THE PARISIANS CALL it the hypermarche', and while it looks like a supermaket and smells like a supermarket, it's in a class by itself -- 60 checkout counters and maybe twice as much floor space as the biggest of the Giant Food stores in Washington.
Let it be said that the hypermarche', operated by the multinational French Carrafour chain, is not the norm in Europe. Unlike in the United States, the specialty shops of butchers, bakers and greengrocers still fill an important role in food-marketing. And home delivery of milk is still common in Paris, Brussels and Hamburg.
But the American-style supermarket is becoming increasingly commonplace across Europe. While it remains to be seen how the advent of mass marketing may affect European eating habits and food costs, it seems plain that change is on the way.
A look at food marketing this past summer in London, Paris, Brussels and Hamburg provided a hint of things to come. For now, at least, compared to Washington-area markets, food is relatively more expensive across the continent.
Prices were generally higher in Paris and London than here, due mainly to the decrease during the past year in the value of the English pound and the French franc relative to the U.S. dollar. If comparisons had been made in August 1981, for example, the prices in U.S. dollars would have been 19 percent higher in London, 25 percent higher in France and 29 percent higher in Belgium than they were in 1982.
But there's another factor at work in Europe. The 10 countries of the European Economic Community have developed a common agricultural policy that guarantees relatively high prices for farm products--prices that are considerably above both world and U.S. prices.
The latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that U.S. shoppers spend 16.3 percent of income on food and beverages. In Belgium, it runs close to 25 percent; in England and France, 23 percent.
And while Americans are painfully aware that food prices have increased substantially in recent years, we actually haven't fared too badly in comparison to the English and French. Food prices went up 113 percent in England and 86 percent in France between 1975 and 1981. During that same period, U.S. prices were up 54 percent. Yet in Belgium, the increase was only 31 percent.
This summer, beef prices were higher in London and Paris than here. Pork was less expensive in London, Paris and Brussels, but lamb and broilers were less costly in Washington. Fruits and vegetables, coming in at the peak of harvest season, were generally less in Paris and Brussels and comparable in London and Washington. One finds a wide selection of processed foods in most places, but considerably fewer frozen foods than in this country.
Shopping habits seemed to differ most in Paris and Hamburg. In Paris, most food is purchased daily in small amounts from specialty shops. By most accounts, Parisians buy about 30 percent of their food in supermarkets and the rest in the specialty outlets. The situation in the United States is just the reverse.
Generally, the European supermarkets are large and airy, with a wide selection similar to that of supermarkets here. But in a London Safeway, operated by the American chain, it was sharply different. The store was crowded, with aisles aligned so tightly that shoppers had to use hand baskets rather than carts. Some of the familiar American brand names show up in the European markets but in at least one striking instance, the menu varies: Horse meat is prominently displayed in the Parisian stores.
Food shopping can become an art form and in Paris it is just that. On Bastille Day, for example, food shops remained open and they were filled with Parisians splurging on holiday fare. The quality and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables were both impressive and creatively displayed. Bread and pastries? Esthetically, almost beyond description, with a wider and more enticing selection than in most American shops.
But the Europeans pay another price for this. Shopping for a normal meal can be time-consuming, with stops in as many as five or six stores. This means standing in lines and butting elbows with other shoppers. But often the speciality shops are located in clusters, thus reducing a shopper's travel time.
The quality of beef in Paris, Brussels and Hamburg is equivalent to Giant's "lean" or "grass fed" beef in Washington. Most comes from dairy or dual purpose breeds that aren't as fat or well-marbled as USDA "choice." Also, most beef and pork in these three cities is displayed and sold boneless. The London Safeway and the Washington Giant offered two qualities of beef, lean and a type comparable to USDA choice. There were both boneless and bone-in cuts. Germans, on the other hand, concentrate as much on sausage as on fresh meat.