9 supermarkets scrutinised – costs of packaged v loose items

Supermarkets use of 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

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.

Shop 3 peppers loose 3 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%.

Shop 6 gala apples loose Bag 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

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 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:

Shop Baking potatoes loose per kilo Baking 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.

Supermarket Items available loose Items available packaged Items cheaper loose Items cheaper packaged Same price
Tesco 7 10 3 4 0
M & S 6 8 3 3 0
Sainsbury’s 7 10 2 3 2
Aldi 5 10 2 2 0
Lidl 3 9 1 2 0
Morrisons 7 10 3 4 0
Waitrose 6 10 6 1 0
Co-op 3 8 1 1 0
Asda 4 9 1 2 0
Total 48 84 22 22 2

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

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:

Supermarket Items available at counter Items packaged in fridge Items cheaper from counter Items cheaper from fridge Same price
Tesco 7 7 5 1 1
Sainsbury’s 6 6 1 4 0
Morrisons 5 7 2 3 0
Waitrose 6 7 3 2 1
Total 24 27 11 10 2

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 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.

Packaging

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

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 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 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?

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?

 

Supermarkets: The good, the bad and the ugly

Supermarkets, love them or hate them, most of us use them. Most of us have opinions about them all too. I surveyed the public and found these top five hates of supermarkets:

  1. Queueing
  2. Rude staff particularly those talking to colleagues when they should be paying attention to the customer
  3. Companies not accepting responsibility – ‘we are sorry, how can we put this right’ not lame excuses or blaming customer
  4. Staff who don’t know what they sell or how things work
  5. Change dumped into your hands with screwed up notes and receipt to follow

There are no surprises here. People just want good service and all these issues relate to the ethos of the company and how well the staff are trained. Interestingly, all the issues that people rate the highest are related to service, not quality, products or prices.

So do prices and quality of food feature when we look at specific supermarkets? Here’s what the public thought, in summary:

Supermarket The best thing The worst thing
Asda Prices Customer service including the desk not being open when the store is
Waitrose Quality of food and range that you can’t get in other supermarkets Overpriced items that you can buy much more cheaper in other supermarkets
Sainsbury’s Quality of food Cost and the Nectar scheme
Morrisons Quality of food Overpriced and shelves often empty of offers
Tesco Clubcard Variable quality on food products
Aldi Value for money Disorganisation in clogging up aisles and not enough staff on checkouts
Lidl Good fruit and veg Having to watch “best before” dates as products may often be past these


Supermarket responses

Supermarkets were given the opportunity to respond to these findings. Here are the supermarket responses:

An Asda spokesperson said: “Our customers are at the heart of everything we do and listening to their feedback is what drives us on to do better every day. We’re grateful for this feedback and will continue to work hard to deliver even better prices, quality and service for our customers.”

A Waitrose spokesperson said: “We work to offer consistently good value, which we firmly believe is a balance between provenance, quality and price.”

Sainsbury’s did not provide any comment

Morrisons did not provide any comment

A Tesco spokesperson said: “Clubcard is a great way for us to say thank you to our customers for choosing to shop with us, and we know it’s something they really value. It remains one of the biggest reasons why people switch to shop at Tesco.”

An Aldi spokesperson said: “Our customers regularly tell us that they shop with Aldi for everyday low prices and an enjoyable shopping experience. Our efficient business model means our checkouts are 40% quicker than other supermarkets, which reduces queues and requires fewer staff, saving our customers both time and money.”

A Lidl spokesperson said: “We are proud to have unique measures in place to help reduce food waste in the home. This includes choosing not to print a ‘best before date’ on many of our fruit and vegetable items, instead opting to print a code showing the date that the product was packaged. By not having a ‘best before date’ on certain products, it allows the individual customer to assess the fruit or vegetable product by sight and feel, judging for themselves if it is to their liking.”

In Summary
For 6 out of 7 supermarkets price and quality was the best thing about individual supermarkets. For 4 out of 7 supermarkets, price and/or variable quality of products was an issue and for 3 out of 7 it was the quality of service.

Rewards are clearly becoming more important to customers. Tesco leads the way in this area with its Clubcard, offering the most points per pound and variety of how to spend them. In comparison Sainsbury’s reduced their points value on Nectar in April last year, with fewer choices to spend them on. This clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed by customers, given that is cited as the best thing about Tesco and the worst about Sainsbury’s.

Consumers are flocking to the discounters, which do not offer the same range as other supermarkets, so people will not completely stop using larger ones and discounters may need to look at more expansion of their product ranges. Supermarkets need to offer something over and above price. Price wars will have to end eventually and for supermarkets at the cheaper end of the market service is clearly an issue.

Marcus Williamson – editor of the website CEOemail.com which provides contact details for CEOs – says “The number of people seeking contact details for the CEOs of supermarkets is still alarmingly high. This suggests problems with customer services which could be resolved by better training and by empowering staff to make a difference.”

It’s clear that prices and quality form an important part of why people shop at a certain store but  it doesn’t stop them complaining about service nor does it stop people shopping around once prices settle down across the sector. The rise of collect and delivery services will need to also rise to the challenge of providing good customer service.

Shopping habits are changing and service will have to improve dramatically if supermarkets are to retain existing customers and gain new customers.

 

And if you have an issue with a supermarket or any other store and want redress, see Top 20 Tips on How to Complain and GET THE BOOK! How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!