Good goods come in low-profile baskets

The big discounters don't have it all their own way: some of the best value is to be had in ethnic and discount shops, markets…

The big discounters don't have it all their own way: some of the best value is to be had in ethnic and discount shops, markets and local stores, writes PETER MCGUIRE

The area stretching from Dublin’s Capel Street through Henry Street and on to Moore Street is an almost perfect microcosm of Ireland’s grocery sector. Within a few hundred metres, shoppers can choose between Tesco and Dunnes, Lidl and Aldi, Iceland, several greengrocers and fruit and vegetable stalls,butchers shops, ethnic food shops, bakeries and euro value or “pound” shops. It’s a good spot to highlight price differences.

There’s has always been some snobbery surrounding shops. This was evident when Aldi and Lidl came to town a decade ago. People looked down their noses at the places, at least until 2008, when recession removed the sting of shame from the German discounters.

Euro shops, on the other hand, have retained a slightly grotty reputation but this is changing. And fast. The UK chains Dealz and Euro50 Stores have been popping up all over the country and they no longer sell only tat. Their shelves are stocked with basic groceries and household products, mostly consisting of recognisable brands. Dealz sells almost all its produce for €1.49 or in €1.49 deals – just one cent shy of the Euro50 Stores’ main price point.

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There are some surprises. Dorset cereals are just €1.49 in Dealz, less than half the price of Tesco, while Fairy Liquid was 99 cent. Shampoos, including Garnier Fructis and Simple are just €1.50 in the Euro50 Stores. Indeed, brand-name shampoos and shower gels are excellent value in euro shops, although in some of them, the instructions might be in another language. Heinz ketchup ranged from 33 cent per 100g in Iceland and the Euro50 Store to 38 cent per 100g in the Asian Food Market, and 52 cent per 100g in Lidl.

It is 8am on a Thursday at Dublin’s fruit and vegetable market in Smithfield. The place is deathly quiet. Pat Martin of KM Fruit and Vegetable Importers, says traditional fruit and vegetable sellers, from street traders and stall holders to greengrocers, are “on our knees. It’s really difficult to compete with the supermarkets because they can afford to sell fruit and vegetables below cost”.

This has been a persistent cause of concern for greengrocers since the abolition of the Groceries Order in 2005, which ushered in an era of below-cost selling. Aldi’s Super 6 offer sees a selection of six fruit and vegetable items for between 39 cent and 79 cent; before Christmas it was selling large pineapples for 15 cent.

Martin’s sentiment is echoed on Moore Street, where street trader Steve O’Brien estimates that the number of stalls has plummeted from around 40 to just 14 in 10 years. But the traders, as well as individual greengrocers, can be reasonably competitive. O’Brien was selling carrots for €1 per kg; Lidl had them for 99c per kg, and the Asian Food Co on Mary Street priced them at €1.50 per kg.

On any given day, within a few hundred square metres, the price of a kilo of rooster potatoes can vary hugely. On this day, they cost €2 per kg on Moore Street, 99 cent per kg in Iceland, 87 cent per kg in Lidl, and €1.13 per kg in Aldi.

In the face of stiff competition from the major supermarkets, butchers also have to adapt or die. John Hickey, CEO of the Craft Butchers’ Association of Ireland, estimates that the number of butchers has roughly halved in the past decade, now standing at between 1,000 and 1,100. Business has, however, bounced back by around 15 per cent within the past two years. FX Buckley’s has a long history on Moore Street. Making direct comparisons on meats is particularly difficult as the quality and grade of the meats can vary hugely from one place to another. But, at least for minced beef, it struggles on price: FX Buckley’s sold it for €7.99 per kg and Iceland for €6.74 per kg. That price dropped to just €4.10 per kg in Aldi and €4.06 in Lidl. But many butchers do good deals on chicken breasts. Sausages and bacon also tend to be significantly cheaper than supermarket-bought packets.

Always a go-to place for cheaper spices and sauces, especially if you’re buying in bulk, are Asian food shops which have been joined by Eastern European and African shops. They’re not just a source of home comforts for Polish, Nigerian, Indian or Chinese citizens. They can sometimes offer excellent value and could contribute substantially to a weekly shop. Most sell fruit and vegetables, meat, rice, noodles, sugar, biscuits, and other grocery items. Rice is good value compared to supermarkets, as are cooking oils, naan breads for that Indian dinner, and pulses.

One key ingredient in Asian food, coconut milk, tends to be cheaper in Asian food shops: the €1.50 price tag in the Asian Food Co on Mary Street and the Oriental Emporium on Abbey Street is significantly cheaper than a different brand in Tesco. Curry pastes, spices and tins of tomatoes can be competitively priced. Milk and eggs also compared favourably.

But around Dublin’s Henry Street, at least, value on fruit and vegetables didn’t match up to the big supermarkets. One kilo of onions, for instance, cost 79 cent in Lidl and Tesco, €1 on Moore Street and in Iceland, and €1.33 per kg according to Superquinn’s website. The price rose to €1.50 in the Asian Food Market on Mary Street and €1.80 in the Oriental Emporium on Abbey Street.

The Asian Food Co fared poorly on the price of iceberg lettuce, pineapple and leeks, while the Asian Food Co, the Oriental Emporium and Polonez on Moore Street were all expensive for lemons and carrots.

Prices sampled on January 17th, and refer to the cheapest brand. Tesco and Superquinn prices from their websites on January 28th