply your newly learned behaviors in Belgium and you'll see some surprised shopkeepers ... often pleasantly surprised (unless you enter a chain store at 5.55 pm of course!).

Jan Strobbe wrote 5 years ago:

I couldn't agree more with your observations! Great post. Also don't be afraid to buy something even if you are not sure, you can always take it back.. no questions asked.

Peter, Papa Of Carlien wrote 5 years ago:

I'm happy to find out that Snowflakes in California lives the American dream - shop until you drop is definitely invented in America. Because of the traditional large scale and the fact that America is always two steps ahead, this blog is very interesting to discover those things that will become hot in Europe too!

Annelien wrote 5 years ago:

I love your blog! Great way to keep up to date with your american life. It's fun to get to know all these little differences between our countries and it's written in a very amusing way. Ideal for reading between classes, chores,...

Patricia wrote 5 years ago:

I love your blog! It’s the perfect introduction to the American way of life. Who would have know there are so many shopping differences between the USA and Belgium? But what I like most about your blog is the lighthearted view on everyday life of a twenty something: your first world problems, your inclination to bingewatching, your efforts to become a better cook, … It’s fun to read, so keep up the good work! ;)

Silke wrote 5 years ago:

Shopping in the USA must be such fun! Shop assisants really seem to grasp the importance of the 'customer is king'-principle. Hopefully this trend will once reach Antwerp as well :) Enjoy your future shopping trips.

Eva wrote 5 years ago:

I love your blog! Great way to learn more about the 'American way of life' ;) We all love to shop, so thank you for the great tips! Hope you have a great time in the US! And ofcourse: have a good time shopping ;)

Charlie Raasch wrote 5 years ago:

Love your blogs, Nathalie. Everything you say here seems so normal - must be a challenge to shop in Europe. However I must say that Leslie went to a shop in Kufstein and was helped out in what seemed an american fashion. No discounts though. BTW, you thing this is odd, go to Asia. That's where the real bargains/bargaining are. Talk about feeling uncomfortable...

BIE wrote 5 years ago:

Great tips Nathalie and spot on. I look forward to having you share more of your astonishing experiences with us in the jolly way you always do.

Eline wrote 5 years ago:

Great blog! I especially enjoy the everyday observations, allowing us to take a peek at life across the ocean. This girl is living the American Dream elegantly down-to-earth.

Tina wrote 5 years ago:

Europe can learn from the US, I would like some more discounts ;) ! Great writing ! Filled with humor and truth ! Love it :) !

Megan wrote 5 years ago:

Very clever ideas! Having just returned to the USA after three years in Europe, I really relate to your insights :-).

Fran wrote 5 years ago:

It’s nice to read about your experiences, and interesting to learn about the differences you discover every day. Even for plain things as shopping you seem to need new tactics and skills overseas :). Being a shop assistant in Belgium, I can tell you that I would (sometimes) prefer the American shoppers. Here people are indeed not used to being greeted, often they just ignore me. Sometimes I’m even afraid of scaring people away just by greeting them :p. Yes, Belgian customers can be really shy, though telling me what they need might just help them out! Good to read that you learnt to adjust and got to see the benefits! Customers who ask will be rewarded :D But I have to admit that I don't really like customers asking for discounts. That might have something to do with the fact that I work in a small independant store, but you go ahead and make deals buying at those big American store chains ;)

Daniel Hayfield wrote 5 years ago:

Very interesting article! When being first shown your blog it was somewhat enlightening, and wonderfully heartfelt to learn from a different perspective from someone who'd obviously jumped in the deep end head first, and was loving every minute of her life choices, a Bravo is well merited, and now, with my wonderfully English nature, I'm shown a guide on how to avoid doing what we Brits hate most, giving away money!! Where we are different in nationalities, we are similar in ideals, so it's good to see with a little savvy know how, you can adapt to a different way of life, and earn yourself a free glass of wine or two through perseverance. I wish you well, and that others may follow the same way, because after all, to quote an old teen poprock favourite, we could all use a little change.

Michelle wrote 5 years ago:

I absolutely love your blog. It's like you're still with us in Belgium and it makes missing you just a tiny little bit easier.. And it makes me want to come visit you! See you in 2015!

Joke wrote 5 years ago:

Love your blog Nathalie! Like when compared to traveling guides, these are the tips we all should get when going to the USA! ;) You have a great point of view, and 'a great pen'! Keep on blogging!

Sofie wrote 5 years ago:

Great blog, Nathalie ! You've always been a good writer. You always seem to pick the most lovely subjects for your blog. These are traveling guidelines you can't find in a general travel guide ! I miss you and hope to talk to you soon.

Ellen wrote 5 years ago:

As everyone visiting the US can't not go shopping, this is absolutely not a shallow thing to talk about. These are actually very usefull tips and I will definitely keep them in mind next time I'm visiting the US! Also, they should have (more) outlets like the Nordstrom rack in Europe :D.

Martine Van Daele wrote 5 years ago:

We are very happy with your blog ! It keeps us involved with what is going on in your life overseas… Nice reading and things formulated in an original way! Thank you for sharing some very good advice in your blog, it's always interesting to get information from a local ;) I have to admit I like shopping in the US more than shopping in Belgium. And there’s more than one reason for that. First of all, I find it really amazing that American shop assistants really do all the efforts they can to please the customers and last but not least, to make them feel happy. For Belgians like us, a very unusual experience ! Second, you can go crazy in outlet stores almost everywhere. Third, overall, clothing is a lot cheaper over the ocean. So considering all this, why wouldn’t you save your earnings and go spend them in the Sunshine State? However, keep in mind the top 5 tips !

Boudewijn wrote 5 years ago:

Interesting blog. Very useful, especially when you have never been there. Better than any guide. Go on doing your thing!

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