Swap shop: A Lidl shopper and an M&S fan switch stores for a week

We challenged a discount supermarket aficionado and a luxury food addict to see how the other half shops for one week. Here’s what they found

Dominique McMullan adapts to life in Lidl. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Dominique McMullan adapts to life in Lidl. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

‘ARE THOSE REALLY SKI GLOVES FOR A FIVER?’

Dominique McMullan: A Fallon & Byrne and M&S shopper goes to Lidl
Confession: before this week I had never set foot in a Lidl. All knowledge I had of it was obtained from glances through the window on my way to Marks & Spencer. I think I sheltered from the rain under the awning once. Truth be told, before my research, I really associated Lidl – unfairly, as it turns out – with oversized shopping bags and squeaky bits of greying meat.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth

So where do I normally shop? Well, in Marks & Spencer, or Morton’s, or Fallon & Byrne or sometimes SuperValu. I know what you’re thinking. But let me explain. First, these supermarkets all happen to be on my way home, luring me in with the smell of freshly baked goods. And second, well, I suppose I just like their food.

Is it a crime to have a deep-seated love of pre-prepared giant couscous? I don’t think so. I’m in my late 20s, with no mortgage and no children, so instead of being a wise, grown-up type person and saving, I buy luxury mashed potato.

I spend about €500 a month in supermarkets; this feeds me and my very hungry partner. Every 10 days I attempt a “big shop” and buy things such as toilet paper, chicken fillets, onions and so on. This shop usually costs about €100. Inevitably, though, by Wednesday I’m back in Marks & Spencer getting “just one pepper” that morphs into a multipack of cookies, truffle oil and chicken Kiev en croute.

I have two separate compartments in my head: one for clothing and one for food. Lidl ignores this divide entirely

My first impression on entering Lidl is that it is very small. And that there is no way that they will have everything I have written down on my “big shop” list. One aisle (there appear to be only four) looks like it’s made up mostly of chocolate. (Also, are those ski coats in the distance?)

A few steps in I encounter the bakery section. All I notice is that there are no chefs pulling fresh, squidgy cookies from the oven. Next is the vegetable section; this is much more impressive. They have everything on my list (including celeriac, which I was sure I would leave without) and broccoli for €1.19. I eyeball a very seemly, round courgette (€2.49), the like of which I have never encountered before, even in the poshest of supermarkets.

The next aisle is a challenge and a delight in equal measure. I have two separate compartments in my head: one for clothing and one for food. Lidl ignores this divide entirely.

Dominique McMullan’s haul of groceries in Lidl
Dominique McMullan’s haul of groceries in Lidl

I spend 10 minutes flitting between spices and sauces and ski gear. Concentrate, Dominique, you need to find garam masala, I think to myself. But God, are those really ski gloves for a fiver? It's hard to decide between the ground turmeric, sriracha and waterproof snow boots (€20). I could get used to this.

Next I spot the Deluxe range, to which, of course, I’m immediately drawn. As I stand before the packed shelf, my eyes adjust and land on lobster bisque (€1.49). I look around; they can’t actually be selling lobster bisque in Lidl? Then I notice the wild salmon caviar (€2.99), the Acacia honey (€5.49), the – gasp – Deluxe truffle dipping oil (€1.79). While bagging the truffle oil I feel strangely guilty. Surely this isn’t what shopping in Lidl should be like?

I turn the next corner and have finally arrived at the chocolate aisle. I spend a good 10 minutes here. The selection is mind-blowing. I end up with a “chocolate nougat log” (€0.99) that I realise is meant for Christmas as I scoff it in the car on the way home later.

Having eaten Lidl produce for the past week, I have noticed no difference in its quality. The difference is in the quality of the shopping experience

Problems begin as I search for porridge and notice that none of the aisles is marked. This is understandable, as they would probably read like small dictionaries, but the result is that things are difficult to find. There is also no one to ask, making my porridge hunt a long one.

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As I go back over the territory I’ve already passed through, I realise how packed in all the items are. In M&S the produce is given its own space to shine. “I am Devonshire crumbed ham!” M&S ham exclaims. “Look at me in all my hammy glory.” In Lidl, the equally delicious ham, covers itself bashfully and can’t make proper eye contact.

Here, I think, is the most noticeable difference between these supermarkets. Having eaten Lidl produce for the past week, I have noticed no difference in quality. The meat is neither squeaky nor greying; in fact it is delicious. The difference is in the quality of the shopping experience.

As I head to the till, I mentally tot up what I think the bill will be. I estimate it to be about €80. That’s €20 less than I would normally spend, and I certainly didn’t hold back. In fact it comes to €56.29 (I go back later for the €20 snow boots). With a nearly 50 per cent saving, I could probably get used to shy ham.

‘HOW WOULD I FEED A FAMILY OF FIVE ON €70?’

Caitríona Redmond: A thrifty food blogger hits Marks & Spencer
I’m a thrift addict. I hate paying full price for products in fancy upmarket shops when I can often get similar, or better, for less money in other supermarkets.

I prefer to shop in Lidl in Balbriggan, as it’s on my school run route and I can carry my shopping home. This cuts down on fuel bills, but can be hard on shoe leather and backpacks. The closest premium supermarket to me is Marks & Spencer, so I get a lift from my sister and head on up to Drogheda.

I am dreading the shopping trip. Marks & Spencer is a premium brand, and I don’t think I’ve ever done a full family food shop there. Back when I worked in Dublin city centre the “dine in for two” deal was a huge treat. But how am I going to manage to feed a family of five on my usual shopping budget of €70 for a week?

I am so concerned that I’m going to overspend that I do a full store cupboard stock-take before I leave to do the shopping. It turns out that I have a surplus of oats, pasta, rice, couscous and potatoes.

After filling a half-size trolley with the balance of the products I would need to feed the family for a week, I am very surprised to find the bill is less than €70

I have just taken delivery of 30 organic eggs from a local farmer (€8), so they are removed from the list too. As we grow our own food, we also have some homegrown tomatoes, squash and broccoli to keep us going. After filling a half-size trolley with the balance of the products I would need to feed the family for a week, I am very surprised to find that the shopping comes to €67.83.

Knock off the cost of two shopping bags, and two sneaky bags of Percy Pig treats (I don’t know many people who can go shopping in Marks & Spencer and come home without Percy Pigs), and the food comes to €61.35.

However, do bear in mind that this does not include some of my usual store cupboard items, and also that I have paid €8 for eggs. Nor does it include travel to and from the shop.

Dinners for the week are: pizza; venison sausages with chana masala (bulked up with some spuds); kedgeree with smoked mackerel; egg-fried rice with mixed vegetables; spaghetti and meatballs; Spanish-style bean stew with chorizo; and frittata with leftover vegetables. Breakfasts are mainly porridge, but one morning we have some oat pancakes. For lunch the adults have salads and the children have filled rolls. Let’s just say we eat very well.

Caitríona Redmond’s M&S shop was pricey, but own-brand products helped to keep the bill down (and the Percy Pig sweets were impossible to resist)
Caitríona Redmond’s M&S shop was pricey, but own-brand products helped to keep the bill down (and the Percy Pig sweets were impossible to resist)

Here are some key tips to keeping your food shopping in Marks & Spencer under control:

  • Meal plan: planning ahead of the week makes it easy to buy only the ingredients you need.
  • Check out the freezer section: the freezer products are quite good value.
  • Own-brand is generally great: the generic Marks & Spencer own brand is actually similar in quality and price to deluxe ranges in the major supermarkets nationwide. In some instances the own brand is cheaper than premium brand products.

Would I do my family food shop there again? In truth, probably not a full weekly shop. However, I have discovered a number of own-brand products that are better quality and far cheaper than anywhere else I have found them.

I’ll certainly be back to pick up the likes of their organic green tea, beans and pea mix from the freezer section, mozzarella, and pizza bases.

Overall I enjoyed the Marks & Spencer shopping experience even if it was exceedingly hard to walk past the bakery without feeling tempted.

The 16-year-old nearly has a heart attack when she sees me coming in the door with M&S bags. She asks have we won the Lotto

Do my family notice a difference? The 16-year-old nearly has a heart attack when she sees me coming in the door with Marks & Spencer bags. Thinking I have completely lost the run of myself, she asks have we won the Lotto.

Apart from that, everybody is still happy with the food served up at mealtimes, and the only dud from the shop is the venison sausage, which is a pity because they are one of the most expensive items on the list. In future I’ll stick to my local butcher.

Standout products are the organic green tea (€1.49 for 20 teabags); normally I buy Clipper organic green tea which costs about €3 in my local SuperValu. We can’t taste the difference.

Also worth a mention are the bean and pea mix from the freezer for €1.39 (great variety and quality in a mixture that I can’t find elsewhere); and the hummus for €1.49 (M&S was one of the first retailers in Ireland to sell it decades ago and it’s still going strong).

Caitríona Redmond blogs at wholesomeireland.com

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