Smart Consumer: How you can be a winner in the great supermarket sweepstakes
This week the National Consumer Agency announced that the price of branded goods in our supermarkets fell by on average 14 per cent from January last year to July 2010. It's good news -- but it doesn't mean that shoppers can relax.
What's clear is that we're much savvier at shopping than before. It's easy to clap ourselves on the back for buying discounted goods but to prevent prices rising again, we must still shop smart and let the supermarkets know that we're keeping a close eye on what they're charging us.
The National Consumer Agency survey also showed that while retailers are competing with special offers and promotions, they are also frequently changing the price of individual items.
In recent weeks Irish food and consumer internet forums were busy with shoppers angrily citing price rises across a number of goods. "The hot chocolate I buy used to be €1.55 for nearly a year, only to be raised to €3.55", "one of my favourite yoghurts went from 99c to €1.35 per pot over night, how does that make sense?".
Add to which numerous angry posts about the shrinking number of Irish goods being stocked and a rise in the marketing and shelf space occupied by a supermarket's own brand products. Is it the case that in order to keep the balance of power on the side of the consumer we must continually monitor what the supermarkets are doing?
Tara Buckley from independent retail group RGDATA says that shoppers need to stay savvy if they're to continue to get bargains. "We're hearing from retailers that consumers are going to a particular shop for one discounted product; nappies or wine for example, and then leaving with just that item rather than shopping around which is what the retailer wants."
There has also been a shift in the type of foodstuffs we are buying: "Retail figures show that more of us are buying home-baking goods and cooking from scratch. And there is also a slight upturn in the sale of treats such as chocolate. Where people feel they are shopping smarter across the board they are rewarding themselves with small treats, and the World Cup gave a great boost to snacks and alcohol sales."
But it's also clear that discounted goods have to be paid for elsewhere in the store. Supermarkets are good at raising prices by stealth on products that don't get a lot of attention, and then heavily marketing their big discounts. To make sure you're always one step ahead, be aware of the game playing that's taking place when you least expect it -- during your weekly shop.
If you've an iPhone, apps such as Red Laser (€1.59) are useful for price comparisons -- it scans a barcode and tells you where the item is on sale for less.
Sites such as Thatsagreat offer.com searches local areas for grocery discounts and also carries hair and beauty discounts and dining-out offers. Using online shopping sites such as Tesco's or Superquinn's gives you up-to-date pricing without leaving your home.
Don't be suckered by signs
Once in the supermarket door, don't be swayed by big signs screaming out promotions.
Big red "discount" signs give the impression that everything on the supermarket floor is good value. Lots of signs doesn't necessarily mean lots of bargains.
'Buy One, Get One Free' or similar deals
Unless you are sure you are going to eat these foods don't buy them. And don't think that freezing them gets rid of the issue -- they still have to go into your mouth or in the bin once they get to your home.
Only buy "Two for One" meat deals if you have a meal to put them in.
But picking up discounted mince is usually a good buy because in five minutes it can be made into home-made burgers (just add a little garlic, onion and packaged sage), a simple chilli with peppers and tomatoes or a spaghetti bolognese. These are great meals to freeze if you want to make a big quantity once-off.
Don't assume that the bigger pack is cheaper. Sometimes you have to really look at the label to find that buying four or six bottles of cola isn't that much better value. Large quantities of foods like this encourage you to get through them quickly, and may not be the healthiest option.
Supermarkets love discounting luxury items such as wine or their premium ranges. Before you buy it, think for a second if you wanted this item before you saw it reduced, and that there may be another item alongside it which is still actually cheaper.
Fresh fruit and vegetables
Loose vegetables are usually cheaper and have a lot less packaging for you to dispose of at home. The cheapest way to buy veg is usually at your local vegetable shop. They'll usually throw in a few bargains and it's nice to feel part of a local food culture rather than someone to be got through a till queue as quickly as possible.
Use your loyalty card but beware of accruing points for the sake of it. Remember that loyalty cards track every item you buy. If you're a fan of luxury ice cream, the supermarket will target you with promotions for ice creams or more cynically, try to win you over to their own premium brand and away from the brand you were buying before.
Tempting your palate
Other tricks supermarkets use include displaying foods that go well together; soft drinks with salty snacks, crackers and cheese or fresh fruit and cream. This is to encourage to you to spend more. Vegetables are put near the entrance to convey a feeling of freshness and health, and bread is placed at the door to get a consumer salivating and prod them into buying more food. Ditto the rotisserie chicken. It's not there just to sell chicken is it?
You against them
The supermarket's goal is to keep you there as long as possible, confused, and buying things you didn't come in for. Their layout tricks are putting essentials far away from the entrance so you have to pass lots of other goods before you get to them.
The most expensive goods are also placed at eye level throughout a store, check the shelves above and below eye-level for a cheaper alternative.
Use a shopping list
It's boring but plan ahead. Think at the beginning of the week how many nights you will be eating in, entertaining or weekend meals you will need. Write a list with staple simple dishes on it.
Choose meals that are simple to prepare and buy for and you're more likely to make them. Making a list cuts out several trips to the convenience store during the week. This is when your grocery bill can really shoot up.
Just remember that the supermarket's job is to make margin, and if they discount products they have to make their money back elsewhere in the store. Shop around, watch the figures on your receipt and always stay one step ahead if you want to keep your grocery spend at an affordable level.