Saturday Money: Downshifting from Ocado to Lidl ... but at what price?: Shopping Juliet Stott ditched her favourite online store to see if she could still buy high-quality items at a fraction of the usual weekly cost
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Since moving to the countryside and having a second child, my shopping habits have altered dramatically. I used to do the big weekly shop at Tesco and then my husband would do a deli shop on Friday night for a weekend treat. But once we moved, I developed an Ocado habit. The ease of the iPad app, the money-off deals, the delivery and the "Tesco price match" made it so appealing. But the last pounds 150 bill (for 79 items) was the straw that broke the camel's back and made me think twice about what I was buying.
Like many people, we're price conscious but not driven entirely by cost - the quality of the food is just as important. We tended to buy a lot of branded goods - the likes of Kellogg's, Lurpak, Fairy, Pampers etc - while my husband is a bit of a foodie, with a gluten and lactose intolerance on top.
I know we could junk the brands and shop at the discount outlets and save a fair bit, but would we lose out on quality? As an experiment, we decided (although my husband was very sceptical) to change our shopping habits entirely. One week we would buy everything from Lidl, swapping our usual brands for its brands; the next week, we'd buy as much as we could from Tesco from its basic "Everyday Value" range; while in the final week I'd give the supermarkets a miss and use local independent stores.
How much did we save? Did we have to compromise on quality? Has the experiment changed my shopping habits for ever? Here is what we found.
Week 1: Lidl
Total bill pounds 137 for 126 items
The equivalent shop - a mixture of own brands and named brands with the same weights where possible, on the same day, would have been pounds 249 from Ocado (it said I'd made a saving of pounds 24.38). That's an additional pounds 111, or pounds 135 if the offers hadn't been running that day.
If you can get your head around browsing the olive oil shelves alongside a bargain basket of children's colouring pens, or randomly stumbling on wasabi paste next to the sugar, then this is a place for a bargain.
Rather than the "cash and carry" warehouse shop I'd experienced years ago, Lidl was actually spacious and calm and the brands were not dissimilar to what you would find on the continent. My prejudice that there would be no fresh food was dispelled when I saw a good selection, and even a bakery.
A woman I stood next to in the queue said she used to shop in Tesco or Morrisons but had abandoned both in favour of Lidl as the fresh vegetables were so much cheaper. And she was right. The money I saved meant I was able to buy more "luxury" products, such as sundried tomatoes (99p), pine nuts (pounds 2.58) and stuffed vine leaves (pounds 1.69) - which I'd have thought twice about buying in one of the "big four" supermarkets. The staple cupboard essentials looked like the brands I would usually buy, but were a fraction of the cost.
But there were several items I won't be rushing back to buy. The dishwasher tablets were dire. On the several days I used them they left scum on the glasses and food on the plates, even after an intensive wash. Its washing powder wasn't up to much, either. The Cien deodorant's smell was so intense it was unbearable. And the same brand's moisturiser dried my face.
Lidl bran flakes may have been 59p but they tasted like cardboard and turned to mush. The hummus didn't pass my taste test; nor did the fromage frais with my daughter.
But the fruit and veg were excellent and mainly sourced from the UK. The items I bought were generally priced between 4p and up to 60p cheaper than Tesco. For example, a pack of two "ripe and ready to eat" avocados cost pounds 1.49 at Lidl (Tesco, pounds 1.80); an aubergine was 45p (Tesco, 50p); a packet of wild rocket 50p (Tesco, pounds 1); a cucumber 45p (Tesco, 49p); a big bag of carrots 69p (Tesco, 89p); a bag of mixed peppers 89p (Tesco, 99p), and strawberries pounds 1.39 (Tesco, pounds 2).
I also loved the chocolate - the Lidl version of Leibniz biscuits were just as good but half the price, and a 100g bar of Belgium chocolate with nuts was delicious and, at 49p, a quarter of the price of my usual Green & Black's.
But as my friend, who is a regular shopper at Lidl, rightly said, you need to be flexible. If you go there with something specific in mind, choice is limited. It didn't have a "free from" section (when asked, the shop assistant had never heard of it), nor my baby's nappy size. And for some items (fizzy water, toilet roll, kitchen roll) you had to buy in bulk or in large sizes (ketchup, mayonnaise).
Best buy Fresh fruit (blueberries, 89p; strawberries, pounds 1.39; blackberries, pounds 1.39) and chocolate (49p for 100g).
Worst buy Dishwasher tablets, pounds 3.99. Poor results on every load.
Week 2: Tesco Everyday Value
Total bill pounds 136 for 127 items
I bought Tesco Everyday Value or Tesco's cheapest own brand on almost every product, with the odd exception such as Babybel, Pizza Express (half price) and "free from" products. The equivalent branded shop at the same store would have cost me pounds 204 - an additional pounds 68.
The problem with shopping exclusively from the Everyday Value range was that it restricted choice, especially in the fruit and veg section where only certain items were classed as "Value", such as a round lettuce, a cauliflower or red grapes.
But the biggest problem was that this range was harder to find, being either higher up or lower down on the shelves. Typically at eye level, were the premium brands, which made them more tempting.
It also took me longer to find the true bargains. In the fruit section, a bag of six apples for pounds 1 seemed great value until I realised they would be out of date the next day. I also found that the Everyday Value products came in large sizes. For example, the cheddar cheese was a good deal at pounds 3.75 for 600g, but too big for a family of four.
The best value were Tesco's dishwasher tables, at pounds 1.60 and have been excellent at doing the same job as my usual Finish but at less than a seventh of the cost. But, like Lidl, the washing powder, deodorant, face cream and shaving foam didn't match their branded rival's quality, and I won't be buying them again.
From the fridge aisle the Everyday Value mozzarella was bland and tasteless - ok on a pizza but not for a salad. It was the same with the Greek-style feta cheese, which got the thumbs down in our house. But one surprise was the hummus, which tasted nicer than the own-brand equivalent and a lot better than Lidl's.
Best buy Dishwasher tablets (30), pounds 1.60. Great value and excellent results.
Worst buy Mozzarella cheese (44p) and Greek-style cheese (79p). Both struck me as poor quality and lacking flavour. "Everyday Value" nappies (pounds 1.41) were also no good because they leaked.
Week 3: Local stores
Total bill (from three shops) pounds 74.05
Shopping in my local market town, just north of York, was just as I had expected. It was expensive and time-consuming. There were fewer own-brand value products, which meant I had to pay more for the leading brands or for the privilege of shopping locally. I had to go to three shops to get all the items - not easy when you have two young children - and then I was limited for choice. I purposefully restricted what I bought to keep the cost down.
The greengrocer-cum-deli was a gorgeous place but some items were almost double the price of the supermarkets. A cucumber was 85p compared with Lidl, 45p and Tesco, 49p. A small brown loaf was pounds 1.15. It may have been freshly baked and much better quality but it was half the size of Tesco at 45p and the seeded loaf at Lidl for 99p. I bought a jar of passata (690g) for pounds 1.59 whereas at Lidl I got three 500g jars for pounds 1.05. I paid pounds 2.79 for 250g of halloumi cheese; in Tesco it was pounds 2.
Sunflower seeds, however, were 4p cheaper here than Lidl. There was a good selection of "free from" products and healthy food options, but again at a price.
Best buy Sunflower seeds (200g) 95p. Good value.
Worst buy Passata pounds 1.59. Poor value.
Will I change my shopping habits?
Swapping to unknown brands and changing our buying habits saved us as much as 58% off our weekly shop, which was much more than I expected.
On week two, swapping the usual brands for Everyday Value saved pounds 68.
Although not all the non-branded items met the quality mark, the downshifting experiment has been a huge eye-opener. There are now many non-branded food items we'll be buying again - from both supermarkets.
Lidl's food had the edge over Everyday Value, and is where we'll be heading back to for our fresh produce.
Realistically, though, there will be times when I'll have to revert to an online delivery, as the nearest Lidl is 12 miles away and, as a working mum, it's not so convenient to get to.
But the deals to be had by shopping around mean I will become a more selective shopper. I didn't think it would be worth the effort, but the savings really are attractive.
An eye-opener: Juliet Stott and her family entirely changed their shopping habits Photograph: Gary Calton
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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