Become a Smart Food Shopper

There was a time when there were no supermarkets in South Africa. Now that is an amazing thought, especially as living was cheaper too back then. Instead of Checkers, Spars, Pick & Pays and Woolworths, there were separate butchers, grocers and dry goods shops. Sort of like a hyper-store, except they were in separate buildings.

delivery truck outside Checkers

Back then, shoppers could phone in and place their orders, so they could collect them later when they drove past. The shop assistant always remembered to mention bargains. In Cape Town, farmers drove around the suburbs with bakkies loaded high with salads, fresh fruit and vegetables. There was no such thing as freeze-dried food.

History of Supermarkets

Checkers was a radical idea imported from England in the early sixties. At first, their prices were so cheap and their aisles so wide that people stopped buying from smaller shops. Many of these went out of business. The few remaining ones formed an umbrella organization called Spar. Others like Pick & Pay followed. In no time at all, the small shops vanished. That was when supermarket prices started rising.

Big is Not Cheap

When you think about it, supermarkets are expensive businesses to operate. Rents are high, staff are unionised and they carry huge amounts of stock. This is no problem for them. They just put their prices up. We, the consumers pay for their luxurious corporate offices when we buy from them.

Of course, the stores have slogans to make us think otherwise. Every Pick and Pay product has a promise to pay in the difference if you can find it cheaper elsewhere. Checkers claims to be bigger-and-better with lower prices, while Spar speaks of being priced "just right". Woolworths makes no pretence of being cheap. We will have to see How Wal-Mart positions itself.

Marketing Techniques

The first thing you notice on entering Woolworths food stores are a few astounding bargains. They are currently doing this with papaws and two-for-the-price-of-one vegetables and meat. Did you know they regularly make the same profit on them? They squeeze their suppliers for extra discounts and lose nothing.

Sale Sign

Checkers, Spar and Pick & Pay play a similar game with discount vouchers and special offers. These have a single purpose, and that’s to get you packing things into your trolley. Once you get into a shopping mood, you buy things you never meant to purchase. This is how supermarkets operate. Now you know that, here is how to beat them at their own game.

Support the Small Shopkeeper

Every small South African dorp has independent grocers, butchers and market gardeners. Many are very good. Indeed some city folk drive out into the countryside on Sundays to buy quality food below supermarket prices. Small businesses like these exist in town and cities too. Track them down in your neighbourhood. As the saying goes, you could be pleasantly supplied.

Outwit the Supermarkets

Now you know that supermarkets are out to get you in a shopping frenzy, play them at their own game to outwit them. Make a list of what you want to buy, and put a budget to each item. Try to list things generically. For example, do not write "fresh strawberries”. Write "fruit in season for the breakfast table”.

Food Preserves

This is especially important when it comes to meat, which has become so expensive lately. Let’s say you want to cook mutton curry. Don’t write, "cubed lamb” because that could be the most expensive option. Write "half kilo lamb for curry” instead. Then ask the butcher to give you a special deal.

Pick up two baskets (not one gigantic trolley) when you start to shop. You will be amazed how fewer things you buy. Walk around the store to locate the specials and the discount coupons. Decide which ones you want first. After that, you can do your shopping in an organized way. I have slashed my food costs by up to 20% since learning to buy like this.

The Choice is Always Yours

Supermarkets have introduced a variety of fresh foods our parents never had before. In fact, many South Africans have no option but to support them. The secret is to buy the things you need at prices you can afford. Sometimes, you may have to visit several different shops. But then, South Africa is a democracy now, and we have the right to choose.