Low cost food ranges are not available to lower income households relying on small supermarkets, Which? research reveals, as the consumer champion urges supermarkets to stock healthy budget foods in convenience stores.
Despite millions of people all over the country struggling with food inflation at its highest in 45 years, the consumer champion has found that people are potentially being unjustly penalised during the cost of living crisis because big retailers are failing to stock essential items from their value ranges in convenience stores.
Supermarket basic ranges provide a vital cheaper option to low income households and budgeting families who may not be able to afford more expensive branded or premium foods. However, Which? has found that essential budget range items are hardly ever stocked in smaller stores – even though two thirds (66%) of those on £21,000 or less shop in a convenience store at least once a week. This means that people who have low mobility or no access to public or private transport to reach a larger supermarket are potentially being forced to buy more expensive foods or go without.
In a mystery shop of 123 Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco stores, Which? sent researchers to check the availability of a list of around 29 everyday budget items, including dried pasta, tinned tomatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables, minced meat and tinned fish.
On average, the biggest supermarket stores had 87 per cent of the products Which? was looking for, or an equivalent product in the same range. Across all four big brands (Asda, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s), budget range minced meat, tuna and ketchup had the worst stock on average despite the likelihood that other versions of these products would be much more expensive.
However, in small Tesco Express, Sainsbury’s Local and Morrisons Daily convenience stores, the budget line items on Which?’s list were available less than 1 per cent of the time. Of the 35 small stores from these three chains visited across the country by Which?’s mystery shoppers, 30 did not have in stock any of the budget range items on the list at all. The remaining five stores only stocked one budget range item from the list each.
As part of the research, Which? included three parliamentary constituencies considered high priority – where people are the most vulnerable to food insecurity in the UK – and where more than half of supermarkets are small stores – Don Valley in Yorkshire, North West Durham, in the North East, and Rhondda, in Wales. Across these three areas, Which? made 12 visits to four small stores and found that none of the items on the list of budget essentials were available in any of these stores.
Grace*, 77, who lives in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, told Which?: “I live in a rural location and no longer drive any distance. I have an order delivered by a leading supermarket about once a month, choosing their cheapest delivery charge, and top up at my local small store. It’s the topping up that can be more expensive. I worry about being able to keep to my budget.”
Anita, a 34 year old mother of two from the Cotswolds, has to factor in the cost of petrol whenever she wants to do a big shop. She told Which?: “Shopping at the local small supermarket is tricky for my family due to our allergies. I’d like to see supermarkets stock more affordable options for people with allergies, and more budget product ranges in smaller convenience stores.”
By not adequately stocking budget range necessities in their small stores, supermarkets are leaving consumers who only have access to smaller stores less able to access affordable, healthy food. Worryingly, these people are more likely to be living on lower incomes, meaning they are less able to afford the higher priced items offered in small stores.
Which? is now calling on supermarket bosses to address the disparity between convenience stores and their larger supermarket counterparts so that everyone around the country, especially in places identified as being high priority, is able to access nutritious budget range food at a store near them.
As part of its Affordable Food For All campaign, Which? is also calling for all supermarkets to make pricing and offers more transparent so that people can easily work out which products offer the best value.
Sue Davies, Which? Head of Food Policy, said:
“At a time when millions of people are struggling to put food on the table, it’s shocking that budget range foods are not available to people who can’t get to a large supermarket. Everyone should have access to affordable nutritious food no matter where they live.
“Which? is now calling on supermarket bosses to ensure budget ranges that support a healthy diet are available in convenience stores, especially in areas where people are struggling the most. They must also make it easier for all customers to work out which items offer the best value for money by making sure their pricing is clear and easily comparable.”
Anna Taylor, Executive Director of the Food Foundation, said:
“We know that a great many people are really struggling at the moment, with food insecurity among children having doubled in the past year. So it’s vital that both government and retailers act to support households through the current food price crisis.
“Low-income families simply can’t afford to travel to the larger supermarkets and are forced by their environments into using smaller stores. A Food Foundation survey in January found that 78% of lower income households said they’d like retailers to make budget ranges available in every store.”
Notes to editors:
Which? Affordable Food For All Campaign
- As part of its Affordable Food For All Campaign, Which? is holding a Parliamentary event alongside the Food Foundation on Tuesday 25th April encouraging MPs to put pressure on supermarkets to better support their customers during the cost of living crisis.
- As part of this work, The Food Foundation has produced a new short film about the Cost of living Crisis entitled ‘They Know We Are Here’ (Produced by The Food Foundation and Spark Films and shot on location in Birmingham and Solihull in March 2023)
- The consumer champion’s Affordable Food For All campaign calls on supermarkets to do more to ensure own-brand budget line items are widely available throughout all branches – including in smaller ‘convenience’ stores. They should also make pricing and offers more transparent.
- Almost 87,000 supporters have signed Which?’s petition so far calling on the supermarkets to take action.
- Alongside the University of Leeds Consumer Data Research Centre, Which? has developed the Priority Places For Food Index which shows where in the UK people are the most vulnerable to food insecurity.
- Sign the petition: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/affordable-food/
- Which? has previously reached out to supermarkets to better understand their budget range offering in all stores including convenience stores, offering to work with them. The consumer champion embarked on its mystery shopping research due to a lack of engagement on the issue from the supermarkets.
- Which? has also produced a short video comparing what we found in a large supermarket with a smaller convenience store. The link is here and will go live on Monday. For a preview please contact the Press Office.
- A recent Which? survey revealed that two-thirds (66%) of consumers on lower incomes rely on small convenience stores for their essential shopping needs. When asked why they depended on these small stores people often said they were “essential for daily supplies” such as vegetables or bread with many adding that having the shop within walking distance or not having access to a car was also a factor.
- Previous Which? research found that people using convenience stores could be spending hundreds of pounds a year more than buying in a supermarket or online.
- To assess the extent to which households are able to access a range of healthy, affordable budget range items in supermarkets, Which? put together a list of essential items, including fresh, frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables, meat and cheese, and store cupboard essentials like baked beans, tinned tuna, dried pasta and teabags.
- The basket was informed by the basket used by the ONS to track the prices of the lowest-cost everyday grocery items and sense checked by experts at Which? and from the Consumer Data Research Centre at University of Leeds. The list was limited to an average of 29 items per store, as this was assessed in pilot testing to achieve balance between being thorough and keeping the task manageable for our mystery shoppers. The basket for each supermarket varied slightly to account for variations in budget ranges.
- Mystery shoppers visited stores of Asda, Morrisons, Sainsburys and Tesco in a range of locations across the UK. These brands were assessed as they are the major supermarkets following a traditional model, typically offering a range of price points and brands for different items, including specific budget lines, which makes our question about budget lines pertinent in a way that it isn’t in discount stores which offer a much smaller range of products and engage in more limited brand proliferation.
- The list of stores visited was developed carefully to ensure that for each supermarket chain we visited stores across a range of high, medium and low priority places, of different sizes and with different levels of local competition. High priority places being those we have identified as where people are most likely to struggle to access affordable food. We were unable to visit small Asda stores as they have only recently started to offer these and store numbers across the country are low. In total, 123 stores were visited by our mystery shoppers. To allow for variation in stocking due to delivery schedules, each store was visited at least twice, and usually three times, at different times of day and days of the week, giving a total dataset of 358 supermarket visits.
- Mystery shoppers were asked to look carefully for each item on the list, and note whether:
- A shelf-edge ticket was present, indicating that the item is included in the store’s range, even if it is currently out of stock and unavailable.
- The item itself was on the shelf, indicating that it is in stock and available to buy.
- To make the exercise as realistic as possible, where fruit and vegetable budget range items were not available, shoppers were asked to see if there was an alternative budget range item available. The item was then marked as in stock in our results. This reflects a generous assumption that if a particular vegetable is out of stock, cash-strapped consumers may be more likely to switch to another vegetable in the budget line rather than buy a more expensive alternative.
Which? Shopping basket
Full list of items provided to shoppers
|Fresh fruit||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Seedless Grapes (colour may vary depending on seasonality) 500g||Morrisons Wonky Grapes (any colour) 500g||Imperfectly Tasty Grapes 500g [Any colour]||Suntrail Farms Grapes 500G [Any colour]|
|Fresh fruit||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Apples (Colour and Variety may vary) 500g||Morrisons Wonky Apples Minimum 5 per pack||Imperfectly Tasty Gala Apples x6||Rosedene Farms Small Apple 6 Pack|
|Fresh potatoes||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA White Potatoes 2.5kg||Morrisons Wonky Potatoes 2.5kg||Sainsbury’s Imperfectly Tasty Potatoes 2.5kg||Tesco Perfectly Imperfect Potatoes 2.5Kg|
|Fresh & prepared veg||*
JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Sliced Carrots 300g
|Morrisons Wonky Carrots 1kg||Sainsbury’s Greengrocer Carrots (Imperfectly Tasty Carrots) 1KG||Tesco Perfectly Imperfect Carrots 1.5Kg|
|Fresh & prepared veg||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Onions 1kg||Morrisons Wonky Onions||Sainsbury’s Imperfectly Tasty Onions 1kg||Redmere Farms Brown Onion 1Kg|
|Minced meat||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Beef Mince 500g||**
Morrisons Savers Beef & Pork Mince 750g
|–||Woodside Farms 12% Fat Pork Mince 500G|
|Chicken – fresh (legs, breasts or thighs)||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Chicken Breast Fillet Portions (Typically 620g) per kg||Morrisons Savers Chicken Pieces 750g||–||Willow Farm Chicken Breast Portions 900G -1.2Kg|
|Pork Sausages||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA 8 Pork Sausages||Morrisons Savers Pork Sausage 454G||J. James & Family British Pork sausages x8 454g||Woodside Farms 8 Pork Sausages 454G|
|Ham||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Cooked Ham Slices||Morrisons Savers Cooked Ham 200g||J.James & Family British Cooked Ham Slices 400g||Eastman’s Cooked Ham 125G|
|Ready meals – Pizza||*
JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Cheese & Tomato Pizza 314g
|Morrisons Savers Cheese And Tomato Pizza 270g||–||Hearty Food Thin Cheese & Tomato Pizza 314G|
|Yoghurt||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Low Fat Natural Yogurt 500g||Morrisons Savers Low Fat Natural Yogurt 500g||Mary Ann’s Dairy Low Fat Natural Yogurt 500g||Creamfields Low Fat Natural Yogurt 500G|
|Cheese||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Mild White Cheddar 825g||Morrisons Savers Mild White Cheddar 350g||Mary Ann’s Dairy Mild Cheddar 600g||Creamfields Mild White Cheddar 400G|
|Butter or Margarine Spread||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Soft Spread 500g||Morrisons Savers Soft Buttery Spread 1kg||–||Stockwell & Co. Soft Spread 500G|
|Juice||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Orange Juice from Concentrate 1l||Morrisons Savers Orange Juice from Concentrate 1L||Hubbards Foodstore Orange Juice From Concentrate 1L||Growers Harvest Orange Juice 1L|
|Squash||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA No Added Sugar (any flavour) Double Strength Squash 750ml||**
Morrisons Savers No Added Sugar Squash
|Hubbard’s Foodstore Double Strength Squash 750ml (any flavour)||Stockwell & Co Squash 750ml (any flavour)|
|Sliced bread||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Bread 800g (white or brown)||Morrisons Savers White Loaf 720G||Daily’s Medium Sliced Bread 800g (brown or white)||H W Nevill’s White Bread 800G|
|Tinned tomatoes||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Chopped Tomatoes in Tomato Juice 400g||Morrisons Savers Chopped Tomatoes in Tomato Juice 400g||Hubbard’s Foodstore Chopped Tomatoes 400G||Grower’s Harvest Chopped Tomatoes 400G|
|Other tinned veg – eg peas, sweetcorn||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Mushy Peas 300g||Morrisons Savers Mushy Peas 300g||Hubbard’s Foodstore Mushy Peas 300G||Own Label Budget Mushy Peas 300g|
|Baked beans||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Baked Beans 410g||Morrisons Savers Baked Beans 410G||Hubbard’s Foodstore Baked Beans in Tomato Sauce 400G||Stockwell & Co Baked Beans In Tomato Sauce 420G|
|Dried pasta||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Spaghetti 500g||Morrisons Savers Spaghetti 500G||Hubbard’s Foodstore Spaghetti 1kg||Hearty Food Co. Spaghetti Pasta 500G|
|Jar pasta cooking sauce||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Bolognese Pasta Sauce 440g||Morrisons Savers Pasta Sauce 440G||Hubbard’s Pasta Sauce 440G||Hearty Food Co. Tomato & Herb Pasta Sauce 440G|
|Rice||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Long Grain Rice 1kg||Morrisons Savers Long Grain White Rice 1kg||Hubbard’s White Rice 1KG||Grower Harvest Long Grain Rice 1Kg|
|Tinned fish (tuna or other)||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Tuna Chunks in Brine 145g||Morrisons Savers Tuna Chunks In Brine 145g||–||Stockwell & Co Tuna Chunks In Brine 145G|
|Tinned soup||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Tomato Soup 400g||Savers Tomato Soup 400G||Hubbards Vegetable Soup 400G||Stockwell & Co Tomato Soup 400G|
|Ketchup||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Tomato Ketchup 530g||Morrisons Savers Tomato Ketchup 450G||Hubbard’s Foodstore Tomato Ketchup Sauce 460G||Stockwell & Co Tomato Ketchup 540G|
|Tea||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA 40 Tea Bags 100g||Morrisons Savers Tea Bags 80’s 200g||Hubbard’s Foodstore Tea Bags 160’s 400g||Stockwell & Co 80 Tea Bags 200G|
|Instant coffee||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Medium Roast Instant Coffee 100g||Morrisons Savers Regular Instant Coffee 100g||Hubbard’s Foodstore Instant Coffee 200g||Stockwell & Co Instant Coffee 100G|
|Breakfast cereals||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA 24 Wheat Bisks 24x18g||Morrisons Savers Wheat Biscuits 24 per pack||Daily’s Corn Flakes 500g||Stockwell & Co 24 Wheat Biscuits 432G|
|Fruit||–||Wonky Frozen Berries 1KG||The Greengrocer Berry Mix 1kg||Tesco Perfectly Imperfect Frozen Mixed Berry 1Kg|
|Vegetables||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA Mixed Vegetables 1kg||Wonky Frozen Peas 900G||The Greengrocer Garden Peas 850g||Grower’s Harvest Garden Peas 900G|
|Fish||JUST ESSENTIALS by ASDA 10 Fish Fingers 250g||Morrisons Savers frozen Fish Fingers||Stamford Street Fish Fingers x10 250g||Hearty Food Co 10 Fish Fingers 250G|
|Total number of items on list provided to shoppers||30||31||26||31|
|Effective number of items used in analysis||30||29||26||31|
*Some instances of this item were removed due to data quality issues.
** All instances of this item were removed due to apparent discontinuation.
|Five worst stocked budget-range foods||Proportion of mystery shopping visits where the item was in stock in large supermarket branches|
Source: Which? analysed data provided by Mystery Shoppers. Data was collected 21 February – 24 March 2023. Sample size = 260 visits to 88 stores around the UK (excluding small stores). To address data quality issues, we removed all instances of Morrisons Savers Beef & Pork Mince 750g and Morrisons Savers Squash and some instances of Asda Cheese & Tomato Pizza and Asda Carrots. Sainburys did not have a budget range mince or tuna at the time of fieldwork design and so are excluded from this analysis. All in-stock and shelf-edge-label statistics for visits and supermarkets have been adjusted accordingly.
Online survey conducted by Yonder Consulting on behalf of Which?. The survey was conducted 24-26 March 2023 with a panel of 2,086 UK adults and the results were weighted to be nationally representative.
Tesco and Sainsbury’s were approached for an ROR but did not provide one.
An Asda spokesperson said: “More than 10m customers are regularly buying products from the Just Essentials range which is available in stores and online. We are pleased that Which? were able to find the vast majority of products when they visited our stores.”
A Morrisons spokesperson said: “Our Savers range has never been more important to our customers. In the last few months we have cut the prices of over 50% of the products, broadened the range by more than 10%, and we are currently updating and improving the packaging. We believe that our customers appreciate the value, breadth, quality and availability of the range more than ever.”
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
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