Shopping for your Christmas groceries isn't most people's idea of a stress-free experience. The crowds, the parking, the FOMOOCH (fear of missing out on Christmas ham)… it's no wonder a recent CHOICE Twitter poll found that two in five (39%) respondents were more likely to buy their festive food online this year.
But for those of us who prefer to pick our own items instore, we ask – is one supermarket more enjoyable to shop in than another during the Christmas period?
To find out, we went on mystery shops to Aldi, Coles and Woolworths, taking into consideration crowd size, ease of finding items, the cost of our groceries and more.
Overall Christmas shopping experience
At the end of our mystery shop, we rated the overall experience as either poor, OK, good or excellent.
There were definitely some pros to shopping at Aldi (the price, the time spent at checkout). But overall we thought the experience was poor. We were frustrated that we couldn't find items we assumed would be readily available, there was no Christmas atmosphere, and we felt rushed at the checkout.
Coles had a festive atmosphere and many of the items on our list were easy to find. But we did find other items more difficult to track down and the time we spent in the store was 12 minutes longer than the shortest shop. Overall we thought the experience was OK.
Overall we found the shopping experience at Woolies pretty good. It was easier to find the items on our list, there was a festive atmosphere, and the shop itself was the quickest of all three.
Which supermarket had the cheapest basket?
If you just want to know which supermarket has the best buys, Aldi had the cheapest basket of items in our shop.
Spot the CHOICE mystery shopper.
What we found
We were surprised that some Christmas essentials such as tinsel, fairy lights, candy canes and dry-roasted nuts weren't available in all stores. This could be due to the increase in demand over the festive period, or disruptions to supply chains because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Everyone's experience will be different
We mystery-shopped one branch each of Aldi, Coles and Woolworths on the same day in December 2020. So our ratings are based on that specific experience and aren't an exhaustive comparison of multiple branches on multiple days.
Depending on the day and time of your shop, and your familiarity with the store, your experience will differ from ours.
Our Aldi basket.
On the day we did our mystery shop, Aldi had the cheapest basket with a total price of $154.76*. That's $11.29 cheaper than the most expensive basket.
The difference between Coles' and Woolworths' total basket was very slim, with Coles coming in at just $4.05 cheaper than Woolies.
This price comparison includes the various specials available on the day of our mystery shop. We even got a bonus jar of scorched almonds in a two-for-one deal at Coles.
*Including a credit card surcharge of 0.5%.
Depending on when you shop, you might not get the same specials we got, so we've also compared the total cost of each basket, based on each item's non-sale price.
Aldi didn't have any specials, and rarely do, so they still had the cheapest basket at $154.76.
Coles and Woolies baskets cost about $17 more – totalling $182.50 and $180.10, respectively. But even if the same specials we found don't apply, it's likely some items will be on sale at these retailers and you won't pay full price.
Winner: Aldi – when we compared its prices with the non-sale and sale prices at Coles and Woolies, Aldi was still the cheapest.
Our Coles basket.
How the supermarkets compared
We took note of other elements of the shopping experience – how did Aldi, Coles and Woolies stack up?
All three stores had plenty of trolleys at the entrance, as well as designated hand sanitiser stations. But we suspect the trolleys (if not the hand sanitiser) might begin to thin out as the pre-Christmas rush hots up.
Festive decorations and Christmas tunes
Aldi had a Christmas tree at the front entrance by the trolleys, but no other noticeable decorations in the store. Both Coles and Woolworths had a good amount of decorations throughout the stores.
When it comes to tunes, Woolworths favoured mostly festive songs while Coles played a mixture of Christmassy and regular music. Overall, the music was non-intrusive, but added to the seasonal ambience. At the time of our shop, Aldi didn't play music of any kind in the store.
Winner: Coles, Woolworths (tied) – for adding a festive touch to the shopping experience.
Our Woolies basket.
Crowd size and social distancing
At the time of our shop, both Coles and Woolworths were busy. But the numbers seemed manageable – we didn't feel crowded and people were generally social distancing.
Most customers in Aldi were also practising social distancing, although this was probably easier there because it wasn't as busy as the two Coles and Woolies stores. (Admittedly, if we had gone on the same day that a popular special buy was released, it would probably be a different story.)
Winner: Aldi – for not having to navigate as many shoppers.
Ease of finding items
Finding some common Christmas items in each of the three big supermarkets wasn't always easy.
At the time of our shop, we couldn't find tinsel in any of the stores, Aldi was also missing fairy lights and candy canes, and we couldn't find dry roasted mixed nuts at Coles (which is why we removed these items from our price comparison).
Of the items we did manage to find, brandy snaps took us a while to track down in all three stores and – by the very nature of Coles and Woolies being larger – we did spend longer looking for this and other items in different parts of the store.
Winner: Woolworths – although none of the stores were plain sailing, overall we found it easier to find the items on our list in Woolies.
The checkout at Coles.
It took three minutes from arriving at the checkout to being served. The checkout worker was behind a perspex screen and while we knew we needed to bag our own groceries – and Aldi's checkout workers are known for their breakneck speed – the experience felt so rushed that we ended up quickly popping the rest of the unbagged items in the trolley so we could pay without holding up the queue. (We then continued packing on the bench just beyond the checkout.)
Total time at the checkout: 6 minutes.
After arriving at the checkout it took eight minutes for us to be served, mostly due to a delay caused by the customer in front of us. Once it was our turn, the checkout worker was behind a perspex screen and bagged our groceries with some assistance from us.
Total time at the checkout: 9 minutes (although it would be 6 minutes if we didn't include the customer delay).
The checkout experience was similar to that at Coles – the member of staff was behind a perspex screen and bagged our groceries with some help from us.
Total time at the checkout: 6 minutes.
Winner: Aldi, Coles, Woolies (tie) – although we felt rushed at Aldi and had a customer-caused delay at Coles, we gave all three the win for getting us through the checkout in under 10 minutes.
Total time spent grocery shopping
- Aldi: 30 minutes
- Coles: 40 minutes
- Woolies: 25 minutes.
Winner: Woolies – for the fastest grocery shop.