The Difference Between Shopping in America and Shopping in Britain

After having moved to London from California over five years ago, I noticed there are some pretty stark differences when it comes to shopping in Britain and in the states. Americans, characteristically friendly and chatty, are very different to their British counterparts who, as stereotypes have it, are more reserved but also incredibly polite when they need to be. Here are some of the more comical differences I’ve noticed when it comes to shopping.

Customer Service

Friendly staffWe all know that America is renowned for its amazing customer service. In fact, these days many British companies will try to advertise their customer service as ‘American’ as to entice more people to join. And, let’s face it, British customer service has come miles from what it was 10 years ago, but there’s still an element of chirpiness missing from their methodology.

In America, you walk into a shop and a friendly worker greets you with a bright white smile and not only a ‘Hello’ but also a ‘How’s your day going?’, ‘Are you looking for anything in particular today?’. In Britain (unless there’s a commission in it for that person), you’ll be lucky to get a head nod from the person behind the counter.

Now, when I first moved to London, I was appalled at the lack of help I’d receive from shop workers. ‘I want to buy my husband a sweater’, I’d say. Oops. ‘I mean jumper’. They simply point to the jumper section and walk back to the register without so much as a ‘What’s his favourite colour?’. So, needless to say, when I’d go home to California, I’d relish a trip to the outlet malls just so I could get the advice of a friendly sales assistant, take up an hour of their time as they become my own personal shop assistant, and just generally tell them how my day was going or what I had planned for the weekend.

Five years on, however, and my perspective on customer service has completely changed. I never understood how my husband would get so annoyed when a shop assistant asked him how his day was. ‘Bah humbug. What an old miser,’ I’d think to myself. But, now, after so many years living in a fast-paced city, I feel I do not always have time to have a chat, and, speaking as a true pessimistic Londoner, I think to myself, ‘Why do they even care about how my day is?’ So much so, in fact, that last time I was home, I went to a shoe shop and when they asked if I was looking for anything in particular, I said, ‘Shoes?’ and just walked away. I mean, I was in a shoe shop.


Man tipping hatI noticed since moving here that Londoners barely ever speak to one another when they are out and about shopping unless they are apologising for accidentally bumping into them. ‘Terribly sorry, mate’, my husband once said to someone he bumped into whilst in a US shop. They just looked at him with shock and said, ‘Did you just call me mate?’. The British are very polite to each other when they get the opportunity to chat, referring to each other as ‘mate’ or ‘love’, but in London that doesn’t often happen.

Americans are polite though in their own – more expansive – way. Instead of simply apologising for running into you, you might also get their life story. I once bumped into a woman in Target, the famous US shop that sells pretty much everything, and the woman said she was really sorry, but she was trying to get everything done quickly so she could pick her kids up from school. She went on to say that her son got the green thumb award for tallest bean sprout and her daughter was the star on her soccer team. She kept going on and on that I started worrying that she might be late in picking them up after all.


British QueueIf there’s one thing the British know how to do more than anyone else in the world – it’s queue. Perhaps this can be attributed to their extreme politeness to strangers and a sense of keeping everything fair. It’s amazing how patiently and quietly they’ll stand without even a glance at the person behind him. If whatever it is takes too long, they might huff and leave, but they’ll never turn to their neighbor in the queue to complain to them, whereas an American might loudly start a conversation about how ‘This line is taking forever’.

Americans can form a line too, sure. But, it’s more of a friendly occasion. If you’re in line not talking to the person in front of you or behind you, well then, you’re probably British. Otherwise, you’re probably having a chat about your best friend’s upcoming bridal shower and all the cute things you found for it at PartyCity. Sometimes I think my mom talks extra loud when we’re standing in line so as to entice the people in front of us or behind us to join in too and they often do.

In Sum…

As Oscar Wilde once stated: ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’ – and also shopping etiquette, Oscar. Whilst many things are indeed similar, the experience in itself is very different. It’s nice to have a friendly chat with strangers when you’re in a cheerful, outgoing mood, but other times you might feel relieved that you live in place where everyone just keeps to themselves – even if you do have a question about that that merino wool sweater – I mean jumper – but can’t find a shop assistant for the life of you. Oh, well – there’s always Google for your answer.