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Supermarket Shopping Tips

34 tools & tricks to slash food bills

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Jenny | Edited by Martin

Updated 24 Jul 2017

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 34 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:

  • Treats 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 can you slash 1,500 off your yearly grocery bill?

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 according to the Mysupermarket comparison website, you'll usually cut the bill by 30%. For a family's 100 shop that's over 1,500 a year. Even if you only drop half the brands because you can tell the difference on others, that's still a saving of 750 a year.

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

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 'swap and save' 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).

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 major online supermarkets with Mysupermarket*.

It looks at the biggies including Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Ocado, Aldi, Morrisons, Iceland, M&S and Sainsbury's. For toiletries, it checks Superdrug and Boots, and Amazon, Poundland and Poundstretcher for some products. The prices it shows are often reflected in store, so even if you're going in person, it's worth checking to see which is cheapest for you.

It says its prices are updated at least once a day, except for Aldi which is updated weekly as the data is collected manually.

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.

When you click on an item the website will show you the price of it at other stores, plus other similar products, and a graph showing the average price over the last 12 months. You'll also be able to see the total price of your basket compared with what it would be at other stores, but watch out for any missing items and check if it has suggested replacements.

There's also an app for Android and Apple phones so you can compare the data to in-store prices as you shop.

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

Grab 100+ coupons worth 100+

Using coupons can save you 100s on your shopping. Check out our Supermarket Coupons page for a regularly updated list to help you slash serious money off your bill.

'I got 48 of shopping for 20' take couponing to the max

Extreme couponers source, gain and hoard hundreds of product and store coupons, then combine them for huge code-stacking discounts.

Many have astonishing success, such as forumite Purple Sarah: "I got 67 of shopping for 11p after offers and coupons. I used 39.50 of Clubcard coupons, 5 off 40, a price promise and other coupons."

Forumite Supersavingmummy found it worked in Tesco: "Got a free pack of Clover butter, free Always liners as well as other discounted stuff. The total price should have been 48.32, but with my coupons it came to just 19.60 a 59% saving!"

Few will reach such heights, but many can cut costs with our Extreme Couponing Tips.

Don't get 'ad by special offers

In February 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 multi-buy 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* 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.

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.

Special offer run out? Get a rain check voucher

If you ever get to the supermarket and find that an item on sale you were going to buy is sold out, you can ask for a 'raincheck' voucher. Normally this is some kind of rebate or coupon to make up for them not having the stock. Most of the time it is at the store manager's discretion, but don't be afraid to give it a go.

Some Asda stores have given out 'Spark Vouchers' (previously called 'Smiley Vouchers') at the customer services desk worth 1 when a customer's had a bad experience in store. A similar thing's been known to happen at Tesco as well, but whichever supermarket you use, it's always worth asking as it tends to be at the store manager's discretion.

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.

Divvy up your trolley to exploit price-match policies

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

It's done by the basket or trolley rather than on individual items though, so the real trick's to split your shop into bargains and full-price items to max the saving.

When you're shopping, separate uber-deals from full-price items. You could organise them in the front and back of the trolley, or even use different baskets. At checkout, pay for the two piles of shopping separately.

With luck, you'll have a basketful of full-price items that will hopefully score a price-match discount or voucher. Then the separate basket of mega-bargains won't drag your average spend down.

This works online too the table below sets out each supermarket's policy.

Supermarket price promises compared
Asda Ocado Tesco
What's the deal? (i) If not 10% less than next cheapest, you get a voucher for the difference If not cheaper than Tesco.com, you get a voucher for the difference + 1p back If not cheaper than competitor, it takes the difference off your bill at checkout
Does it work online? Yes Yes Yes
Does it work in all stores? Yes (petrol stations excluded) N/A online only In Metros, Superstores, Extras
Supermarkets compared Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose Tesco.com Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's
Own-label goods? Yes Yes those which are comparable No
Special offer goods? Yes on comparable promotions Yes on comparable promotions Certain comparable promotions included
Items needed? Min 8, 1 must be comparable Min 1 comparable Min 10 different products, 1 comparable
Min spend? No 40 No
Maximum paid 100/month, max 10 claims 10 per shop 20 per shop
Vouchers/discount paid automatically? No, you must claim Yes, by email Yes, it takes a discount off your bill at the till or when you pay online
Vouchers valid for... 28 days 14 days N/A
(i) Based on total cost of all comparable goods. Comparable items are branded goods or where weight and/or size is similar.

Time trips right to bag huge yellow-sticker discounts

'Yellow sticker' discounts are when items have been reduced to clear, and they've been slapped with... well, the clue's in the name. If you can find what you're looking for with a yellow sticker on, fantastic grab it and use it quickly as it's a saving on perfectly good nosh.

To try to build a picture of the best time to find these savings, we've asked MoneySavers who work in supermarkets to spill the beans on stores' reduction policies, plus shoppers and supermarkets themselves.

Let's be clear this is an art, not a science. Reduction times vary not just by supermarket but by store (and it's particularly dependent on opening times). As a rough guide, the first yellow stickers tend to appear mid-morning, and silly-price reductions begin early evening, when stores cut prices by 75% and more.

Here's when MoneySavers tell us are the best times to bag these bargains if you know better, tell us what you've seen in the 'Yellow sticker' discount forum thread:

  • Asda. MoneySaver Lisa recently bagged 60 of shopping for 2.55 via Asda's 'whoopsie' yellow-sticker discounts, so there are big savings to be had. We're told final reductions often start around 7pm and most bargains have been snapped up by 9pm. We've asked Asda what its policy is and will update this guide when we hear back.
  • Co-op. MoneySavers tell us the timing of discounts at Co-op very much varies by store. One former staff member told us items which expire that day tend to have a 50% discount and reductions increase around 5pm, though another MoneySaver told us you have to wait until 8pm for 75% discounts. We're waiting for word from Co-op on its official policy.
  • M&S Food. M&S shoppers tell us they've seen final reductions at 6.30pm in stores which close at 7pm, and at 8pm in stores closing at 9pm. One MoneySaver told us M&S often marks down items reaching their sell-by date "just after lunch". Again, we've asked M&S for confirmation and will update this guide when we hear back.
  • Morrisons. Shoppers tell us Morrisons reductions tend to start late morning or lunchtime. Morrisons says there's no set policy though and it's up to individual store managers to decide when and how to reduce items.
  • Sainsbury's. The official line from Sainsbury's is also that the timing of yellow-sticker discounts is "completely store dependent". MoneySavers tell us it's worth starting scanning for yellow stickers around lunchtime one store we're told starts at 1.30pm. Another MoneySaver told us big reductions at her local store kick in around 7pm.
  • Tesco. Tesco also insists there's no hard and fast rule on discounts. Previous reports from shop-floor staff suggest reductions start as early as 8am and big discounts materialise early evening but much will depend on individual stores' opening times.

Aldi doesn't reduce the price of food over the course of the day. We haven't yet had much feedback on discounts at Lidl and Waitrose and are still waiting to hear from the supermarkets themselves, but again if you've spotted when bargains appear, let us know in the 'Yellow sticker' discount forum thread.

Also remember many 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. The consensus from those who've helped us compile this list was: "We will reduce prices for friendly customers but if you're rude and demand a reduction, forget it."

Try shopping in a different aisle (and crouching down...)

Did you know you can often buy the same item in the same supermarket for less? Check out our Deals Hunters' blog for how you can make big savings by shopping in the baby aisle and world foods aisle, and how to avoid overpaying in the free-from aisle. Plus see how you cansave by crouching down.

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.

step two

Get a free fridge memo print out

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).

Grab big discounts for abandoning your virtual shopping basket

It's possible to bag big discounts from online supermarkets simply for walking out the (virtual) shop. When you don't complete an order, they often email you a discount as a way to entice you back.

To try it, pop something in your basket, without buying. You may well find a code or offer lands in your inbox a few days later. Sign into your account though or they won't know who you are.

While we've no concrete proof, forumites reckon they've nabbed 5 off at Tesco, 20 off Ocado and 22 off Waitrose this way. For more insider shopping tricks like this, see our 15 Shopping Secrets guide.

Get free (or very cheap) food with our tricks

Make sure you supplement these supermarket shopping tips by maxing out all the food freebies available.

We've put together a new guide to getting free food at supermarkets, restaurants and cafés - including free KFC, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, coffee and more. Plus we've a trick that could help you get PAID to eat at restaurants.

See our How to get free (or cheap) food guide for full details.

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 29p Bisto stock pots (four-pack), five Snickers for 1 and 170g French's mustard 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.

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