Laura Cummings: Latest supermarket war is good news for consumers

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As the big three battle it out to win our loyalty, there are plenty of bargains out there for savvy shoppers, finds Laura Cummings

It goes without saying that everybody loves a bargain.

Whether it’s a loaf of bread or a pair of jeans, there is a degree of satisfaction to be had from saving money on a purchase.

And at a time when competition for shoppers’ cash has never been so fierce, with economic uncertainty, high inflation and wage freezes squeezing consumer income, the latest supermarket price war is welcome news for cash-strapped families.

The “war” intensified when the UK’s largest supermarket chain launched a major price-cutting initiative last month.

Tesco’s £500 million Big Price Drop slashed the prices on 3000 lines – including 1600 brand products – such as milk, bread, fruit and vegetables.

It marked a switch away from specific price promotions by the retail giant to a new policy of guaranteeing permanently low prices across all products.

Sainsbury’s has since pledged to match thousands of prices at rivals Tesco and Asda, with its Brand Match promotion set to start tomorrow.

As Britain’s third largest super- market, it has installed a price comparison system at tills across its branches which will instantly calculate the price of branded goods in a customer’s shopping basket against the same brands at Asda and Tesco.

If the basket is cheaper at its rivals, Sainsbury’s customers will get a coupon for the difference, which is valid for two weeks. The minimum spend is £20.

This follows on from Asda’s price guarantee initiative introduced earlier this year, which ruffled the feathers of other major supermarkets by pledging to be 10 per cent cheaper than rivals on a basket of goods, or to refund the difference.

Tesco, which has lost market share in recent months, was left red-faced when it had to water down its own counter-attack to Asda’s offer after some shoppers exploited a loophole in the system, meaning they received thousands of pounds’ worth of groceries for free.

But what exactly has sparked the current supermarket price war?

News editor of The Grocer magazine, Ronan Hegarty, said: “Growth is very hard to achieve at the moment – there is not much growth in the sector, so the supermarkets are really trying to work very hard to keep customers and steal a share from each other.”

Mr Hegarty added: “The cost of food has been rising and rising for the last three years or so, and it’s because of the competitiveness between the retailers that a lid has been kept on inflation. I think things would be a lot worse if it wasn’t for the competition.

“All of these prices and initiatives are very much on staple food and drink products. There’s plenty of deals out there and savvy shoppers will certainly be able to save money.”

Last week, Tesco posted its worst sales UK figures in two decades, as customers bought less food, switched to budget rivals and avoided luxury products.

In fact, shoppers are buying less food for the first time in decades, as they try to compensate for soaring food and petrol prices, and below-inflation pay rises.

And who can blame them? Recent figures show that food prices are 6.2 per cent higher than this time last year, and spending on petrol is up 15 per cent against a year ago.

According to Asda’s Income Tracker, this left the average family £11 worse off a week in July.

However, the good news for those struggling to cope with the surging cost of living is that a record 40 per cent of the average shopping basket is on special offer, up from a historical average of around 25 per cent.

Spokesman for shopping site my-Supermarket, James Foord, said: “Any price cuts are great for the consumer, but we would advise caution.

“There are literally thousands of different offers, price cuts and deals on at any one time across all the supermarkets, and the deals are constantly changing, so finding the best ones can be a nightmare.

“Shoppers need to compare all the deals and prices across all the supermarkets, so they can be sure of getting the right ones for them at the best value.

“And it is why those that shop with us are spending no more on their shopping basket than they did two years ago, despite recent food price inflation.”

Meanwhile, Morrisons joined the supermarket petrol war earlier this year by knocking 6p a litre off petrol and diesel prices at its 296 garages for three weeks across April and May.

This took the average price of unleaded petrol to around 126.72p – but customers only received the discount if they spent £40 or more in store.

In terms of how good a deal shoppers are getting amidst the current supermarket price war, it really is a case of shopping around.