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A flaming speech bubble is set against a green background. On each side are exclamation marks. Inside the speech bubble is toilet paper, super wine biscuits, oat milk, muffin splits and a check box ticked next to the words 'allow substitutions'
Image: Archi Banal

KaiMay 22, 2023

Hear me out: Online grocery substitutions are out of control

A flaming speech bubble is set against a green background. On each side are exclamation marks. Inside the speech bubble is toilet paper, super wine biscuits, oat milk, muffin splits and a check box ticked next to the words 'allow substitutions'
Image: Archi Banal

Alice Neville has had a gutsful of silly supermarket switcheroos. 

Just tick “no substitutes”, they say. It’s an easy solution, they say. Sure, it’s an easy solution until you find yourself entirely sans toilet paper because New World had sold out of all the Purex that day. I guess I should be thankful I wasn’t instead given a roll of sellotape, like one bemused British shopper who I can only hope resisted the urge to use this particular proxy for the original product’s intended purpose. 

For those unfamiliar with the world of online supermarket shopping (I was in this blissful position until I had a baby and browsing the aisles became decidedly niggly), allow me to explain. When placing your order, you can choose to allow all substitutions (if any of your chosen products are unavailable, another of similar value will be given in its place), allow none (if any of your chosen products are unavailable, they’re simply removed from your order), or consider each item on a case-by-case basis.

Initially I took the no, I don’t want no subs route, before the aforementioned dunny roll incident led me reluctantly to change my tune. I now go through a convoluted internal process as I scroll down my shopping cart, for each product painstakingly weighing up the risks of either course of action. Do I put it all on the line and risk going without, or throw caution to the wind and put my life in the hands of the supermarket gods, AKA the teenager likely putting my order together.

Me, placing a Countdown order (Photo: Getty Images)

Some items are an absolute no: booze, for one. For me, the prospect of ending up with, say, a box of Corona instead of some lovely Parrotdog Bitterbitch is simply too much to bear, so I gird my loins, brace myself for the very real prospect of finding myself beerless, and tick no subs. Fresh produce? To be honest, I usually avoid purchasing sight unseen, but if desperate times are calling for desperate measures (read: scurvy is threatening) and I throw a few apples or a head of broccoli into my online cart, again I will tick no subs.

Other categories are not so black and white, requiring the online shopper to go all math lady and ponder complex economic models like supply and demand. What is the likelihood of this particular product, one must ask oneself, being unavailable on this particular day? New Whittaker’s flavour out, for example? There may well be a rush on it, meaning if one is to allow substitutions, one could be stuck with, I don’t know, gender reveal chocolate. One must then ponder what is a worse fate: eating extremely mediocre coconut chocolate that plays into tired gender tropes, or eating no chocolate at all. (Yes, I’m aware the gender reveal chocolate was a limited edition that is no longer available, but this is a hypothetical situation.)

Because, as much as I’d like to believe those ads about the personal shoppers hand-picking you the shiniest apple while smiling beatifically, going down the “allow substitutes” route can feel like playing Russian roulette. Just last week I ordered a humble packet of Griffin’s gingernuts, a staple surely no self-respecting supermarket would ever run out of. Or so I thought. My lovely ’nuts were switched for Super Wines, a truly depressing biscuit that disintegrates into sludge if it so much as senses the presence of a hot beverage in the general vicinity. I get that the person putting together my order was stuck between a rock and a, um, spiced baked good here, as there is no suitable substitute for this king among dunkers, but surely a Krispie would have been more appropriate?

It gets worse, or so a quick survey of my colleagues suggests, with some supermarket switch-ups descending into pure parody. One poor soul who ordered a large shaker of table salt was given dozens of tiny 10g packs of the stuff instead. Another, animal product-eschewing colleague had their oat milk switched for – and I shit you not – goat milk. 

This begs the question: what guidelines do our grocery overlords follow when selecting substitutions? Goat for oat hints at a rhyme-based policy. Sure, having Dr Seuss pack your groceries may sound cute until you’re serving your apple crumble with mustard and dipping carrot sticks into a tub of inaugural NZ Idol winner Ben Lummis. 

ben lummis hummus

I was all set to blame computers – the cause of most modern ills – for this situation. The internet, rather than trying to cover its arse, backed up the theory, with Google returning sad stories from all over the world of supermarket substitution snafus caused by apps and algorithms gone rogue. 

With my fist poised, ready to shake furiously in the general direction of “technology”, I put in a quick call to each member of Aotearoa’s grocery duopoly, demanding they reveal their substitute-selecting secrets. Imagine my surprise when both Countdown and Foodstuffs cheerfully told me there was no app – just people who undergo training in how to select “like-for-like” products when a customer’s chosen item is out of stock. This revelation shook me to my very core. You mean Super Wine-gate was not the work of some sentient AI nightmare, but the twisted mind of a human who walks among us? Somehow, that’s even more terrifying.

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