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Supermarket Shopping Tips

30 top tools 'n' tricks to slash food bills

Supermarkets are brilliant at making us spend our hard-earned cash, yet with a few focused techniques you could save £1,000s a year.

We've put together 30 ways to max discounts, including how to compare costs online, boost gains from price check policies, time trips to bag the best yellow sticker reductions and more.

A supermarket's job is to make us spend

Supermarkets are cathedrals of consumerism. They're perfectly honed marketing environments, benefiting from millions of pounds of research into how to encourage and seduce us into buying and spending more than we should. This means as consumers, we must learn counter moves.

If you want to teach an eight-year-old about money, the best place to start is a supermarket. Ask them what they can smell. It'll usually be bread or a bakery, as the scent makes us hungry and likely to buy more food, so the supermarket profits.

Supermarkets' other tactics include the following:

  • Sweets and magazines placed by the till. These are impulse buys, so putting them near the till gives stores one last attempt to grab our cash.

  • Store layouts make us walk the whole distance. Regularly bought items tend to be spread around the store, so we need to pass many other tempting goodies to complete our shopping.

  • Eye-level products are the profitable ones. The most profitable stock is placed at eye-level (or children’s eye-level if it's targeted at them), yet profitable goods tend not to be the best deals for shoppers. The age-old adage "look high and low for something" really does apply.

  • Sales-type signage for non-sales items. Seedless grapes and other attractive treats are usually near the store entrance, often below cost price, to entice us in. Similar signs and displays are used elsewhere to promote deals, even when they're not on sale.

    Bright colours and the words "discount" and "sale" make us feel good, yet the reduction may be pennies and cheaper equivalents hidden elsewhere.

Steer your own trolley

For those on a strict budget, it's important to get into the right mindset. Don't ask: "What's the cheapest way to get all the goodies I want?". Instead ask: “On my £XYZ budget, what can I afford?”

Of course, a budget is part of a wider strategy and how much to prioritise food shopping depends on your other expenditure. Use our free Budget Planner tool to help.

Take the Downshift Challenge

Don't believe the brand hypnosis. Whether it's bacon, biscuits, baked beans or bolognese sauce, if something costs more it's got to be better, right? Wrong.

The phrasing and promotional language used in shops hypnotises us into thinking most costly is best. While the packaging looks more opulent, look beneath to the actual product you're getting and sometimes you won't be able to tell the difference.

Supermarkets separate their products into different categories, using loaded language to give you the choice of how 'luxury' or 'basic' you want to be.

As you move up the brand level costs increase, as do presentation and sometimes ingredients. Often a manufacturers' brand and own brand may well be made in the same factory by the same people (though it's tough to prove with specific products).

  • Premium. Words like 'finest' or 'extra special' imply it's a treat.

  • Branded. Products like McVitie's Jaffa Cakes or Kellogg's cereal.

  • Own brand. These tend to be presented in a similar way to manufacturers' brands, but with the supermarket's own take on it.

  • Value. With names like 'basic' or 'savers', the presentation is deliberately stark to imply it's cut back to the bones.

Take the Downshift Challenge

To fight back and save big, try the Downshift Challenge. The theory is simple:

Try dropping one brand level on everything. Then see if you can tell the difference. If not, stick with the cheaper one.

The next time you shop, swap one of everything to something just one brand level lower. So if you usually buy four cartons of Tesco's own-brand orange juice, this time buy three of those and one Tesco Everyday Value. If you use branded aloe vera shower cream, drop to Asda's own brand.

The point of this system isn't to force you to drop down a brand level on everything, but to ensure you're not spending money for no reason. If you can't tell the difference between the lower brand level goods, then why pay more for it.

It's far better to taste with your mouth than your eyes, so try giving family members a blind taste test with no packaging to ensure it's fair. Of course, let's not go extreme on this. If there's a 2for1 on a higher brand (and you'd use both packs) making it cheaper than downshifting, stick with the higher brand.

Try the Downshift Challenge tool

To inspire you, try our fun Downshift Challenge tool. Tell it where you shop, how much you spend and the proportion of each brand you buy (premium, manufacturers', own brand or basic) and it'll crunch the numbers.

Many can save £1,000s. Drop a brand level on everything you buy and you'll usually cut the bill by 30%. For a family's £100 shop that's £1,750 a year. Even if you only drop half the brands because you can tell the difference on others, that's still a saving of £875 a year.

It's worth noting the biggest downshift savings aren't from premium brands to manufacturer brands, but for those already lower down the brand chain to begin with.

Watch the Downshift Challenge video

Courtesy of Channel 5. Originally from It Pays To Watch!

May 2008

Get trade down product suggestions

Supermarket comparison site MySupermarket* includes a 'trade down' option based on the Downshift Challenge theory. So when you enter your shopping trolley, as well as comparing the price of all your items across online supermarkets, it gives you the downshifted option too.

This is a quick system and a great way to see the scale of the savings, even if you don't shop online.

Downshift cleaning products & toiletries too

Rather strangely, reports show people are more likely to stick with branded washing powders, shower gels and other cleaning products than food. Yet these products don't even need tasting and the saving is huge. So try downshifting these too.

Then again, old-style MoneySavers wouldn't forgive us if we didn't say you can clean the whole house with white vinegar and lemon juice (read more on Old Style Cleaning and full info in the charity Thrifty Ways book).

Find the tastiest own brands

Everything from shortbread to Chardonnay is covered by The Supermarket Own Brand Guide, which reviews supermarket's own brands. It pits them against their brand name rivals and gives a mark out of 10.

Reviews are written by food critic Martin Isark. He’s gradually tasting his way through the big supermarkets and has reviewed more than 10,000 products from Aldi, Asda, the Co-operative, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose.

He says own brands can smack the bottoms of posh ranges, even when it comes to taste. You definitely don’t always get what you pay for.

Hunt for disguised own brands

After the Downshift Challenge, many people will be tempted to ask, “is there actually any difference between normal brands and own-brands?” Often they’re made in the same factories.

To help break through this, there's a discussion in the forum, which asks any current or past factory workers to dish the dirt on whether there's really any difference. Of course there’s no guarantee it’s true, but it makes fun reading.

For an ITV programme, Martin got a scientist to examine some own brands and compare them to the main brands. Surprisingly, almost none were nutritionally identical. The conclusion was small differences were deliberately added so no one can say “they’re the same”. Even so, they’re often very similar in taste, so it doesn’t matter too much.

Never shop when hungry

OK, so it may sound obvious, but it's true: if you're hungry, you’re more likely to buy things you don’t need.

Plus beware pick-up shops. If you pop into your local shop on your way home to buy a pint of milk as a catch-up midweek, don’t pick up a basket. Do that, and you’ll generally fill it. If you want a pint of milk, buy a pint of milk then leave.

Compare the cost of your trolley

Compare the cost of your shopping trolley at the major online supermarkets with MySupermarket*.

It looks at the biggies: Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Ocado, Aldi, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. For toiletries, it checks Superdrug and Boots. The prices are often reflected in-store, so even if you're going in person, it’s worth doing a check to see which is cheapest for you.

As you enter your data, MySupermarket also suggests alternative options that may be cheaper. For example, if you’re buying two six-packs of cola and a 12-pack is cheaper, it lets you know.

Got a top tip that we haven't listed? Feed back in the 30 Ways To Cut Supermarket Costs discussion.

Max your coupons

Coupons and deals are integral to supermarkets' strategies. The promotions follow what we call a 'capture and exploit' system.

  • Capture. The aim's to attract customers who wouldn't come otherwise. These are generally discount vouchers or codes on a small range of heavily discounted items.

  • Exploit. This is about targeting existing customers, with the dual aim of making them feel they're getting better value to promote customer stickiness and trying to target impulse spending through promotions on attractive luxury items.

Hundreds of free coupons are available instantly on the web. Look for coupons on already-discounted products, as they'll work out uber-cheap.

Serious 'extreme couponers' draw up a coupon battle plan before hitting the store, and systematically file coupons in a concertina folder, splitting into sections such as meat or veggies. Check out Free Grocery Coupons for an updated list of top ones.

Don't get 'ad by special offers

In December 2013, Which? investigated the price of 700,000 items on sale at the five big supermarkets and found some special offers were more expensive than products not on sale.

Supermarkets' tactics included upping the price per item when products went into a multibuy offer and exaggerating original prices to make special offers seem cheaper.

For a collection of nonsensical offers from supermarkets, see our When Promos Go Wrong guide. Users sent us their best spots, eg "Air freshener 75p each or 2 for £5!", and in best Tony Hart fashion we compiled a gallery.

Track if it's really a bargain

Most of us know just because a supermarket lists an item as "on offer", that doesn't mean it's cheap. The trouble has been sorting awesome offers from pants promos.

To help, supermarket comparison site MySupermarket* now charts products' price histories to show if a supermarket's 'was' price is realistic.

  • How to do it: Simply sign up to MySupermarket for free, then search for an item. On its page, scroll down and you'll see a chart of the supermarkets' average prices for that product over the last year. Results can be fascinating.

  • Set up a price alert.You can get price alerts on your favourite groceries – ideal for stocking up on favourite items that don't go off. Search for a product, click 'add price alert' and MySupermarket fires off an email as soon as the price drops in one or more stores.

  • Try the browser plug-in. There's also the nifty free MySupermarket browser plug-in, which charts average prices while you visit the supermarkets.

    Once you've downloaded a plug-in, go to an item's page at Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda, Waitrose or Ocado. Click the icon on your browser and the price chart should appear.

Grab online supermarket vouchers

Online supermarkets commonly put out introductory discount vouchers to 'capture' new customers, eg £15 off a £50 spend at Waitrose.

For a detailed list of free codes and vouchers, see the Shopping Vouchers deals list. All hot new vouchers go in our free weekly email.

Ask for a raincheck voucher

If a special offer item is out of stock, some supermarkets will give you a voucher entitling you to the same deal at a later date.

  • Asda Smiley vouchers. Asda staff are allowed to give out Smiley vouchers for up to £1, when a customer's had a problem or something isn’t quite right. One of these reasons is that a special offer product's out of stock. Vouchers are at shop assistants' discretion, so don't be demanding. A friendly smile goes a long way.

  • Sainsbury's Special Coupons. If a special offer's run out, Sainsbury's shop assistants dish out Special Coupons, allowing you to buy the same product from a different brand, at the special offer price.

    Again, it's at the shop assistant's discretion and some haven't heard of them, but MoneySavers report that politely explaining about the coupons can help. Coupons must be used on the same day as you get them.

Consider less choice, lower price supermarkets

When shopping in-store, consider Lidl and Aldi too if you haven’t before. These can often prove cheaper than the other big supermarkets – many shoppers go once a month to buy all their staples, then use the big four for the rest of their goods.

Get further money back with cashback

Once you've found the cheapest groceries, you may be able to get paid cashback on top. A number of sites get paid by online stores for sending traffic then give you a cut - full information and warnings in Top Cashback Sites.

Know when to BOGOF

Bogof! No, not you! BOGOF stands for ‘buy one, get one free’. Often there to 'exploit' our impulses, these can be a menace or an angel.

The time to grab 'em is when the BOGOF (or three-for-two or half-price deal) is on something that won't go off that you'd buy anyway. Classic examples include toothpaste, bog roll and batteries.

To locate cracking current offers, check the forum's Food and Grocery Shopping board. All top supermarket offers and loopholes also go in the free weekly email.

Loyalty schemes don't give something for nothing

Supermarkets use sneaky tactics to keep us in their store so we don’t take advantage of competitive markets.

Don't think loyalty schemes, such as Tesco Clubcard and Nectar, give you something for nothing. Loyalty points schemes are incorporated into pricing policies. So the golden rule is: choose where to shop on price, not because you get points, but always get points when you're spending there anyway.

Reclaim old Clubcard vouchers

Flash your Clubcard at Tesco and you bag one point per pound spent. Then every three months you’re sent the points as vouchers - 500 points equals a fiver to spend in-store.

Many lose or forget to use ‘em. But there’s an easy way to claw back the last two years' of unused vouchers (some report successes from even further back).

Log on to Tesco's site and tucked away is a ‘Your Vouchers’ area showing your voucher history, including those that haven’t been redeemed. See Reclaim Tesco Vouchers for more info.

Also note that a 500-point voucher is worth a fiver in Tesco, but you can trade it for up to three or four times that (ie, £15 or £20) via Tesco Clubcard Boost. Rewards include days out, restaurant vouchers, RAC membership and more. For full info on redeeming vouchers, see Tesco Points Boost.

Exploit price match policies

Five big supermarkets promise to refund the difference when groceries are cheaper at rivals.

It's done by the basket though, so the real trick is to separate your shop into items that are cheaper and those that aren't to max the saving.

Do your research and find out the price of items before you head out - MySupermarket* can help with this. Then put the items that cost more at your chosen supermarket into one transaction, and the ones that are cheapest in another. That way the price difference you'll get will be the greatest - and you'll get the maximum possible voucher.

  • Asda 10% price guarantee.

    While paying for more expensive items separately will max your savings at any supermarket, at Asda you can really make the most of price-matching.

    If it's not the cheapest by 10%, it'll refund you the difference between its price and 10% less than the cheapest competitor out there. This means potentially you'll be able to effectively get some items for 10% less than the cheapest price they're on sale for anywhere (though the difference will be in Asda vouchers).

Supermarket price promises compared
Asda Ocado Morrisons Sainsbury's Tesco
What do you get? (i) If not 10% less than next cheapest, the difference between its price & 10% less than next cheapest Difference plus 1p if cheaper Difference with the cheapest competitor, paid in points which are then automatically converted to vouchers Difference with Asda prices Difference with the cheapest competitor
Does it work online? Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Does it work in all stores? Yes N/A - online only Yes (ii) Main stores (locals & centrals excluded) In Metros, Superstores, Extras (iii)
Supermarkets compared Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Sainsbury's, Tesco Asda Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's
Own-label goods? Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Goods on offer? Yes, but only when "fairly included" No Yes on comparable promotions Certain comparable promotions included Yes, but only when "fairly included"
Items needed? Min 8, 1 must be comparable Min 1 comparable Min 1 comparable Min 10, 1 comparable Min 10, 1 comparable
Min spend? N/A £40 £15 N/A N/A
Maximum paid £100/month, max 10 claims £10 per shop 10,000 points per transaction (exchangeable for £10 vch), max 100,000/mth (£100 vch) £10 per shop £10 per shop up to £100/mth per household
Vouchers paid automatically? No, you must claim (iv) Yes, by email Yes, at till or by email if shopping online Yes, at till Yes, at till or by email if shopping online
Vchs valid for... 28 days 14 days 56 weeks 14 days 28 days
(i) Based on total cost of all comparable goods. Comparable items are branded goods or where weight and/or size is similar. (ii) Local stores excl from price comparison, but you can still earn points on featured items. (iii) Also in attached petrol stations, not Express & Homeplus. (iv) Claim via Price Guarantee website from 3hrs after in-store shop, 24hrs after online delivery.

Time trips to bag bigger reductions

If you spot a yellow sticker discount – fantastic. Grab it and use it quickly as it’s a saving on perfectly good nosh. To build the info on this, we asked MoneySavers who work in supermarkets to spill the beans on their stores' reduction policies.

Reduction times varied by store/opening time, yet some definite patterns emerged. The first yellow stickers appear around 10am, and the silly-price reductions begin at 7pm, when stores cut prices by 75% and upwards. 

Supermarket rough reductions schedule
Up to 25% off Up to 50% off Up to 75% and up
Asda 12noon 5pm 9pm
Morrisons - 5pm 7pm
Sainburys 1pm 5pm 8pm
Tesco 8am 4pm 8pm
Co-op 8am 5pm 7pm
Source: The Great 'Supermarket staff, tell us your reduction policies’ Hunt

Most shop floor staff have the authority to reduce prices at their discretion, so keep your eye out for goods that are damaged/nearing their sell-by dates. Their overwhelming cry was: "We will reduce prices for friendly customers, but if you’re rude and demand a reduction – forget it."

Don't be a waster

Do you know the difference between a ‘best before’ and ‘display until’ date? If not, the likelihood is you're throwing away a lot of food unnecessarily.

’Use-by’ dates mean chuck food away after this date, as otherwise it’s a health risk. ‘Best before’ dates mean food is usually still OK to eat after this date, so don’t waste money by throwing perfectly edible produce away.

  • The use-by date: Bin it! Use-by means just that. Eating nosh beyond that date is risky, even if it looks and smells fine. Typical foods to watch include dairy, milk, fish and eggs.

  • The best before date: Still edible after the date. Best before labels usually have nothing to do with safety, they're just the manufacturer's view of when they're at optimum quality. This is usually longer lasting foods such as frozen meals, tins, sugar, pasta and cereals.

    You can eat after the best before. Use taste and sight - the only downside's the food may lose some flavour and texture.

  • Display-until and sell-by: Instructions for shops' staff, not for you. These dates are instructions for shop staff to tell them when they should take a product off the shelves. Check the ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates instead.

Find more ideas about saving food on LoveFoodHateWaste.

Get a free fridge memo print out

step two

Try our free Food Saving Memo to print out and stick on your fridge.

As above, the key is that while eating beyond use-bys is a health risk, there's no explicit safety risk just from eating food beyond best-befores (except for eggs).

Buy beyond best-befores at big discounts

Not only is it usually safe to eat food beyond best-befores, it's legal to sell them.

There are local specialists and even an online store, Approved Food, which specialises in out-of-date stock. Typical deals have included 20p brandy butter, eight Sharwoods poppadoms for 25p and Hellmann's 235ml Thousand Island dressing for 29p.

There's a £5.99 delivery charge, so it's worth bulk-buying. As there aren't any finite rules on how far beyond a best before date it's still safe to eat products, you need to make the decision yourself. Generally though, the longer the original shelf life of the goods before the best before date, the longer you can go beyond.

Use a 2D linear tracking device

Supermarkets are great at targeting our impulses, so nowt’s more powerful than a good old-fashioned shopping list - hopefully by giving it a pretentious name, it'll feel more important.

The reason's obvious. By planning what you need before heading out, it's easier to cut out anything that goes over budget and stick to it. Buy only what you planned, with a little flexibility for promotions.

Write a meal plan

The best way to make your shopping list super-effective is by writing a meal plan for the week/month. That way you can work out what you’re going to eat every day, incorporating the ingredients you already have.

To help, there's an amazing resource where thrifty MoneySaving Old-Stylers have put together menu planners of various thrift levels to copy and download.

Nifty tools to use up larder leftovers

To stop wasting food that you don’t know what to do with, use sites such as Supercook, which suggests recipes for the items left over in your fridge or cupboard.

Tell the Supercook or BigOven tools what items are in your fridge or cupboard and they'll suggest a recipe for them from 1,000s. Alternatively, just go to this site's Old Style Recipe Index and scroll down to the relevant ingredient.

Get a trolley boost every Xmas

Many supermarkets urge you to save for up to 4% bonuses in their savings-stamps schemes. It's important to understand these DO NOT have the same protection as savings in a bank (see the Safe Savings guide).

In fact, this is exactly what happened with the Farepak debacle back in 2006. It's the reason we've always cautioned against savings clubs.

Yet they're often paid solely due to what you’ve got on a set date, so it's possible to bag a year's interest in a day. Our full Supermarket Xmas Boost rundown is updated every November with the top schemes.

Check out local market stalls

Supermarkets may be convenient, but local market stalls can kick their bums on fruit and veg prices. A Channel 4 Dispatches investigation in January 2013 found local markets and grocers were up to 35% cheaper than supermarkets.

Mystery shoppers visited local markets, independent shops and big brand supermarkets in 32 locations around the country. Big supermarkets were 12% more expensive, and small 'Metro' branches 35% more expensive.

As prices vary across the country, you'll need to do some comparisons of your own. Keep receipts from your supermarket shop, then write down how much you spend at the local market for the same quantities.

How to complain

If you're not happy about your product or the service you receive, you should first contact the retailer in person, by phone, or in writing. However, if you're still not satisfied, then...

Free tool if you’re having a problem

This tool helps you draft your complaint and manage it too. It’s totally free, and offered by a firm called Resolver which we like so much we work with it to help people get complaints justice.

If the complaint isn't resolved, Resolver will automatically escalate it for free to the relevant ombudsman or trade body.