There are two main chains of supermarkets in Switzerland: Migros and Coop (I have never really pinned down the correct pronunciation, most Swiss seem to say something like "kurp").
Editors note: 1) there is no hyphen in the Swiss "Coop", 2) the double 'o' does not become a 'u' as in English. It is simply "Kop" with a slightly prolonged 'o'.
Personally I would say Coop is like Sainsbury's (I apologise for the UK-centric comparison) in fact even the uniforms and colours are similar - blue and orange. Migros is more like a cross between Asda and a Tescos of 20 years ago.
Unlike in the UK, where you can pretty much go to any chain and they'll have identical brands, it's not quite the same here. For example, Migros only sells Pepsi and does not sell Coca-Cola, nor does it sell alcohol. So you end up frequenting both.
Editors note: it's probably fair to say it depends. We rarely go to Coop. We shop mostly in Migros and Denner, with the occasional purchase in Volg because we have a Volg close by..
Migros is a Genossenschaftsverbund. For one thing, this means that the individual Migros shops operate quite independently of one another.
There are at least four other but smaller chains - Carrefour, Volg/Landi, Sparmarkt and Aldi Suisse.
Volg is quite widespread with about 640 locations. We have one here in Herrliberg which we do occasionally visit. My impression is that Volg is slightly more expensive than e.g. Migros, but although we do most of our shopping in Migros and Denner, Volg comes in handy every now and then.
The main thing we go to Volg for is salted butter - our local Migros didn't have it initially, and although they did introduce it two or three years ago, they still only carry 100g sizes, whereas Volg has 250g sizes.
Carrefour established themselves in Switzerland by taking over Jumbo a couple of years ago - they have 10-12 large locations. Carrefour is of course a well-known brand name, as anyone who's spent time in France will testify. Carrefour is useful as their stores are much large and often stock things you cannot get in Co-op or Migros.
In August 2007, Carrefour announced that they have sold the twelve Swiss stores to Coop.
Spar has about 150 supermarkets in Switzerland.
Aldi opened the first Swiss location on 27. Oktober 2005 so they really haven't been at it for very long. Aldi, is of course Aldi, the same as in other countries.
There are a couple of discounters: Denner and Pickpay. Actually Denner recently took over Pickpay and was then itself taken over by Migros, so now there's only one. It sells a limited range of goods, so isn't a true supermarket. It's reminiscent of an old Kwik-save store, but the prices tend to be much lower for the things they do sell. They sometimes have very good discounts on cases of wine.
Both supermarkets have their own loyalty cards. Migros has their "Cumulus card" and Co-op their "Supercard" I have both, mainly because it's quicker just to hand it over than be asked for it and say “no I don't have one”, “no I would not like one”, etc.
Every quarter or so, Migros will send you cash back vouchers based on your spending with them (typically 1%). Co-op give you 1 point per franc spent (with weekly bonuses on various products too) which you can spend on items in their catalogue, like cinema tickets, toasters, etc.
Choice of products
If you're from, say the UK or US, your first impression of Co-op or Migros may be one of shock as regards the range and choice of product. Let's take crisps / potato chips. In my local supermarket in London, there are two whole aisles dedicated to crisps. If each side is 10 metres long, that's perhaps 40 metres of crisps. I don't know how many different types there are, but there must be at least 300 brands / flavours - salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, sun-dried tomato and so on. In Co-op: 12, of which 10 are paprika and that's an improvement from a few year ago. When I first came here in 2000, there were 2: paprika and paprika.
It's the same for virtually any other product type you care to name. The notably few exceptions I can think of are Rösti (naturally) and pickled gherkins. Of course, you can argue that you don't need or want 200 types of toothpaste, but if you read the online expat discussion boards, there is a steady stream of letters with titles like "where can I get self raising flour?" Self raising flour
My theory is the Swiss have resisted the convenience food mentality of the Anglo-Saxons for a long time, which is to their credit, but it's only a matter of time before they embrace the many benefits of having 16 flavours of Pop-tarts. Just look at how their neighbour, Germany and how they love their ready-packed food.
However, if you are coming from the UK, you will also notify some very positive sides - the selection of fresh meats and fish is far more diverse and of far better quality than in any average Tescos. Meatwise, you'll find not just pork and beef, but rabbit, venison, veal and horse plus an always well-stocked selection of kidneys, hearts and livers (generally pigs, cows and calves).
Fish-wise our local Migros fishmonger has an amazing selection of fresh fish - keeping in mind that Switzerland is landlocked. Whole octopus, fresh squid, tuna, salmon, various barbecue-ready skewers, muscles, oyster, sometimes crab etc. Absolutely mouthwatering.
The bread available in supermarkets is also superior - even Denner carries a very good selection of ryebread, which is somewhat unusual in Switzerland. The Migros bread is quite good, although I'd personally prefer going to our local bakery.
Plus, there may not be so many varieties of crisps, but you will find whole aisles dedicated to chocolate. Anyone would think they made the stuff! Migros doesn't sell any alcohol or cigarettes (the founder's policy is still adhered to, but you can get them in Coop and other supermarkets. Do remember that some smaller branches close for lunch. There will also be less staff on duty at the checkouts so you might have to queue for longer.
Don't forget to greet the person on the checkout, in fact you should do this in every shop. Politeness is valued in CH and people expect to be greeted and thanked, preferably in the local language. Depending on where you are from you may also notice that Swiss supermarket staff are exceptionally well-trained. They know what they're selling, how it is used and/or how it should be cooked. Don't hesitate to ask the butcher or the fishmonger for advice on how to deal with freshly bought octopus or bag of calamari-rings.
Shopping in Germany
Talking of Germany, it's entirely feasible (especially if you live north of Zurich) to do regular shopping trips to Germany. Check out Walmart in Singen (it's not identical to the US version, but it is big). Not only are the prices lower and there's more choice, but you can re-claim the VAT (MSWT in German). Just remember to take your receipt to the information desk where you'll get a green customs form. Present this and your Auslanderausweis to the German customs at the border and they'll stamp it for you. Then on your next visit, Walmart will refund you the tax.
Just make sure you stay within your custom allowances (meat products especially). A list of the allowed amounts are here: custom allowances in German
Wal-Mart Germany was established about eight years ago, but is now coming to an end. On 28.7.2006 Wal-Mart Germany announced they had sold all 85 centers to Metro AG.