Since I announced the Mastercheap project and revealed my shopping list, there's been a steady stream of comments suggesting that I could have gotten myself a much better deal by shopping at Aldi. While there's no denying the chain's low pricing, for the purposes of this project Aldi doesn't scrub up any better than its rivals.
Picture by lilcrabbygal
For a brand that only started operations in Australia in 2001 and still hasn't left the east coast, Aldi has done a pretty good job of expanding — it now operates more than 200 stores — and impressing its low-priced brand image onto the country.
A big part of Aldi's budget strategy is minimising choice: for most products, you only get the option of its house brands. Like Woolworths and Coles, it also offers bargain-priced and premium house brand items, though not across all categories and almost invariably only in a single size. One consequence of that approach is that in many cases that means buying goods in bulk quantities, and that was something I noted in my initial post as not being a particularly useful choice when you're on a fixed budget with an empty pantry but want as much variety as possible.
Given how many people have suggested that I short-changed myself by shopping at Woolworths rather than Aldi, though, it's worth revisiting a couple of points. The first is to emphasise that when I did my initial thinking on this topic, a process that started about three months back, I went through the stores of every major supermarket brand — Woolworths, Coles, Franklins, IGA and Aldi — and noted down all the cheap options that they had.
The conclusion I drew about Aldi was that it offered the same cheap prices on many of the staples as its rivals. It wasn't any more expensive, but it wasn't any cheaper either. Careful price matching is obviously going on through all the supermarkets on their bargain ranges: if you want to buy a store-brand container of "table spread", it will cost you $1.09.
The other thing I noticed was outside those everybody-sells them options, Aldi didn't have as many unusual low-priced items in small sizes as some of its rivals. In large part, that was because it didn't have as many items, period. That meant it was certainly competitive, but it didn't offer a massively different range of choices, and didn't always have the sizes that made sense for my needs. Add to that the fact my nearest store is a 30 minute walk away, and there was no compelling reason to choose it as my shopping destination.
However, given the objections I've been hearing this week, this morning I went to an Aldi store and compared the specific pricing for what I've bought for Mastercheap with what Aldi had on offer. As I'd found before, for the vast majority of items on the list — bread, eggs, milk, margarine, pasta, frozen vegetables — Aldi had exactly the same options for exactly the same price.
There was just one notable item that was ridiculously cheaper: a box of 100 tea bags for $0.99. (Aldi also had a $2.29 box that matched the price I paid for tea earlier this week). I don't recall seeing this bargain during my initial research (and tea was one of the items I specifically checked), which could mean either it's a new addition or the store I visited was out of stock at the time.
At this budget level, an extra $1.30 would certainly be welcome (it'd get me a couple of pieces of fresh fruit, for example). However, that advantage would be somewhat offset by the couple of items I simply couldn't have purchased at Aldi at all — the cake mix and the single meat pie — and that would have been replaced by potentially pricier alternatives. As well, I'd have had to compensate for the couple that either cost a little more (jelly was $0.49 rather than $0.39) or that had notably less content (such as the 500ml pasta sauce), which would have forced me to spend a little more overall.
The bottom line is that I could have assembled a similar menu shopping at Aldi (or Coles or Franklins, though not by my own reckoning IGA) as the one I actually assembled at Woolworths. But I wouldn't have got massively more food or a hugely different overall calorie count or nutritional profile. Given that, sticking to a supermarket that's nearby was definitely the right call for me.
In the interests of cross-brand research, I've purchased the $0.99 tea bags, and at the end of the Mastercheap experiment I'll sample them, to see how those tea bags compare to their suddenly-not-so-bargain basement rivals. But for now, I'm focusing on tomorrow, when the budget menu actually kicks in.
Lifehacker's Mastercheap experiment sees editor Angus Kidman trying to survive with a weekly food budget of just $25.