How much will a dollar get you? To find out, we decided to find every single house brand product you could buy in a major supermarket in Australia that sells for less than $1. The list did not turn out to be particularly long.
The idea for this occurred to me when I went into my local Woolworths recently to purchase a one-litre carton of UHT skim milk. For the past year or so, this has sold for 99 cents. Indeed, Woolworths boasted about that in somewhat sneaky shelf label for a while:
Now, however, that carton has gone up to $1.10. It's still a cheap way to buy milk, and (as the label above establishes) it remains cheaper than it was at one point in 2009. However, it has jumped over the $1 psychological price point. How many items were actually still under that level, I wondered?
As a result of my previous Mastercheap experiments (where I had to live for a week on a strict $25 food budget), I already knew of some items that would be under $1: pasta and tinned tomatoes for starters. But just how extensive was the range? And was it still the case (as it had been when I did the original Mastercheap in 2010 and the Mastercheap Raw sequel in 2012) that the big three supermarket chains were closely matching prices on these items, so that you'd pay the same no matter where you purchased them? Assembling a list of everything you could buy for under $1 would answer both questions.
House brands: to buy or not to buy?
Note: we're not suggesting that house brand products are always the best buying choice -- merely the cheapest. Our stance on house brand goods has always been the same: it's worth testing them out. If they meet your needs, paying more is pointless. If they don't, they're not really a saving. A blanket rule isn't helpful -- experience is what counts here.
To compile this list, over the weekend I visited my nearest local branch of each of the three major national supermarket chains: Coles, Woolworths and ALDI. Coles and Woolworths maintain state-consistent pricing; ALDI has fixed national pricing on its packaged goods. These prices might be different in other states, especially away from the eastern seaboard -- though I'd expect the relative differences to remain much the same.
IGA isn't included in this list, because pricing varies quite dramatically from store to store and is generally higher than the "Big 3". (The IGA near our Sydney central office is considerably pricier than the nearest one to my home in the suburbs, for example, and even the suburban one is more expensive than the nearby Woolworths.) I'd expect that in the categories where a product is available for the same price at all three of the major chains it would also be in IGA at a similar (but generally slightly higher) cost.
To make the list, the product had to meet the following criteria:
- It had a fixed price of less than one dollar -- that is, 99 cents or under. For this comparison, I'm looking at in-store prices: online stores often charge a few cents more for the same item.
- It was a store brand product, not from a separate "name brand" producer. In most cases, at Woolworths this meant Home Brand and at Coles it meant Smart Buy, but in some sub-$1 examples the cheapest option on offer was one of the "premium" in-store brands (Select at Woolworths, Coles at Coles). Further on I've briefly noted some of the branded products that sell for under $1, but this really is a very small list. Even the chocolate bars and mints you can buy at the register are generally over $1 each these days. When an identical product is available for under $1 in both "bargain" and regular house brands, I've only listed the cheapest choice.
- It was priced below $1 as its regular price, not as a special or as part of a multi-buy.
- It wasn't from the meat, deli, fruit or vegetable department, where prices and quantities vary. Many items from here would cost less than $1 if purchased in small enough quantities (during Mastercheap Raw, I purchased an individual chilli for 19 cents). That's definitely something you should take advantage of (ham from the deli is cheaper than ham in packages), but it's not our focus for this study.
Sub-$1 purchases aren't necessarily the best value even if you're happy with the store brand (for instance, 2kg of flour has a cheaper unit price than 1kg). However, they still provide a good indication of where the cheapest food and grocery options can be found.
What you can get for under $1
We've divided this list into sections to make comparisons easier. Remember: a dash in the relevant column indicates the product wasn't available for under $1. It may indicate that it's not available at all (especially at ALDI, which has a more limited range compared to Woolworths and Coles), but it more usually suggests you'll have to pay $1 or more to buy it, house brand or not.
We checked carefully at each supermarket branch, but it's quite possible that other sub-$1 store brand products exist that weren't ranged at the branches we visited (or which we simply failed to spot -- price-tag blindness is a definite issue after a while!). If you spot one, tell us in the comments.
|Alfredo pasta and sauce||125g||-||$0.99||-|
|Macoroni and cheese||130g||-||$0.99||-|
Pasta is a staple of any bargain-basement shopping list. Coles turns out to be the cheapest option here, but only offers two types -- ALDI has the widest range of options. (Note that ALDI also sells 1kg of penne for $1.09, which is by far the cheapest choice we spotted anywhere.) The prepared pasta and sauce at ALDI slides under the $1 barrier, but is terrible value by comparison.
|UHT milk (reg/skim/light)||1L||-||$0.95||-|
|Fresh skim milk||600ml||$0.89||-||-|
|White bread (toast or sandwich)||650g||-||$0.99||-|
Woolworths seems to have totally abandoned its price matching on flour. Only ALDI has sub-$1 bread and milk on offer.
|Whole peeled tomatoes||400g||-||$0.59||$0.80|
|Three bean mix||400g||$0.79||-||-|
|Red kidney beans||410g||-||$0.75||$0.80|
|Five bean mix||420g||-||$0.75||-|
Diced tomatoes (which include the tomatoes not good enough for other products) are the only category where all three supermarkets compete for sub-$1 products. ALDI has the broadest range of sub-$1 vegetables, but every chain has a choice you won't find in that bracket at a rival.
|Sardines (spring water/tomato sauce)||125g||-||$0.65||$0.65|
Not a price warning, but a health warning: everything here is high in sodium apart from tuna in spring water.
|Diet tonic water||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
|Lemon soft drink||1.25L||$0.90||$0.73||-|
|Pineappple soft drink||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
|Raspberry soft drink||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
|Orange soft drink||1.25L||$0.90||$0.73||-|
|Lime soft drink||1.25L||-||-||$0.99|
|Tropical soft drink||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
|Orange mango mineral water||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
|Pineapple mango mineral water||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
|Lemon mineral water||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
|Blood orange diet mineral water||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
|Orange passionfruit diet mineral water||1.25L||$0.90||-||-|
Everyone offers cheap mineral water, soda water and cola, but outside that, flavour choices vary widely. True cheapskates skip every option here and drink tap water.
Soup & Noodles
|Condensed tomato soup||415g/425g||$0.89||$0.89||-|
|Soup mix (french onion/chicken noodle)||100g||$0.55||-||-|
|Noodle cup (beef/chicken/oriental)||70g||$0.89||$0.75||-|
|2-minute noodles (beef/chicken/oriental)||5x85g||-||$0.99||$0.99|
|4-pack packet soup||88g||$0.93||-||-|
The soup mix takes the distinction of being the single cheapest product in this round-up. 2-minute noodles are a staple of every student diet, but Woolworths bucks the trend by charging $1.09 for a five-pack, not $0.99. Conversely, it's the last bastion of cheap packet soup.
|Cake mix (butter/chocolate/vanilla)||340g||$0.75||-||$0.75|
|Vanilla cake mix||380g||-||$0.79||-|
|Light pop corn||85g||-||$0.95||-|
|Butter pop corn||100g||-||$0.95||-|
Jelly crystals at ALDI are cheaper, but also lighter: the unit pricing is essentially the same. A strange range of desserts otherwise -- buy fruit instead, we'd suggest.
|Water crackers (plain/cracked pepper)||125g||-||$0.95||-|
|Milk arrowroot biscuits||250g||-||$0.99||-|
|Scotch finger biscuits||250g||-||$0.89||-|
Not a lot on offer here. The wafers are a discount option if you like them.
|Cat food sachet||100g||$0.69||-||$0.59|
|Cat food sachet||85g||-||$0.69||-|
|Cat food tin||400g||$0.89||-||$0.72|
|Dog food sachets||100g||-||$0.69||-|
Tinned cat food is cheaper at Coles than elsewhere, but only two flavours are on offer. Outside the small dog sachets, dog food tends to come in larger tins and hence costs more than $1.
|Fabric softener (apple/lavender)||250ml||$0.69||$0.69||$0.69|
|Freezer bags||120 small||$0.60||-||$0.64|
|Freezer bags||80 medium||$0.60||$0.59||$0.64|
|Freezer bags||40 large||$0.60||-||$0.64|
|Pocket tissues||6 by 10||-||$0.99||-|
|First aid strips||30 strips||-||$0.99||-|
No, we're not going to test 3-cent-per-pill paracetamol.
The shopping lessons learned
Aside from highlighting what you could acquire if you wandered into your local supermarket with a dollar in your pocket, this round-up also highlights some useful shopping observations:
The branded exceptions
In each supermarket, we did find a handful of branded items that sold for under $1, usually in the category of snack bars, sauces or pet food sachets. Some examples: Almost everywhere will sell you a single Chupa Chup for $0.35; a Chomp bar at Woolworths costs $0.75; 100g of vermicelli at Woolworths or Coles can be had for $0.60; Aldi will sell you a small Toblerone for $0.99; a Gravox sachet at Coles costs $0.99; 100g sachets of cat or dog food can be had for 95 cents.
But these really were the exception. Supermarkets range thousands of items, but only a fraction of these sell for under one dollar -- barely 150 at the most generous estimate. And the vast majority of those are house brands.
Woolworths seems happy to charge more
Before I did the research for the original 2010 Mastercheap, I checked the prices for my shopping list at Woolworths, Coles and ALDI. Happily for me, all three tended to have the same pricing, so I could shop at my nearest supermarket (which happened to be Woolworths) and still pay the same.
In 2014, that doesn't seem to be the case. While Woolworths did have some cheap items not found elsewhere (such as the wafer biscuits), the overall range of sub-$1 items was now clearly better at ALDI than anywhere else. Coles didn't seem much better than Woolworths in this area.
Price matching is a dying art
That might not matter if price matching is still happening -- but the evidence suggests otherwise. In the entire list of sub-$1 products, there are only 14 which are available across all three supermarkets. Here they are:
|Fabric softener (apple/lavender)||250ml||$0.69||$0.69||$0.69|
|Freezer bags||80 medium||$0.60||$0.59||$0.64|
ALDI wins this battle every single time: it has the equal-lowest or lowest price. OK, a one-cent difference isn't massive (and not worth driving to a separate location for), but it's indicative of a trend, I suspect, and in some cases the gap is rather larger. It seems Woolworths and Coles don't want to compete for pricing; they want to compete for atmosphere.
This also seems relevant to the ongoing fear that supermarkets are using their house brand products to drive down prices and disadvantage suppliers, a fear which has seen the ACCC take Coles to court. We'll have to wait for the outcome of that case, but walking around Woolworths or Coles, the overwhelming impression is that shelf space is given to branded products and premium store brands, not cheap in-store brands.
For cheaper shopping, look down
That situation also reinforces one of our most consistent pieces of advice: the cheapest products are generally on the bottom shelf, often in very small quantities. Conversely, if you can see massive quantities of a brand, it's unlikely to be the cheapest. Again, ALDI is the exception here: because it rarely offers a choice other than the store brand, the cheap option may well be on the top shelf. That said, you'll have a lot less products to check overall.
Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.