A Barcelona local dishes on the need-to-know etiquette around shopping in Europe, whether you’re stocking up on souvenirs or simply grabbing a midday snack.
Shopping in Europe is about so much more than buying the best Italian leather and French cheeses. Want to learn about local eating habits? Head to the biggest, busiest open market you can find. Curious about local culture? Try a flea market on for size. Art, antiques, old photos, junk drawers, and all the stories they hold are up for grabs (for a price).
Of course, as a social endeavor, shopping comes with certain protocols, and those protocols vary from place to place. In Europe, if you want to browse like a local, get great service, and bring home unique souvenirs, forget “the customer is always right.” Focus on figuring out the rules, instead. No one ever got the whole story—or an amazing deal—on small-batch liquor or traditional artisan crafts by being rude (however inadvertently). Read on for the dos and don’ts of shopping in Europe.
Say “hello” and “good-bye”
If you’ve ever worked in retail or customer service, you were probably trained to greet and smile at all clients who came within a certain distance of you. But throughout Europe, and especially in Spain, France, and Italy, the burden of breaking the ice often falls on the customer. Common courtesy dictates saying “hello” (in the local language, please) when entering a shop and “good-bye” when leaving, even if you just have a look around and leave without purchasing anything.
Ask if cards are accepted
Be sure to note how you want to pay before you have that artisan cheese vacuum-packed for the trip home. It may seem wildly old-fashioned, but some places still don’t accept plastic money, especially at seasonal and weekly markets, so it bears mentioning your method to the proprietor.
Bring your own shopping totes
Extra bags will come in handy. In many big European cities, such as Barcelona, London, Rome, and Paris, it’s illegal for stores to just “give” you plastic bags. Instead, they have to ask you if you want one and will charge you per bag if you do (usually a few cents).
Check that oversized bag at the door
Large purses and backpacks simply aren’t allowed in many shops and stores. Supermarkets and big box stores offer coin-operated lockers for your stowing convenience—just don’t forget to grab your wallet and shopping bags before you lock up. In smaller shops, they may hold your bag behind the counter while you browse, and in others they may just want to check inside your bag upon entering and leaving. When in doubt, err on the safe side and ask.
Carry small bills and change
Exact and approximate change are much appreciated in Europe. From tiny boutiques to huge chains, every shop seems to have a shortage of small bills and coins. It’s not uncommon to hand over a twenty for a 15 Euro purchase and have a cashier ask if you have a five, hoping to hand you back a 10 for change instead of a handful of metal.
Stay off your phone
Unless you’re using Google Translate to communicate with the seller, stay off your phone. Also, be sure to ask before taking pictures of creative products, particularly if you have no plans to buy anything, and be especially courteous to the folks working. Not every butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker wants to be featured on your Instagram, even if your account is private.
Haggle with care
Don’t expect to bargain for a lower price in most places, especially shops and market stands selling edibles. It’s just not done, and most vendors won’t give you the time of day. However, at flea markets like Barcelona’s Els Encants, bartering is par for the course—just be ready for some spirited back and forth. At artisan markets there’s some room for negotiation, but don’t expect to score more than 10 to 15 percent off of the list price. If you’re buying multiple items from a small shop, you may be able to work out a discount, if you ask politely.
Expect service with a smile
Smiling “just because” is widely regarded as insincere and is not expected even in the service industry. This is especially true in Eastern European destinations like Romania and Russia where it doesn’t matter how much you spend, the attendant isn’t obliged to smile at you in the name of politeness.
Touch the merchandise
Unless you’re a repeat customer who the vendor trusts, don’t manhandle the merch, especially in small shops and open markets.
At a food market, your best bet is to walk up and greet the seller, then politely request the thing you want. Yes, pointing at the product and adding “please” in the local language will work in a pinch. Then the seller will select the best fruit (or meat, or fish) for you. If you’re able to communicate, this is when you should let the seller know when and how you plan to prepare it. Pros who prefer to choose their own produce should ask permission before picking anything up.
At artisan and flea markets, you should also remember to look with your eyes, not your hands. Pick things up (gently) only if you’re seriously interested, and be ready to negotiate a price; put it back exactly where you found it if you and the seller can’t come to terms.
Buy from street vendors
Licensed sellers at pop-up markets and street fairs are legitimate, but avoid the folks that camp out in subway stations, along boardwalks, and on busy streets. The deals may be tempting, but skip it—you could get penalized. And forget bringing home a knock-off designer anything—you may end up facing a serious fine at U.S. Customs.
Smoke, eat, or drink
Smoking seems like an obvious no-no in a shop—but eating and drinking aren’t allowed either, not even in supermarkets. Generally speaking, Europeans (especially those in France and Italy) don’t approve of eating and drinking on the go—even less so when it’s combined with shopping.
Sample if you don’t intend to buy
If you have no intention of buying anything, indulging in free samples just because you can is bad form, particularly in neighborhood shops and at market stands. Sure, most sellers won’t complain directly to you, but it’s considered rude and could eventually mean the end of samples altogether, even for the rest of us rule-abiding consumers.