Earlier this month, environment secretary George Eustice suggested that anyone who was struggling with their budgets could consider trading down brands at the supermarket — and the nation collectively rolled its eyes.
The idea that anyone living on a low budget has never tried an own brand or a budget label is frankly insulting. However, there are plenty of us who consider ourselves to be reasonably smart shoppers, who could save more.
I’ve always been a fan of own brands and I’m happy to go elbow-to-elbow over the yellow stickered food at the end of the day, but I know I can try harder.
My Achilles’ heel is that my kids are incredibly picky eaters. I’ve spent years working with life-threatening food allergies and sensory issues so when I find a food that the kids will eat, I don’t mess with it. In some cases, we’ve ended up with the premium brand and in some we buy the supermarket own brand. It’s always felt like spending 50p more on a loaf of bread that I know my kids will eat makes more financial sense than buying a 70p loaf nobody will touch.
However, given how horrendous my energy bills have become, I decided it was time to put the shopping around tips to the test.
I didn’t try anything too difficult for the kids — so we stuck to salted crisps, sliced white bread, mature cheddar cheese, oven chips and baked beans. We tried the premium brand (total cost £9.39), the supermarket own-brand (Asda at a total cost of £6.10), and the Smart Price version (£3.68). I also did a spin around Aldi, and where the total cost of the full basket was £3.73.
It revealed five key things:
1. Largely, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the premium brand and the supermarket own brand
There are small differences, such as the fact that Asda beans are a bit softer than Heinz (KHC), or the bread is a bit less browned than Hovis, but none that were big enough to spark rejection — even from my picky kids.
There were some exceptions to this rule, such as the Asda own brand chips that were declared to be both raw and burned (I followed the cooking instructions, I promise).
However, given that this basket came in at 35% less than the premium brands, at least trying to trade down makes a great deal of sense on these kinds of household staples.
2. You can usually tell the difference between the supermarket own brand and the budget range, but it doesn’t always matter
The chips were much smaller, and tasted very different to the premium brand, but one of my kids said they’d eat them.
The same goes for the cheese, which had a slightly different flavour. The tin of beans offered fewer beans and more sauce — which was a bit thinner too — and while they begrudgingly said they might eat them, I know from experience that the extra sauce spreading across the plate would kick off a host of food refusal.
They actually preferred the crisps because they were thicker and less salty.
The difference in price was striking, and if they’d gone for all of the Smart Price options, I could have shaved almost two-thirds (61%) off the cost when compared to the premium brands.
3. Not every option will work
Along with the overly saucy beans, the Smart Price bread was rejected. It was much denser, the sensory issues kicked in, and the test was abandoned mid-mouthful.
I also did a price comparison at Aldi, and where something was cheaper than Smart Price, I tried that too. Most of the prices were very similar — in total, Aldi came in at just 5p more expensive than Smart Price — but the bread and beans were both slightly cheaper.
Unfortunately, neither hit the mark. My kids declared that the bread was stale (it wasn’t it was just drier), and the beans were bitter (they were just a bit less sugary).
In some ways this was a relief, because I didn’t fancy visiting an extra supermarket each week to save 3p each on bread and beans.
4. Finding the right combination can save you a fortune
If they’d gone for the cheapest version of everything, my basket would have cost £3.62 and saved over 60% compared to the premium brand, whereas opting for the cheapest versions they were happy with came in at £4.09, or 56% less than a premium brand shop.
We’re not premium brand shoppers as a rule, but even from our usual combination of own and premium brands, trading down saved 50%.
5. The process of trial and error needs planning
This is not the time to be wasting food, and trying a cheaper brand that ends up in the bin is going to cost you more in the long run. It means it’s worth having a plan B for everything that doesn’t work.
For us, the bread that fell short will go into a bread-and-butter pudding tonight and the rest will be frozen, while the beans will be washed and used for a cassoulet. Meanwhile, the oven chips will stay in the freezer until the next time my teenage son invites his friends round and they all claim to be starving.
This kind of planning, as well as the whole process of roaming the supermarket with a calculator, is a cost of a different kind that needs to be factored in too.
You’ll need to check the price of the budget brands against what you usually buy, you might need to visit a number of supermarkets, and you may need to come up with a creative solution for items the family rejects. It’s time and effort that an awful lot of people can’t spare when they’re working all hours to make ends meet.
So while it’s easy for someone to say trading down brands is a great way to save money — because it really is — it doesn’t mean you have the time and effort to spare on trial and error.
Instead, it’s worth trying what you can, when you can, and being kind on yourself if all of this is a step too far.