The Supermarket Hierarchy

My chief bone of contention with Singapore is shopping. Food shopping, specifically. Clothes shopping is also a pain in the butt, especially when you have a Western size butt, but that’s another moan for another day.

Food shopping here is time-consuming and expensive. I can deal with the expense but even 2.5 years after I arrived I still resent the time I spend acquiring food. No wonder Singaporeans favour eating out at hawker markets!

Anyway, I like to think I’ve learnt a thing or two in my years in Singapore and thought I’d share them with but the big thing to keep in mind is this:


If you can learn to accept this fact of life early on you’ll save yourself a whole lot of angst. I’m not quite there yet!

There’s a pecking order for supermarkets in Singapore, just like anywhere else in the world. The supermarkets that look and feel more like a Western supermarket will cost you the most and those that loudly yell “you’re living in Asia” will cost you the least but they will also have fewer items that you’re familiar with. To me, life here works best when you combine both: buy what you can at the cheaper supermarkets and head over to the fancy ones for the rest.

Also, every individual store from each supermarket chain carries different products. Unfortunately, you can’t assume that just because you bought an item at Cold Storage at Jelita that you’ll also find it at Cold Storage at Novena.

Marketplace – this is the top-tier of Singapore supermarkets. It’s owned by Cold Storage but shopping here will cost you the most amount of money, although they do carry more imported products than the other supermarkets. When we were in the middle of our leasing saga we stayed behind ION on Orchard Road where there was a Marketplace (now closed) and if I bought stuff for dinner there it could easily set me back $80. When you’re paying $35SG for mince, spaghetti bolognese is no longer a cheap meal.

Cold Storage

My local Cold Storage.

Cold Storage – the Fresh Food People! Now, where have I heard that before? There’s more Cold Storage supermarkets throughout the “expat areas” of Singapore than the other chains. They carry a decent amount of imported products and have a reasonably wide variety of brands to choose from, it’s still less choice than a regular Australian supermarket, though. The stores range from very big at Jelita to cramped at Chancery Court. There are also a few CS Specialty stores that are smaller, gourmet shops that don’t carry a full range of products dotted around the main area of Singapore.

Fairprice Finest – the top of the NTUC Fairprice tree. The stores are typically large, spacious and well-lit, with a good variety of products and prices that are far cheaper than Cold Storage. To me, the fruit and vegetables at Fairprice are better quality than those at Cold Storage but most times I visit I forget that you have to get them weighed and priced in the produce section and not at the checkout!

Fairprice Xtra – the shopping experience is basically the same as Fairprice Finest but they also stock electronics, homewares and a small range of clothes. It’s not Kmart but it’s the closest you’re going to get to it in Singapore.

Fairprice – Fairprice have the largest number of stores of all the supermarket chains in Singapore. Regular Fairprice stores are not as spacious as those branded Finest or Xtra. They have a reasonable range but the organisation is a little …erm…. ‘haphazard’? Due to space constrictions I assume many stores here (and Toys R Us in particular) don’t have a stock room, so stock in boxes is often stored on the shop floor making getting around the store an obstacle course. But Fairprice will save you money! For Australian readers think Bi-Lo.

Giant – Giant is also broken up into 3 different tiers, similar to Cold Storage and Fairprice. Until recently they operated “hypermarkets” but they have since acquired the Shop n Save stores. The Giant Hypermarkets are BIG! They have a huge produce section (bag your produce and take it to the weigh and pricing section before you get to the checkout. Just pretend you’re back in 1985, ok?), large range of groceries, electronics, homewares, clothes and sporting goods. If you’re Australian it’s kind of like a down-market Venture with a Franklins attached. Giant Super just carries groceries and is typically quite crowded with not many imported Western products, but it’s prices are cheap and it’s good for a basic shop. There’s also a few Giant Express stores for a quick top-up.

Sieng Shong – I’m going to be completely honest here – I’ve never shopped at Sheng Siong but I believe their prices are rock bottom! I can’t say anymore than that as I’ve never been there.

Where I choose to shop really depends on both my shopping list and my mood. I typically choose between a couple of different Cold Storage outlets and the new Fairprice Finest at Balestier. (My choices are also dictated by neither of these brands selling durian and, therefore, I’m not inhaling durian fumes.) There are items that I like that I just can’t get anywhere but Marketplace (diced fruit in small containers for school lunches, spring to mind) so if I want them I have to suck up the cost and buy them there. My local Fairprice Finest only stocks iceberg lettuce, so if I shop there I know I will have to go to another store (even just a different Fairprice Finest) to buy a different variety of lettuce. Grocery shopping here takes thought and forward planning!

If you’re new to Singapore you just have to give yourself time to figure out the supermarket thing. I promise that it will get easier, just not as easy as it was at home!

8 thoughts on “The Supermarket Hierarchy

  1. Love the post, very useful and interesting for new arrivals I would say! I can help complement your post with my posts on food shopping here. I have them indexed on my blog under the useful info for expats section.

    My local is a Sheng Siong ๐Ÿ™‚ I live in a non expat area! Here is a post about a shop there and what everything cost. I can confirm it is indeed cheap and another post about shopping there

    I also shop at Mustafa for food and then wet markets on weekends

    Here is Tekka

    And Mustafa

  2. The queues get me too! Usually spend longer in a queue than actually picking the shopping. Agree with you about having to visit different shops, not having a car and walking means I shop several times a week – very time consuming grrr. Looked up sheng siong and have one quite near will have to investigate.

  3. I think you have hit the nail on the head with basing supermarket choice on whether they are selling Durian or not, that was always my first decision too. I too used to go crazy with supermarkets in HK and how much you could get in one or the other, then when we moved to Sth Africa I realized it was there too, no one supermarket had everything you need. Now I live in the consumer capital of the world and the supermarkets are about a block long and wide and STILL you can’t necessarily get everything you want or need in just one. It made me re-think the rose coloured glasses I had about my homeland ๐Ÿ˜‰ I think with the Aussie experience it is that you can go to your local supermarket and then as you walk through the shopping centre on the way to your car you can stop at the butchers, the bakery and the fruit and veg shop, so that in one trip you can get everything you need rather than than in one actual shop. No other country (or one that I have lived in so far) seems to have hit the jackpot for this magic mix.

    • Maybe Australia is unique in the way it has each shopping centre set up as a mini-village? There’s always banks, post office, supermarkets, baker, butcher, deli and fruit/veg shop. No idea about other countries but it’s not like that in Singapore. Here, I think about my To Do list and try and figure which mall covers most of the tasks/items, as it’s impossible that one shopping mall will meet all my needs.

  4. The wet markets are pretty set up like that – not sure if you have one near you. The only thing is you might have to buy a regional cookbook to truly take advantage unless you’re used to a certain spread already.

    Do we still have Shop n Saves? I don’t live near any now – it used to be our local.

    I have to say the reliability of supply is a lot better these days than it was back in 2006 (those ancient days). I gave up writing shopping lists at all after a couple of months – I just used to have to wander in and see what they had and make it up from there. That included places like Cold Storage, too!

    Last point (promise) – I’ve noticed that it’s not necessarily true that Cold Storage is more expensive than, say, Giant. It depends what you’re buying. Something like feta cheese might be more expensive at the cheaper supermarkets (where it’s considered a seriously posh food/is being sold in smaller quantities) than Cold Storage Marketplace (where it’s considered an everyday food and every second customer buys some). I’ve made that mistake before of buying something at Giant and then stopping off at Cold Storage next to find the same item is actually cheaper!

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