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Are Brits becoming 'shopping tarts'?

logos of supermarkets Waitrose, M&S and Lidl

By Vanessa Barford and Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Many supermarket-goers are wedded to their brand of shop. But as people begin to draw in the purse strings, some are starting to see benefits in being a more promiscuous consumer.

High-end food retailer Marks & Spencer is the latest High Street name to predict a fall in profits due to the economic slowdown. But as shoppers start to cut costs, discount supermarkets such as Aldi, Lidl and Netto - which sprouted up around the UK in the early 1990s - are beginning to see new faces arriving though their sliding doors.

Evidence suggests once loyal shoppers, who in the past have been faithfully wedded to a single supermarket brand, are starting to experiment with younger, cheaper models.

Neil Saunders of Verdict Research says it is not just a case of switching stores. Shoppers are being more selective about what they buy, dipping into the value ranges when they need to.

"They are trading down on basic items like loo rolls or basic vegetables, but still buying a premium item too, maybe instead of going out for a meal. It's flexing according to the budget of the household."

New territory

Paul English, a management consultant from Bristol
We are more aware of the cost of things now
Paul English
Management consultant

Paul English, a 41-year-old management consultant from Bristol, who has two young children, says his family changed its shopping habits in February, purely for financial reasons.

He had never ventured into Lidl before.

But while they used to shop solely at upmarket retailer Waitrose - where they still buy fresh fruit and vegetables on a weekly basis - they now bulk buy products such as toilet roll, kitchen roll, rice and olive oil at Lidl once a month. He estimates this saves 30 a week.

He calculates the family makes a further saving of about 20 on food a week - simply because they buy altogether less.

"We are more aware of the cost of things now," he says.

Mr English says most of his friends are switching where they shop, and although he would not be attracted elsewhere by aggressive price promotions, he was pleasantly surprised by the range of products and well-known brands at budget supermarkets.

Adjusting habits

Chris Jones, Director of Carbon House Print Limited
The experience at Lidl isn't pleasant - but the prices are fantastic

Chris Jones
Director of Carbon House Print

He is not alone. Chris Jones, 38, a company director, started frequenting a discount retailer in Bristol two months ago.

"I used to do all of my shopping at Sainsbury's but noticed that the fruit and vegetables were becoming really expensive," says Mr Jones.

"The experience isn't pleasant," he says, "but the prices are fantastic - half the price of Sainsbury's - and I now tend to eat a healthier diet as a result of the cheaper fruit and veg."

Mr Jones estimates that whereas a weekly shop used to cost 80, it is now more like 40. And he only goes to Sainsbury's for things he can't find otherwise - like exotic fruit, unusual spices, fresh fish and toiletries.

Donald McFetridge, head of retail studies at the University of Ulster, says many shoppers have been surprised that they "can get a quality product at a very keen price" at big discount stores.

'Across the board'

Mr McFetridge has observed people of all incomes adjusting their shopping habits.

"I think it's happening right across the board, although it's fashionable for middle-class mums to talk about how they are trimming their budgets. There's almost a pride and camaraderie in discovering that avocados are 29 pence in Netto."

It is not just the "deep discount" shops which are seeing a benefit.

Fiona Thomson, admin manager at Imperial College, London
I do miss the ready meals, but they are the half price in Tesco - everything just costs a lot less there

Fiona Thomson
Admin manager

Fiona Thomson, a 50-year-old admin manager at Imperial College, London, used to carry out her weekly shop at Marks & Spencer but could no longer justify the expense.

When she took out a new, more expensive mortgage in February she traded M&S for Tesco - combining it with trips to a budget superstore for economy packs every six weeks or so.

As a result, she saves about 30-40 a week.

"I do miss the ready meals, but they are the half price in Tesco - everything just costs a lot less there," she says. "And I still go to M&S for the occasional treat."

Short-term changes

But will these new, more promiscuous shopping habits last? Mr McFetridge doubts it, believing as shoppers have more money again they will revert to old habits.

bar chart showing the small market share of Aldi, Lidl and  Netto compared to bigger supermarkets
And although discount supermarkets are reaping the benefits of the credit crunch, they are growing from a very small base. The combined market share of Aldi, Lidl and Netto is still short of Somerfield's, for example,

"These players have been in the UK for a long time now and when they arrived there were discussions about how they would shake up the market and they haven't," says Mr Saunders. "So the idea that suddenly, after all these years including past recessions, they're going to take over is fanciful.

"And even if they do make in-roads there would be a response from Tesco and Sainsbury's, like cut-price promotions and better deals on Clubcards."




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