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The characteristics of a gourmet grocer are admittedly flexible, but it is generally agreed that such a store offers a decent selection of quality ingredients and hires friendly, knowledgeable staff to assist customers in selecting goods.

More than any other single aspect, the mere presence of a full-time cheesemonger (who will answer questions, offer free samples, and cut custom sizes of non-sandwich cheese) is pretty much a sure-fire guarantee that the store is of gourmet quality. Wine stewards are a little more common, and butchers are almost ubiquitous, so their level of expertise and the store's selection in those areas should be taken into consideration.

A gourmet grocer should also carry a good selection of dried herbs and spices (think Dean and DeLuca, rather than McCormick and Schilling), as well as plenty of clean, fresh herbs. Since no single country produces the best of absolutely everything, one should expect a true gourmet grocer to offer a regular selection of imported goods.

Bonus points go to stores that don't prepackage perishable goods, which prevents the customer from smelling anything before purchase. When paying by the pound (or kilo) for anything, a customer should have every right to specify exactly how much they want instead of rummaging through stacks of cellophane and styrofoam platters to find the closet match.

All this selection, quality, and assistance comes at a price, though. Gourmet stores are often considerably more expensive than regular supermarkets, but it is easy to justify this after cooking an amazing meal with the freshest and best ingredients possible. Besides, it's probably still cheaper than eating out. It's also possible to minimize this expense by simply using common sense when shopping. If the exact same item is cheaper at a supermarket, then buy it there instead.

More often than not, popularity improves the price and selection at a gourmet grocer. Tell your friends about the place, and the store will do more business. Hopefully, this will result in the store selling more perishable goods faster, and ultimately increasing the size of their orders, which typically lowers the unit price.

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