Monday 18th January 2021

I never used to understand people who bought groceries in bulk, those “savvy shoppers” whose spare room or garage – yes, they all live in roomy homes – was stacked high with tinned tomatoes, tuna and toilet roll.

They all owned cars, naturally, so the prospect of lugging back heavy shopping on the bus didn’t trouble them. What planet are they on, I wondered irritably.

They clearly had never been hard up, not seriously so, in the sense of knowing, come Monday, that they daren’t spend a pound until payday on Friday, or if they had, their once pragmatic parsimony had long since become habitual.

I dismissed them as belonging to a smug caste that hands out little lectures about “putting aside money for your retirement” and “researching the financial market for the best deals”.

All very well for you mate, but have you tried my life? Belatedly, I see that they have a point, although it’s one that’s hard to take on board if you’re budgeting so strictly that you necessarily fixate on the pick up price of a product, not the underlying value for
money it represents.

Rice is a good example. Checking out the same brand of Basmati rice in different pack sizes, I’ve found that the price per kilo varies dramatically: £5.30 (500g), £4.75 (1 kilo), £2.20 (10 kilos).

Supermarkets specialise in smoke-and-mirrors dark arts to get us to spend more than we really wanted to.

Black peppercorns are another eye-opener. In a well-stocked Asian supermarket the other day I was just about to buy a 100g pack of peppercorns for £1.49 (£14.90 a kilo) when I noticed that a one kilo bag cost £8.99.

Ok, I’m not running a restaurant, and let’s not get carried away here, but that’s a massive difference.

Peppercorns keep well, Marie Kondo would approve because they don’t take up much storage space, and I’m habitually running out of them. So I picked up the one-kilo bag.

Extra virgin olive oil is yet another worthwhile candidate for buying larger amounts. You can pay £6.50 or £3.60 respectively for the same basic quality brand, depending on whether you pick up a one-litre bottle or 500 ml.

Despite the notional saving, “Best buys” are a recipe for overspending and food waste.

Of course, supermarkets specialise in smoke-and-mirrors dark arts to get us to spend more than we really wanted to, notably their superficially attractive “multi-buy deals”, such as three-for-two.

But never take these apparent bargains at face value. Examine them carefully by checking the kilo or litre price before you part with a penny, and if they’re on fresh foods, apply the acid test: “Will I actually get round to eating this?”

Despite the notional saving, “Best buys” are a recipe for overspending and food waste. Those annoying bulk buyers were right all along. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the quantity you buy, the more you’ll pay.

Of course, there are exceptions. A butcher’s shop price for mince is the same whether you buy 200 grams or two kilos. There’s no “good deal” to be got at a cheese shop by upping the quantity you buy.

But packaged food sold on ambient shelves? This is where substantial savings can really stack up.

Joanna Blythman
Joanna Blythman

Joanna Blythman is an award-winning investigative journalist, the author of seven landmark books on food issues, and one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the British food chain. A great believer in basing your diet on whole, unprocessed food that you cook yourself, Joanna is a passionate supporter of independent shops, markets and similar non-supermarket outlets. Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2018.

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