Supermarket sweep: a shopping challenge
Last week we held a mirror in front of the State’s seven main supermarkets to see which was the fairest of them all
Armed only with a shopping list and a critical eye, Pricewatch went looking for the winner of our inaugural Supermarket Badge of Honour. We did not just look at price, although that was very important. We also considered the atmosphere, product range, staff chattiness and background music in the various shops.
When filling our basket we veered towards own brand where available but even in that sphere we did our best to compare like with like. For example, we did not take the cheapest, vilest tea in one supermarket, and compare it with a high-end, high-priced tea in a rival shop – all the teas we priced were gold blend. All the potatoes were rooster, all the cheddar was mild and all the oranges were orange. Our shopping list was made up of: bread, butter, milk, tea, tomato ketchup, steak, oranges, rooster potatoes, mild cheddar and penne pasta.
Supervalu is a unique proposition in Irish retailing in that it is the only one of the big seven to adopt a quasi-franchise model. This is a good thing, not least because many of the individual shops are more deeply rooted in their communities than the multi-nationals who hoover up profits and ship them overseas. They employ local accountants and solicitors, contribute to local organisations and buy direct from local suppliers.
We visit a recently revamped Supervalu on the banks of the Liffey and the first thing that is striking is the music. While many big supermarkets pipe saccharine muzak over the speaker system in an attempt to sooth us into spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, Supervalu is playing The Smiths. Fortunately for the retailer, the song is not Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and as we sing along quietly to There Is a Light That Never Goes Out we fill our basket with 10 staples. We are able to mix and match own-brand and branded products in a way that is harder to do in Lidl, M&S or Aldi and we know from past experience that many of the Supervalu own brands are of a very high quality. They are also competitively priced.
There is not the array of vegetables to be found elsewhere and the fish options are very limited – although that does change depending on the store.
This shop is small and there is only one staff member on the floor. We couldn’t help but notice the poor chap has just been given a dressing down by his manager over a higgledy piggledy bananas display. We interrupt his mournful restocking and ask about the soy sauce. He drops what he’s doing (not literally) and walks us directly to the shelf where the product is located.
At the till we say the two words that we will repeat in each of the State’s main supermarkets. “Nice day,”. The pleasant chap at the till agrees and says it was freezing as he came into work at 6am. It is the only occasion over the course of our supermarket sweep that a staff member actually engages with the conversation.
Price is the key thing in determining where most of us shop now and in this regard Supervalu does okay without being outstanding. Our basket of 10 items which was split 50/50 between own-brand and branded products came in at ¤31.66.
Verdict: Friendly, cheap, Irish.
Star rating: * * * * *
Marks and Spencer
We have high hopes when we go into M&S and see no less than 14 staff members on the shop floor helping people, stocking shelves and, um, chatting among themselves about their weekend plans – yes, we eavesdrop.
The aisles are wide and there is no music playing. The stock is mostly own-brand and, generally speaking, of a very high quality. The array of exotic fruits and fish is commendable as is its commitment to ethical sourcing.
It gets a black mark for its unwillingness to tell us how much money it makes from customers in the Republic but so do all the others.
We pick a staff member at random and ask where the soy sauce is. She looks at us like we have two heads and asks a colleague standing nearby what soy sauce is and where she might find it. She is directed to a faraway part of the shop and asks us to follow her. She gets lost again and has to ask another member of staff where it is before she eventually finds it.
This atypical confusion aside, the experience of shopping is M&S is a pleasant one and we amble about spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need before making our way to the express queue. It moves fast and when it is Pricewatch’s turn we say: “Nice day.” The response is not what we expect. “Yeah it is,” the till operator says as she continues scanning the shopping.
Then, in total silence, we bag what we have bought – incidentally M&S has the best plastic bags of all the supermarkets doing business in the Republic – and we get a receipt and are sent on our way. To be fair to M&S, the customer service is usually much better than this and the interaction at the tills is usually a lot friendlier.
It is not a cheap place to shop but it has been making strides in recent months to highlight the fact that when it comes to basic groceries, it is price matching its rivals. Despite that, the price of ¤54.66 is substantially more than most of the competition. The price of the steak – and it was by no means the most expensive steak M&S was selling – pushed the price up, as did the fruit and veg.
Verdict: Sometimes pricey, almost always lovely
Star rating: ****
Many previous experiences in Tes co h ave us convinced it is not a friendly pl ace to shop. The staff at the tills and those that can be found on the shop floor are always on the surly side. O n this occasion things are different.