Multiple trips to multiple stores in an attempt to make multiple savings – is this the only way to save on food in Aotearoa in 2022?
It’s a mission that takes up so much of our weekend. We go to Pak’nSave for the basics – bread, chips, pasta, frozen peas, that kind of thing. Then we go to Countdown to take advantage of any of the specials, and to pick up my son’s favourite brand of tinned spaghetti. We get our meat from Westmere Butchery (their peri peri chicken sausages are legit), and a small box of veges from George’s Garden in West Auckland. We visit Grey Lynn Farmers Market for a tray of free-range eggs, and wholesale food retailer Gilmours is handy for cheaper cheese, nuts and sauces. Often, we also put in a Supie order because the Auckland-wide online delivery service offers our favourite chicken and bananas at really good prices – plus it’s a bonus that it’s not part of the duopoly.
How was your weekend? What did you get up to? How were those All Blacks, eh? Here’s what I did: I went shopping. For food. Aside from watching the kids’ football games, it’s pretty much all I did. No, I’m not a supermarket junkie. I don’t like them, and I don’t enjoy spending any amount of time in them. It’s an expensive and time-consuming pastime that I’d rather do without. I’d much prefer to go to one place and get it all done together. Some buy their groceries from Amazon. Others turn to food co-ops. But getting my modern-day hunter-gatherer on seems like the only way we can save a few cents on a weekly food bill that, for our family of four, often heads north of our mortgage repayments.
We all know how that happened. The supermarket duopoly (that’s Woolworths’ Countdown, and Foodstuffs’ New World and Pak’nSave) is earning $1 million a day in excess profits, a figure that led to a Commerce Commission investigation, and the government to act on its recommendations. From next year, a watchdog will be in place to oversee the industry, and it will be able to fine supermarkets for misbehaviour. The wholesale market is also being opened up, allowing for more competition in the industry. Things are changing, but slowly.
Meanwhile, I’m not seeing my weekly grocery bill go down. So, are my multiple trips to multiple stores to make multiple minuscule savings – the 2022 version of those old New World coupon books – really ridiculous? “We encourage people to do that,” says Jon Duffy. I called Consumer NZ’s chief executive to find out if my cost-cutting initiatives were silly, and I’m cheered to find out they’re not. He encourages people to do the same thing to make savings, and to avoid giving money to the big supermarket brands. “The more people that step outside of the duopoly and support other players, the more competitive pressure gets brought onto the supermarkets to offer better prices, to innovate and provide better services,” he says.
But it’s not for everyone. Recently, Duffy wondered if shopping around might offer better deals too. So, as part of a Consumer NZ investigation, two families and a couple were asked to stop shopping at supermarkets for two weeks and use alternatives. The findings? It ended up costing more, even without petrol costs factored in. And yes, it takes way more time. “It requires more planning,” Sarah, a Wellington mother, told Consumer NZ, who found she needed to investigate where the best shops and deals were well in advance. It also required more home storage. “We bought some things in bulk from the vege market because we were there.”
The alternative, though, is sucking it up and buying everything in one place. Duffy agrees that avoiding the duopoly’s supermarkets completely is near impossible. He lives in Wellington and mixes trips with his local supermarket by buying from a separate butcher and greengrocer. “We try to diversify things,” he says. “We do a lot of our own baking. We order online. We might do a My Food Bag every now and then.” He knows he’s in a privileged position to have access to those services, and is able to afford them. “In some rural communities, the local supermarket, that’s it, it’s not even one duopoly or another. It’s a regional monopoly.”
It sounds bleak. It is bleak. Recently, friends visiting from Melbourne remarked to me about our high supermarket prices and lack of choice. “That is the manifestation of a lack of competition,” says Duffy. Consumer NZ is doing its best to highlight these issues, launching a petition, carrying out investigations. Some days, it’s all Duffy thinks about. It’s all many others are thinking about too. “In economic times like this, when people are struggling to put food on the table, to hear that supermarkets are profiting to that extent … it’s probably pretty galling for people,” he says.
But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Increased competition is coming, with Costco, and possibly others, entering the market now that wholesale options are opening up. Night ’n Day could soon be a bigger player. Old-school food co-ops are starting up again, offering an alternative to the sterile supermarket shopping experience. “It’s actually great that grassroots alternatives are creeping into the community again,” says Duffy. “It brings people together. We’re getting good healthy food out to whānau. The fabric of the community is growing again.”
But there’s one more thing. Duffy has his own hot shopping tip. Yes, it’s another stop on an already bulging grocery shopping trip, but he makes it sound tempting. “The one to watch is The Warehouse,” he says. The chain store been expanding its grocery range lately, and while you can’t get everything there, sometimes it has some very good deals (like $4 blocks of butter). “They’ve often got the cheapest milk and cheapest cheese around – if you can get it before it sells out,” says Duffy. Another stop? I guess my weekend just got a little busier.