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26 October 2020
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 33 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Tropicana orange juice, this time buy three of those and one of Tesco's own brand. 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.
Many can save £1,000s. Drop a brand level on everything you buy and according to the (now closed) Mysupermarket comparison website, you'll usually cut the bill by 30%. For a family with an £100 weekly 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.
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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).
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 'Disguised own brand' Great Hunt 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.
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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.
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.
In August 2019, Which? investigated the price of 450 products available at seven supermarkets (Asda, Iceland, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose).
It spotted 65 instances where supermarkets used misleading discounts that didn’t represent the bargains they claimed. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
See our Loyalty Points Boosting guide for more info.
Flash your Clubcard at Tesco and you bag one point per pound spent. Then it converts the points into 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 up to 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 times that (ie, £15) via Tesco Clubcard Boost. Rewards include days out, restaurant vouchers, RAC membership and more. For full info on redeeming vouchers, see Tesco Points Boost.
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'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 asked MoneySavers who work in supermarkets to spill the beans on stores' reduction policies, plus shoppers and supermarkets themselves.
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. But 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).
Here's when MoneySavers tell us are the best times to bag these bargains (we last asked in July 2017). If you know better, tell us in the 'Yellow sticker' discount forum thread:
When we asked MoneySavers if they had any new tips in May 2019, they shared the following gems:
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."
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.
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).
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 14 Shopping Secrets guide.
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, 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.
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 three packets of peanut butter Oreos for 99p, 25p bottles of Heinz barbecue sauce and five Mars bars for £1.
There's a £3 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.
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.
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.
For a bit of fun, we looked at whether you pay extra for the new trend of biscuit 'Thins'. MSE Jordon compared prices of standard-size biscuits to their ‘Thins’ alternative, and found choosing ‘Thins’ could see you being charged almost double... for half as much biscuit.
See full details in Jordon's Thin biscuits, thinner wallets blog.
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.
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Many supermarkets urge you to save for up to 6% 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.
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.