Guide to British Stores and Shops

Featured image: Markus Spiske

For me, the best part about studying abroad wasn’t traveling across Europe and seeing new sights – it was settling into a routine, becoming familiar with my host city, and making it my own. I loved shopping and running errands because it truly made me feel like a local.

Once you’re abroad, you’ll begin to recognize all of these British store names in no time, but just for extra preparation, here is a breakdown of most of* the main shops and what you’ll find in them:

I. Grocery Stores:

a. Sainsbury’s

This is a standard supermarket like Ralph’s, Vons/Safeway, Albertson’s, etc. so I did my main grocery shopping here. If you’re on a budget, buy the Sainsbury’s Basics brand (you can make a big batch of spaghetti marinara for under 2 pounds). They also have a rewards system where you can collect and spend “Nectar points” which can be convenient.

b. Tesco Express

In Bristol, I lived near a Tesco Express, which is more of a convenience store than a grocery store (Tesco is a large corporation/chain and has different sizes of stores, so some are larger like Sainsbury’s). I didn’t normally buy fresh produce here, but would purchase tea, snacks, and the occasional quick pre-packaged meal (cold pasta or a sandwich).

c. The Co-operative Food

The Co-op for short, this store has slightly more of a Trader Joe’s vibe (which might just be due to the name). The Co-op has lots of other divisions like The Co-op Travel and The Co-op Insurance, but I only visited the food division. This shop was much closer to my house than Sainsbury’s was, so I ended up going there on weekends to get last-minute ingredients or a few pre-game ciders before a night out. I don’t think the pricing was as cheap as Sainsbury’s Basics, but it was normal.

d. Waitrose

This is the poshest and most expensive of all the grocery stores (sort of like a Whole Foods or Gelson’s). Just check out this Facebook page to get an idea of what it’s like. I didn’t shop here for everyday meals, but this was the only store where I could find Crispy M&Ms and Rekorderlig cider.

Haul from a shopping trip at a Sainsbury's Superstore. Can you guess what we were making?
Haul from a shopping trip at a Sainsbury’s Superstore. Can you guess what we were making?

Side note: Remember, certain foods have different names, so have fun “translating” and finding what you need in the store!

II. Drugstores:

a. Boots

A typical drugstore with all things health and beauty related (with some food items thrown in). I dropped into Boots countless times to pick up random “bits and bobs” like vitamins, contact solution, and snacks for class. Regretfully, I wasn’t too into makeup at the time and didn’t take advantage of all of the British beauty brands that are carried there.

b. Superdrug

I only went to my local Superdrug once to pick up some hair dye, but it is more or less the same as Boots. However, I think some of the brands they carry differ from the ones at Boots and have more of a focus on skincare and beauty.

III. Home Goods/Necessities:

a. Wilkinson’s

Also called Wilko, this store is where I got all of my home goods: bedding, shower caddy, hamper, kitchenware, detergent, etc. I thought of it as a Target equivalent (except nothing can be equal to Target).

IV. Discount Stores:

a. Poundland

The land where everything is one (British) pound. The quality and range of goods are the same as our 99 Cents Only stores and Dollar Trees. I shopped at Poundland for Digestive biscuits, candy bars (they are just so much better in the UK), and even a travel toiletry bottle kit.

V. Clothing Stores:

Most of the clothing stores in the UK are either from around the world or can now be found in your home country (Topshop, ZARA, Urban Outfitters, etc.), so there is only one that really needs an introduction.

a. Primark (“Penneys” in Ireland)

While I’ve heard that the prices have been climbing up recently, Primark is the place for “fast fashion.” Home to all of the current clothing trends in all of the colors and all of the sizes, Primark was often described to me as “Forever 21 on steroids.” Trendy items like dresses, coats, and cardigans are not always a bargain for the quality, but the basics can’t be beat. I got tons of tank tops (“vest tops”), tights, and even a pair of black ballet flats which I wore on nights out and threw away at the end of the semester, each for under 5 pounds. Primark also has a home section, where I got some cute but affordable souvenirs for friends. If you want to buy some fashionable clothes without wasting too much money while abroad, Primark is the place to go.

*I’ve left out a few British shops from the list (e.g. ASDA and Marks & Spencer) because I didn’t live near any of their stores and can’t provide firsthand thoughts/advice.

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