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Culture, Shopping & Recreation

Shopping in the UK

Do you have a sudden craving for mince pies? Are you wondering where to find vegan chocolate? Or have you simply run out of toothpaste? Our expat guide to shopping in the UK helps newly arrived residents do their grocery shopping, run errands, and furnish their new home.

Shopping in the UK is hardly an obscure topic. 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: Laura Ashley, full of floral-patterned home furnishings and women’s wear; Lush for organic cosmetics; Virgin Megastore for music and entertainment; Topshop for teen fashionistas shopping in the UK, and so on.  

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 in the UK has a different aim. We want to tell 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 hold together over 75% of the market share for grocery shopping in the UK. These four retailers are:

Depending on the location and the size, these shops do not only sell snacks, food, toiletries, over-the-counter medication, and household supplies. They have branched out into other areas for shopping in the UK, offering stationary, clothing, electronics, mobile phones, gas, financial services, and even utilities – some of it only online. You can also order your groceries on the Internet 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 – to do some bulk shopping in the UK. Situated in large shopping centers or on the outskirts of town, those huge supermarkets frequently house in-store pharmacies, a butcher’s or baker’s shop for fresh meat and pastries, departments for electrical appliances, DIY, garden tools, etc.

Other Grocery Stores

Of course, the four companies mentioned above aren’t the only chains for retail shopping in the UK. For instance, they now face competition from continental imports, like the German no-frills supermarkets Aldi and Lidl. In the upper price range, you’d rather go shopping in the food hall of Marks & Spencer (colloquially called M&S, or Marks & Sparks), or at the nearest Waitrose. The latter boasts a royal warrant for delivering to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.

However, if you are on a budget, you’d better forgo sharing this prerogative of the British monarchy. Again, the “Big Four” might be your best choice. They 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 – hence the name.

Opening Hours

Usual shop opening hours depend on the type of business and the location. Hypermarkets and superstores are open from Monday to Saturday, from around 6:00 or 7:00 am till 10:00 or 11:00 pm. 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 am to 6:00 pm.

There are laws to regulate Sunday trading and shopping in the UK. Larger shops cannot sell their wares for longer than six hours on Sundays, and only between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm. However, this law does not apply to airports and train stations, or to small corner shops and “off-licences” (where you buy alcoholic drinks).

Special Dietary Requirements

If you have any special dietary needs or are interested in ethical shopping in the UK, the big supermarket chains may not always be convenient. However, both Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s have launched a “Free from” line with a limited selection of food for those allergic to dairy or gluten, and most large retailers sell their own organic and fair-trade brands.

About 25 Tesco stores across in the UK feature a Halal counter in the supermarket, where they sell meat products adhering to Islamic laws. These supermarkets can be found in Birmingham, Bradford, Leicester, London, Manchester, Sheffield, and several other cities. Still, if your personal diet is heavily influenced by religious, medical, or ethical concerns, you often have to fall back on online resources for shopping in the UK.

Department Stores and Home Furnishings

In addition to resources for food shopping in the UK, you may need to purchase home electronics, kitchen appliances, furniture, cutlery, or household linen. Department stores like the fairly common Debenhams – or a simple trip to one of the 18 IKEA stores in the UK – are probably the easiest solution.

BHS, or British Home Store, is another alternative for the cost-conscious homeowner or interior decorator. It’s less pricey than the John Lewis department stores, let alone House of Fraser.

Charity Shops

If you are on a very limited budget, check out the Charity Retail Shop Finder. 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 gains are then donated to the respective charity.

A typical charity shop sells clothing, toys, household linen, china, and knick-knacks, but some offer furniture or 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.

If you browse those thrift shops for vintage fashion, remember that you may need a size converter for clothes shopping in the UK! 


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

InterNations Expat Magazine