Are packaged groceries cheaper?


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Loose or packaged: where are the savings?


  • Loose produce is cheaper 53% of the time
  • Using unit prices to choose the cheapest format could save consumers more than $1600 a year
  • But retailers don't always apply unit prices in a way that allows for easy comparison

There are many reasons for buying food that's sold loose rather than pre-packed. You might be keen to avoid all that bad-for-the-environment plastic, for a start. With loose produce, you can also choose exactly the size, amount and quality of the produce you're after, but will you save at the checkout?

This article reveals how much you can save when buying items with the lowest unit price, how shopping in a different aisle can save you money, and how you can help to improve unit pricing so that it's easier to make informed decisions.

Be a unit pricing champion and send us your examples of incorrect or unclear unit prices so we can tell the government the system needs to change.

Loose or packaged – which is cheaper?

It's reasonable to assume that fruit and veg are cheaper if they're sold loose than if they're pre-packed. The majority (57–58%) of the participants in our survey of Voice Your Choice members told us that loose fruit and veg are cheaper, with 30% saying it depends on the shop or produce and less than 10% saying they're cheaper pre-packed. To see if these assumptions are correct we recorded and compared the supermarket unit prices of 34 different foods that are sold in both loose and pre-packed formats. See How we surveyed for details. 

  • The loose produce was cheapest 53% of the time. Significant savings can be had on buying loose chillies in particular, with bird's eye chillies priced at about $21 per kg compared with $150 per kg pre-packed. Jarlsberg cheese slices from the deli were also about half the price of their pre-packed version at both Coles and Woolies.
  • But 35% of the time, the pre-packed produce was cheapest. Some items were cheaper in the packaged format in both Coles and Woolworths – carrots, mixed lettuce leaves, limes, onions (brown and red), sweet potatoes, washed potatoes – so it's worth buying these products pre-packed if saving money is a priority.
  • A small percentage of products were either the same price loose or packed, or the unit pricing didn't allow for comparisons, which is an issue (see Unit pricing under review). 

Comparing prices

At each supermarket we compared the price of a basket of items in their cheapest format (whether that be loose or packaged) with the same items in their most expensive format to see how much money you could save.
  • At Coles we saved $31.00 (19%) on 28 items by buying the format with the lowest unit price (a basket total of $128.08 compared with $159.09). 
  • At Woolies we saved $25.24 (19%) on 30 items ($108.55 compared with $133.79).
  • At Aldi we saved $6.52 (20%) on six items ($26.70 compared with $33.22).

Grocery baskets compared

How much can you save when you buy items with the lowest unit price (either loose or packaged)?

Aldi

Highest unit price: $33.22

Lowest unit price: $26.70

20% savings (n=6)

Coles

Highest unit price: $159.09

Lowest unit price: $128.08

19% savings (n=28)

Woolworths

Highest unit price: $133.79

Lowest unit price: $108.55

19% savings (n=30)

n= number of different products priced in both packaged and loose formats at this supermarket



On a product level, bird's eye chillies, jalapeño chillies and Jarlsberg cheese (at both Coles and Woolworths), mandarins and snow peas (at Coles) and rindless shortcut bacon (at Woolworths) offered the biggest savings if you choose the cheapest format. 

You don't have to be a maths whiz to figure out that these kinds of price differences can have a major impact on your household grocery costs over the long term. If the basket at Coles represented a weekly shop, for example, using unit prices to choose the cheapest format could save consumers more than $1600 a year.

Comparing loose and packaged formats of the same food items is just one way unit prices can help you save money. Unit price comparisons can also reveal big differences in value between national brands and smaller brands or supermarket own brands, or large versus smaller pack sizes of the same product. 

Sure, you may pick a product with a higher unit price because you prefer how it tastes, because it looks fresher or because it's in a more convenient pack size. And from our survey we learnt that 65% buy loose because they perceive it to be better for the environment (presumably due to it having less or no plastic packaging) so you might also be prepared to pay a higher price for that reason. But if you're simply keen on getting the best value for money, focusing on the unit price rather than selling price can really help.

Unit pricing under review

Unit prices are supposed to be prominent, legible and unambiguous. Despite this, retailers don't always apply them in a way that allows for easy comparison.

When carrying out our price survey, for example, we found:
  • Inconsistent units of measurement. Woolworths online gives the unit price per 100g for packaged bird's eye and jalapeño chillies, but per kilogram for their loose equivalents. While it's merely a matter of moving a decimal place in your head, the need for this calculation would be easy for shoppers to overlook.
  • Incomparable 'per item' and 'per weight' unit prices. A five-pack of lemons at Aldi costs $3.99 (80 cents each according to the unit price label), but the loose lemons are $5.99 per kg. Unless you weigh the lemons, it's not possible to tell which option is cheaper.

The 10-year review of unit pricing is taking place next year, and we want to make sure unit pricing improves so that it's easier for you to make more informed choices in the supermarket.

To do this, we need your help to demonstrate where unit pricing isn't working. Have you seen an example of unit pricing that's incorrect or unclear? Or are there instances where you haven't seen any unit pricing at all? Here's what you can do:

1. Take a picture of the unit pricing problem

2. Visit choice.com.au/unitpricingchampion and submit your example. 

We'll then compile these complaints and send them to government to show that the system can be improved.

Different aisles, different prices

Did you know that shopping in a different aisle for the same product can also save you money? A 500g pack of Woolworths Macro brand natural almonds in the health food aisle cost us $12.99 ($25.98 per kg), for example, but a similar sized pack of Woolworths brand natural almonds in the baking aisle cost us just $8 ($17.78 per kg) – almost $5 cheaper. 

Plastic packaging problem

Plastics and microplastics in our environment are increasingly pervasive, and plastic packaging for food and groceries is part of the issue. Choosing food and groceries with no or minimal plastic packaging is obviously the best approach if you want to avoid contributing to the problem. And a resounding 79% of our survey participants told us they prefer buying loose fruit and vegetables. But if you're on a tight budget and the packaged version is cheaper, this presents a dilemma.

It seems counterintuitive that a food would be cheaper if it comes in a plastic bag, sleeve or punnet, as surely that would add to rather than reduce the cost. So why is this sometimes the case? We posed this question to the supermarkets.

An Aldi Australia spokesperson told us, "Produce is harvested in all different shapes and sizes and the use of packaging helps to manage the utilisation of the crop. Items in our packaging have different specifications that allow for a variety of sizes, whereas 'loose' product has consistent specifications relating to size.

"We have found efficiencies when we are able to utilise as much of the crop as possible and this is reflected in the prices of pre-packaged produce, where in some cases it is lower. Although the sizing of fruit can vary, they maintain the same quality as a loose product," they added.

According to Aldi, it is an active participant in the Australian Packaging Covenant (APCO), with 96% of secondary packaging waste generated at all ALDI Australia stores being recycled.

A spokesperson for Coles told us, "Coles offers customers a range of products in different shapes, sizes and packages. Unit pricing has been in place since 2010 to enable customers to more easily compare prices across different products."

Woolworths hadn't responded to our question at the time of publishing.

If plastic-free buying isn't an option, then recycling the packaging can help. A lot of packaging is suitable for your kerbside recycling bin, and flexible plastics that aren't can be dropped into REDcycle collection bins at participating supermarkets. Coles told us it has REDcycle bins in more than 750 supermarkets.

How we surveyed

Price survey – Our survey was carried out in store at Aldi and online at both Coles and Woolworths. We recorded the price of a range of products available in both loose and pre-packaged formats within each store. For each product, the two prices were recorded on the same day, and when on special we used the regular price. We then calculated the cost of the loose product if we were to purchase the same weight as the packed format and compared the difference in price.

Consumer survey – We asked Voice Your Choice members about their perceptions around and reasons for choosing pre-packaged versus loose fresh produce. The figures given are based on a total of 3075 responses to our survey which ran for two weeks across February and March 2018.


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