9 supermarkets scrutinised – costs of packaged v loose items

Supermarkets use of plastic charging more for items not covered in plastic

More and more consumers are getting concerned about the use of plastics.

Whether it is cups in take away coffee shops, plastic straws or vegetable packaging, the concern and scrutiny over the apparent needless use of plastic is growing. With this in mind, I decided, with the help of some fellow bloggers, to undertake some research into supermarket use of plastics. The findings were more surprising than you would think. The research was also picked up by the Daily Mail Supermarkets accused of punishing shoppers who want to use less plastic as they charge more for fruit and veg that is sold loose and not in trays or wrappers.

Fruit and vegetables in and out of plastic

I wrote a shopping list, which for this section was:

6 tomatoes loose
6 tomatoes in packaging
500g cherry tomatoes loose
500g cherry tomatoes in box
seedless grapes 500g loose
seedless grapes 500g in box
250g mushrooms loose
250g mushrooms in box
3 peppers loose
3 peppers in plastic wrap
A cauliflower
A cauliflower in plastic wrap
6 gala apples loose
pack of gala apples
6 pink lady apples
bag of pink lady apples
Pack of avocados
2 avocados
4 baking potatoes
bag of baking potatoes

We then bought the items at nine different supermarkets and retail outlets.

We found that biggest discrepancy in prices was with peppers. Here are the prices of 3 peppers bought loose and 3 peppers in plastic wrap.

Shop3 peppers loose3 peppers in plastic
Tesco£1.65£0.95
M & S£1.50£1.50
Sainsbury’s£1.65£1.00
Aldi£1.59£0.92
Lidl£1.47£0.95
Morrisons£1.80£0.97
Waitrose£1.45£1.50
Co-op£1.95£0.95
Asda£1.65£0.95

Red and green pepper 60p bags of peppers £1.17In Marks and Spencer, peppers are the same price whether in plastic or not and actually 5p cheaper when bought loose in Waitrose. All the other supermarkets charge more for loose peppers, the worst culprit is the Co-Op where peppers are 51% cheaper in plastic.

Whilst we may expect to pay more for convenience, Emma Maslin from The Money Whisperer blog is frustrated that not only is most fruit and veg sold packaged, she also ends up having to buy more than she needs. “Co-op is my local convenience store and the place I tend to go for my mid-week top up shops when I need a few bits or have run out of something unexpectedly. If I want to pop in if I’m missing a pepper for a meal, or a piece of fruit for a lunchbox at the end of the week, I find it disappointing that most fruit and veg is sold packaged and not loose.”

Marks and Spencer and Waitrose led the way again with Gala apples. It was cheaper to buy them loose than in a packet. At the other end of the scale Tesco charges 24% to buy them loose than in a bag. Close on Tesco heels is Asda selling them at 23% more and Morrisons at 19%.

Shop6 gala apples looseBag of 6 gala apples
Tesco£2.10£1.60
M & S£1.85£2.25
Sainsbury’s£1.80£1.50
Aldi£1.38£1.29
Morrisons£1.86£1.50
Waitrose£1.86£2.00
Asda£1.75£1.35

The science regarding putting plastic on fruit and veg

Ethylene is released by fruits and vegetables which stimulates ripening and spoilage of produce nearby. This starts a chain reaction and can contribute to food waste. So if you have a rotting item of fruit stored with other fruit it will speed up their rotting. Most of us know that bananas of course will speed up the ripening/over ripening of fruit hence the banana holders! So supermarkets say that they need to package to prolong life. More work needs to be done to determine the food waste due to people buying more than they need and the damaging effects of plastics in the environment.

Consistency with pricing fruit and veg in plastic

With this in mind it is hard to understand the lack of consistency in loose and packaging prices within and across supermarkets. Why can one supermarket make loose apples cheaper than packaged but not another supermarket?

Here is the situation with the humble baking potato, whether it comes loose or bagged:

ShopBaking potatoes loose per kiloBaking potatoes bag per kilo
Tesco£1.10£1.43
M & S£2.00£1.85
Sainsbury’s£1.00£1.10
Lidl£0.49£0.72
Morrisons£0.81£1.00
Waitrose£1.08£0.84

Despite Tesco and Morrisons both charging more for plasticated peppers and apples than for loose, they both charge less (Tesco 30%, Morrisons 23%) for loose baking potatoes than for bagged ones! Lidl charge a whopping 47% less for loose potatoes compared with the bagged ones.

Marks and Spencer and Waitrose are the opposite! They both charge more for loose potatoes than bagged!

This becomes all the more confusing when checking supermarkets for overall prices.

SupermarketItems available looseItems available packagedItems cheaper looseItems cheaper packaged Same price
Tesco710340
M & S68330
Sainsbury’s710232
Aldi510220
Lidl39120
Morrisons710340
Waitrose610610
Co-op38110
Asda49120
Total488422222

Lidl, Aldi and Asda offered the fewest loose alternatives compared to packaged items.

Oddly many supermarkets offer grapes “loose” when in fact they still come in a bag as opposed to a box. None of the bloggers were able to understand why a cauliflower needs to come in open plastic either! I don’t think they are alone!cauliflower in plasticgrapes "loose" in plastic and grapes packaged

Michelle, who blogs as Utterlyscrummy and shopped at Asda, was disappointed with the lack of loose fruit, and especially vegetables, there. Eileen at YourMoneySorted researched Lidl and added “I am a huge fan of Lidl, because they offer really great value for money. However, doing this has really emphasised to me how few options there are to buy loose food, thereby making it more difficult to choose more environmentally friendly options.”

The money bloggers armed with their lists also found difficulty comparing like with like in some cases.

Faith at Much More  With Less said “Principles are expensive! It’s frustrating when some packs are labelled with cost per item, like per apple, rather than per kilo, making it more difficult to compare prices. I was surprised how much food was cheaper wrapped in plastic packaging than when sold loose.”

Deli counters and plastic

The money bloggers looked at the deli counters where available and compared the prices of counter products with fridge prices and the types of packaging used. At the counter fish, meat and cheeses are displayed without packaging. Is there then a need to add plastic?

The shopping list for this section was:

Tuna 220g – steak fridge and counter
Prawns 200g – coldwater fridge and freezer
Cod fillets 250g – fridge and counter
Mature cheddar – 500g fridge and counter
Stilton – 200g fridge and counter
Ham cooked – 125g fridge and counter
Sausages – 454g 8 sausages fridge and counter

Here are the results of the mystery shopping for those items:

SupermarketItems available at counterItems packaged in fridgeItems cheaper from counterItems cheaper from fridgeSame price
Tesco77511
Sainsbury’s66140
Morrisons57230
Waitrose67321
Total242711102

The products tended, in general, to be cheaper from the deli counter. However, is this less packaging and do the supermarkets do as much as they can to reduce the packaging further? The money bloggers asked staff at the counters if they could bring and use their own packaging. The answers were a little bemusing:

Tesco said they wouldn’t allow it.

Sainsbury’s said that if someone wants to use their own containers they can do so. But to avoid cross contamination they would have to weigh the items on plastic wrap, and it would then be thrown away. That would use the same amount of plastic as if someone hadn’t brought their own container.

Morrisons said it would be fine to bring in boxes. The counter staff would weigh food on their scales, then provide a sticker with the relevant info and hand over food to put in my boxes. It wasn’t clear if they would use plastic here or the trays.

Waitrose said they wouldn’t allow it.

Cross contamination was cited as a reason for not allowing customers to use their own containers or having to use plastic. But it wasn’t clear why different boxes couldn’t be put on one piece of paper on the scales.

Pricing of items with and without plastic overall 

Bizarrely the research also threw up an unexpected issue for Jamie from ThriftyMummaThriftyBubba, who shopped at Aldi. “As a family we regularly shop at Aldi and like the low prices without compromising quality. Unfortunately, the Aldi staff in the 3 separate stores I visited were unable to give me the price per kilo of individual items. They were also reluctant to let me weigh an individual item on the till which would have allowed me to work out the price per kilo myself. They also had no idea if Aldi HQ would have this information. So, who knows if it truly is better value for money or not because I couldn’t compare price by weight in store!”

Waitrose came out best for prices, which were cheaper for buying loose than packaged. The other supermarkets were as bad as each other and the statistics on prices were mainly hindered by lack of availability of certain products.

All the supermarkets sold more packaged items than loose items.

Emma Bradley from MumsSavvySavings who shopped at Sainsbury’s was shocked at how much cheaper the packaged items were. Emma Drew from EmmaDrew has started to make a conscious effort to cut back on my plastic use, but found that sticking to a grocery budget meant that it isn’t always possible. “I am surprised at how much cheaper pre-packaged foods, with extra plastic, are than the alternatives. I would love to see supermarkets using less plastic, and making what plastic they do use recyclable.

Supermarkets compared for packaging and pricing

So, which supermarket is better at encouraging consumers to buy loose rather than in packaging, where the item was available to buy both loose and packaged? Catherine from The Money Panel feels Waitrose still has a long way to go despite leading in the price of loose compared to packaged. It is still selling many more packaged fruit and vegetables than loose. “As a family we always shop at Waitrose because we love the quality of the food. I do get very frustrated at the amount of packaging I recycle within minutes of unpacking our order. It’s a huge waste.”

The Complaining Cow and Tesco CEOsIt’s not just the fact that consumers buy the packaged items because they are frequently cheaper. It is also wasting food. This is a common criticism from customers who live on their own. Regulars on this blog will know that I have quite a History with Tesco. In September 2016 I interviewed The UK CEO Matt Davies and Group CEO Dave Lewis. I asked about this wasting of food for people living on their own. Last year I interviewed the then new Chief Customer Officer and questioned her on this issue too. She agreed with me and mentioned some of what they were doing. But seems they have a long way to go!

Ruth from RuthmakesMoney, who looked at Marks and Spencer, says “As I’m usually cooking just for myself, I find it hugely frustrating that it’s so often much cheaper and easier to buy a pack of items like peppers rather than buying them individually. It sometimes feels like waste is inevitable. I’d love to see supermarkets offering more items in smaller quantities, whilst cutting down on unnecessary packaging.”

Co-Op packaged and loose tomatoes "supermarkets under the spotlight packaged items cheaper than loose"

Supermarkets comments on plastic packaging

All the supermarkets were asked to comment on our findings:

Morrisons said “It’s not an easy issue as the plastic on fruit and veg also has the function of preserving it and avoiding food waste. We’re working through it” and  referred me to their statement on packaging.

Marks and Spencer said “On what M&S is doing on packaging and waste, we have a number of commitments and initiatives under way in these areas. (More details on their site).

Aldi commented “Aldi’s model is based on simplicity and efficiency, which creates operational cost savings which are passed on to customers in the form of low prices. Aldi does not have scales in its stores and loose fruit and veg is priced per item. Customers can purchase some of Aldi’s best-selling fruit and veg lines (by volume) in loose form including bananas, potatoes and peppers. Earlier this year Aldi announced a comprehensive plan to reduce plastic, including a commitment that all packaging on its own-label products will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022”

Sainsbury’s said “We’re focused on offering our customers choice, quality and value. We will offer fruit and veg without packaging where we can, as long as it doesn’t compromise the quality and shelf life of the product. We’re also committed to ensuring our packaging is as recyclable as it can be and are one of few retailers to invest in recycling facilities at many of our supermarkets. In addition, we’re a member of the UK Plastics Pact and have committed to meeting collective targets by 2025.” (More details on their website).

Our colleagues also allow customers to use their own containers. As our colleagues explained in store, before we transfer the product to a customer’s container, we use a small amount of plastic to weigh and transfer the items for safety reasons.”

Tesco gave this press release.

Further comment on supermarkets and packaging obtained by The Daily Mail

The Daily Mail used this research in its article Supermarkets accused of punishing shoppers and asked the supermarkets for comment. Many of them said that the research wasn’t comparing like with like because some products were bigger than others! This is twaddle. Items were compared by weight! The reason I asked the bloggers to weigh everything was so that it WAS a fair comparison. (Rolling eyes emoticon!)

Lidl, get this, apparently said that they sell red peppers loose and the packaged ones were different colours! The price of a red pepper? 59p Pack of three coloured peppers? 95p So they are actually saying that a yellow or green pepper would be half the price of a red one?! They were all the same price in every other supermarket! Clutching at straws? And I don’t suppose they are environmentally friendly ones either!

 The most bizarre packaging of all?

Paper bag with carrots, parsnips and broccoli and the plastic bags that were added

 

This week I had my Tesco order delivered. In my order were parsnips, cauliflower, carrots and onions. Tesco uses brown recyclable bags for fruit and veg. For no apparent reason, they were all put into separate plastic bags inside the brown paper bag. I cannot fathom why? Any suggestions?

So what can be done about supermarket packaging?

In January of this year, Theresa May committed to the UK eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042. This target, more than a generation away, has been widely criticised by environmental groups as “lacking urgency”. UK supermarkets still pay less for collecting and recycling their plastic waste than in any other European country! Tax payers pick up 90% of the costs.

Most of the supermarkets have signed up to a voluntary pact, whose promises include removing “problematic or unnecessary” single-use plastic by 2025, making 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, with 70% effectively recycled or composted and all plastic packaging to include 30% average recycled content. None of this is enforceable.

In March of this year the world’s first “plastic-free” aisle opened in the Netherlands. Launched by the Dutch chain Ekoplaza in Amsterdam, the aisle will offer over 700 products with no plastic packaging. UK consumers and campaigners are calling for UK supermarkets here to do the same, but no supermarket has agreed to do this yet. It appears to be consumer pressure that gets thing moving in the industry. It is therefore up to us, as consumers, to keep up that pressure and get the change that’s so clearly needed.

If you want to contact a CEO to tell them what you think of their policies you can find their contact detail on ceoemail.com.

How do you shop? Is the use of plastics important to you?

Bring about change with sweets

Warning: How not complaining drives up fat cat profits!

Well, what happened in 2013? Just how much did I complain? Well, not a huge amount I would say. This doesn’t include public body complaints of course to which I do ask lots of Freedom of Information Act questions and complain!

I complained about all sorts of things from 40p from Tesco and the £40 from them in court. (See The Complaining Cow’s history with Tesco) to other supermarkets, banks and other retailers.

I know what you are thinking. 40p really? Yes really. Wrongly charged. Principle! Now, how many people do YOU think didn’t notice that wrong charge going through the till or in this case on an online order? How many thousands of people buy bacon a day do you think? Same with all the other small amounts. For example, 40p Really? I complained about 40p? Yes I did, and here’s why. I completed an online shopping order. All seemed fine. When I received my order with receipt, I checked it against the items. Oddly there was an additional item. This item was called “Department Sale”. What sort of vegetable is that you ask as well you might and so did I. After asking what this item was and apparently I had had two of them! Two lots of 20ps totalling 40p. So I was curious and as you know if you read my blog regularly, it’s a matter of principle! After asking about these charges this is how the email exchange panned out:

Tesco: If you order an item that isn’t on the online product database, we’re unable to scan the item through the home shopping system at your local store. So, to make sure that we don’t overcharge you for the product, we charge it at a heavily reduced price. This will show on your delivery paperwork as a 10p charge for example. I hope this has explained why we do this and thank you for taking the time to ask us about this.
Me: But what is the item?!!
Tesco: I am sorry that there has been such confusion over this issue and for the inconvenience being caused. Could you advise me of where this charge is shown on your order, and how much it is. I may be able to trace the product for you.
Me: You have had this information in the initial complaint. See attached please
Tesco: I am sorry but I have been unable to trace the exact goods that the charge relates to. However I have refunded the 40p back to your account and this will appear in 3 to 5 days. Thank you for your patience in this matter.
Me: So what you are saying is that there was no reason for this charge? I wonder how many other orders you put this charge on?
Tesco: Not at all! There was a reason for the charge as has been explained in previous emails. The problem is that without seeing what goods were physically delivered and then going through the delivery document to deduce which goods the charge was used for, it is impossible to say exactly what the charge was applied to.
Me: How can you order something online for an online order that isn’t on the database?
Tesco: Very easily when you start to understand that the online business and the store are different. An example would be where you might order apples online, but the store offer a regional variety of that apple which is not stored on our database. So to enable us to pick apples for you, we would have to mark it as a Department Sale to add it onto the order.
Me: I didn’t order anything that I’ve not ordered before and I’ve never had that remark on a receipt. Very dubious.

To which I did not have a response. Now, maybe I’m being thick and there was a good reason for the charge. I can’t really see it can you? Have you ever had this charge? Have you queried it? I wonder how many people have and haven’t queried it. Wonder what the total of “Department Sales” is.

So of course I complain about the larger amounts and encourage others to do so, but how much profit is being made from people not complaining about those pennies?

So, if you aren’t getting where with customer services you can always contact the CEO directly at ceoemail.com

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If you need help with complaining effectively GET THE BOOK! How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS! for consumer laws, advice, guidance and template letters for most complaints in most sectors!

 

 

Top 20 Tips How to Complain!

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Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow BBC Breakfast TV Discusses How We Complain in the UK