Eggs are in aisle 3: the language of supermarket shopping

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by Liz Walter

Food shopping is something that nearly all of us do, and it is the kind of basic topic that is often quite difficult in another language. This post looks at some words and phrases you might need if you go to a supermarket in an English-speaking country. Note that — as so often with everyday language —  there are lots of differences between UK and US vocabulary.

First, you will need something to put your shopping (UK)/groceries (US) in as you go around the supermarket: usually a basket that you hold in your hand or a trolley (UK)/cart (US) that you push around on wheels. The areas between the shelves where shoppers walk are called aisles. This is a useful word to know if you need to ask where something is:

‘I’m looking for olive oil.’ ‘Certainly. It’s in aisle 6.’

A shop assistant (UK)/salesclerk (US) might also use the word section to tell you where something is:

Walnuts are in our baking section.

Everyone likes to get the most they can for their money, and supermarkets often have special offers on particular items — for example by selling them more cheaply than usual or giving a discount (a lower price) if you buy a larger quantity. They might offer two for (the price of) one, also known as BOGOF (UK)/BOGO (US), which is an abbreviation forbuy one, get one (free)’.

When you have all the things you need, you go to the checkout (the place where you pay). If you pay with a credit or debit card, you may be asked to enter your PIN (press the numbers of your card’s code).

Can you enter your PIN for me, please?

Sometimes supermarkets allow contactless payments (paying with your phone or by putting your card near the machine). To ask about this, you need to use the verb ‘do’:

Do you do contactless? (UK) / Do you do contactless payment? (US)

Some stores offer self-service checkout, where you can scan your items (pass the packet’s code over an electronic reader) and bag them (put them in bags) yourself. If you only have a few items and don’t want to wait in a long queue (UK)/line (US), you can use the express lane (UK & US):

I don’t want to wait in line. I think I’ll use self-service this time.

Our store’s express lanes are for customers purchasing 15 items or fewer.

Many supermarkets encourage loyalty by giving customers a small card that gives them some advantage if they shop there regularly. General names for these are loyalty cards, though different stores often have their own names. Typically, when you pay, you get points that entitle you to money off future shopping.

After you have paid, you will be given a receipt (piece of paper that shows what you bought and how much it cost). You may also get one or more vouchers (UK)/coupons (US) (pieces of paper that give you money off an item or a future purchase).

Do let me know if there is any other aspect of shopping where you are unclear about the English words and phrases to use.

33 thoughts on “Eggs are in aisle 3: the language of supermarket shopping

  1. Thank you for the article. I am baffled by many parts.
    “Some stores offer self-service CHECKOUT, where you can scan your items (pass the packet’s code OVER an electronic reader)”
    1. I use CHECKOUT as a countable, so I would write ‘self-service checkouts.’ What is the difference between checkout and checkouts here?
    2. OVER/ACROSS an electronic reader: do you have difference images in mind?
    Thank you again for the sparkling article.

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s an interesting query re checkout – the uncountable use focusses more on the *process* whereas the countable use would focus more on the physical piece of equipment – but either would be fine in this context. And re your second question, either ‘over’ or ‘across’ would be fine. In the UK, these readers are usually flat things set into the surface of the checkout, so ‘over’ emphasises that you go from left to right over the top of them – but I guess they may not be the same everywhere!

  2. Nice article, but I have a bit of a questions concerning the word coupon; in fact, I though that a coupon was an special offer related to a product or service that usually come in newspapers or magazines. A voucher, in contrast, I thought that was something that a supermarket or a employer gives out to spend in a shop or store.
    Well, I would appreciate if you may correct me if I am wrong.

    1. Liz Walter

      I don’t think there’s such a definite division of meaning as that. Personally I’d call the things you are given in the supermarket a ‘voucher’ but my US editor added ‘coupon’ because that’s the common word there.

  3. Karla Olvera

    Hello Could you tell me what would happen if my credit card didn’t work at the checkout? What would the shop assistant say me?

    1. Liz Walter

      It could be many things! E.g. I’m afraid it hasn’t accepted your card./That hasn’t worked, I’m afraid. Or something informal like ‘Oh dear, it doesn’t seem to like that card.’!

  4. Loubna

    Hello madam. .it is always a pleasure to read you .I just wonder if we may say a row instead of a section or aisles ?and what about if you dont know the price of something how can I act thanks a million .

    1. Liz Walter

      No, we don’t usually say ‘row’ in a supermarket’. And for the price, the most common phrase is ‘How much is/are …’

  5. Camila

    If you collect ten coupons from the newspaper, you can get a free pair of shoes.
    The voucher is valid between April and August

  6. Kuin

    Ya, happened to learn a new word from this passage on the language of supermarket shopping, I e bogof. Thus, in the future, I don’t have to refer my discounted purchase of the same kind as buy one free one.

  7. Sadmi zohir

    That’s amazing to an enlightenments and the differences between UK and US English for shopping words. Awesome hope to learn more

  8. Gie

    Wow. This is very informative and easy to understand! Thanks very much for writing this blog.

    In my country we usually say “buy one, take one” instead of “buy one, get one”. But I guess those two still mean the same. We do use “buy one, get one” at times, though.

  9. Raghav

    Hello Liz!

    Is there a standard number of items that decide whether they qualify for checkout through express lanes in supermarkets in the UK?

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