Supermarket price survey

Our supermarket survey shines the spotlight on specials.

15nov supermarket price survey hero

Super-saver! Extra-low! Great price! It’s hard to miss the promises of bargain buys when you walk the aisles of the local supermarket. However, we’ve found some products can be on promotion so often that consumers risk being misled about the savings they’re really getting.

We tracked online prices for a basket of 22 grocery items for 12 weeks at Countdown, New World and Pak’nSave stores in Auckland and Wellington.

Pak’nSave, with its no-frills approach, boasts “New Zealand’s lowest food prices” and was the cheapest store in our survey. On average, our basket of goods was more than $10 a week cheaper – a saving of more than $500 a year.

Prices were closer at Countdown and New World with less than $1 separating the average shop in both cities.

Hooked by specials

Many of the items in our basket were routinely on special during the 12 weeks we monitored prices.

At Pak’nSave, the majority of the 22 products were on special six or more times. At New World, half the items were on special on six or more occasions. Countdown’s specials varied: anywhere from two to 10 items in our basket were on special each week.

Each supermarket has its own lingo for price promotions. Countdown has “specials”, “Great Price” (a long-term everyday price) and deals available for Onecard members.

Supermarket special price tags.
Some specials aren’t as “special” as supermarkets would like us to believe.

At New World, you can nab a “Saver”, “Super-Saver” or “Club Deal” discount as well as “Everyday Value” items. Pak’nSave has “Extra-low” and “Everyday-low” prices.

All three stores offer multi-buy deals, where you get a discount if you purchase more than one item.

Genuine price promotions are good for your wallet but some specials aren’t as “special” as supermarkets would like us to believe.

Take bread. At New World, Vogel’s, Ploughman’s Bakery and Nature’s Fresh loaves were on special 11 of 12 weeks. At Pak’nSave Lower Hutt, Nature’s Fresh bread had an “extra-low” price of $2.99 for all 12 weeks.

The cleaning products on our list were also often on special. We bagged a “bargain” on Persil Front & Top Loader Sensitive Laundry Powder 2kg and Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid 500ml for five weeks at Countdown and six weeks at New World.

At Pak’nSave, these products had an “Extra-low” tag every week but the “Extra-low” price varied over the 12 weeks. In Wellington, the Persil laundry powder ranged from $8.88 to $11.99 and in Auckland from $8.99 to $11.79.

Other products regularly on special included yoghurt, canned tuna, cheese and tea bags.

Even with products only occasionally on special, working out how much of a saving you were getting could be tricky. Neither Pak’nSave nor New World displayed the regular price next to the special price on their websites.

Special offers

These products were regularly on special during our 12 week survey. You might think you’re getting a bargain with a red-sticker deal. But in some cases, one supermarket’s special can be another store’s regular price.

Vogels Bread 750g

Countdown Lower Hutt

  • Great price $4.00 (12 weeks)

New World Lower Hutt

  • Saver $4.29 (2 weeks), $4.69 (1 week)
  • Super-saver $3.99 (8 weeks)
  • Regular price $5.49 (1 week)

Pak’nSave Lower Hutt

  • Extra-low $3.49 (2 weeks), $3.89 (10 weeks)

Ploughmans Bakery Bread 750g

Countdown Lower Hutt

  • Regular price $3.50 (12 weeks)

New World Lower Hutt

  • Saver $3.59 (1 week), $3.99 (8 weeks)
  • Super-saver $3.49 (2 weeks)
  • Regular price $5.19 (1 week)

Pak’nSave Lower Hutt

  • Extra-low $3.39 (2 weeks)
  • Everyday-low $3.49 (10 weeks)

Persil Front & Top Loader Sensitive 2kg

Countdown Mt Eden

  • Special $8.90 - $10.00 (5 weeks)
  • Regular price $13.80 (7 weeks)

New World Mt Roskill

  • Saver $9.99 (1 week), $11.99 (1 week)
  • Club Deal $8.99 (1 week), $9.99 (3 weeks)
  • Regular price $13.80 (6 weeks)

Pak’nSave Mt Albert

  • Extra-low $8.99 - $10.99 (7 weeks), $11.79 (5 weeks)

Fresh’n Fruity Yoghurt 1kg

Countdown Mt Eden

  • Special $3.80 (1 week), $3.90 (2 weeks), $4.00 (3 weeks)
  • Regular price $5.50 (6 weeks)

New World Mt Roskill

  • Saver $4.29 (1 week)
  • Super-saver $3.99 (2 weeks)
  • Club Deal $3.79 (1 week), $3.99 (2 weeks), $4.29 (1 week)
  • Regular price $5.49 (5 weeks)

Pak’nSave Mt Albert

  • Extra-low $3.49 (2 weeks), $3.89 (8 weeks), 3.99 (2 weeks)

Mainland Edam Cheese Block 500g

Countdown Lower Hutt

  • Special $7.50 (4 weeks)
  • Great price $8.00 (4 weeks)
  • Regular price $9.50 (4 weeks)

New World Lower Hutt

  • Saver $7.49 (3 weeks)
  • Super-saver $7.49 (1 week)
  • Club Deal $7.49 (3 weeks)
  • Regular price $8.99 (5 weeks)

Pak’nSave Lower Hutt

  • Extra-low $6.99 (11 weeks), $7.89 (1 week)

Bell Original Black Tea Bags (100 pack)

Countdown Mt Eden

  • Special $4.00 (3 weeks), $4.80 (3 weeks)
  • Regular price $5.29 (6 weeks)

New World Mt Roskill

  • Saver $4.79 (1 week)
  • Super-saver $3.99 (3 weeks)
  • Regular price $5.29 (8 weeks)

Pak’nSave Mt Albert

  • Extra-low $3.99 (6 weeks), $4.49 (6 weeks)

Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid 500ml

Countdown Mt Eden

  • Special $1.60 (1 week), $2.00 (2 weeks), $2.30 (2 weeks)
  • Regular price $3.00 (7 weeks)

New World Mt Roskill

  • Saver $2.49 (1 week)
  • Club Deal $2.49 (5 weeks)
  • Regular price $2.99 (6 weeks)

Pak’nSave Mt Albert

  • Extra-low $1.89 (2 weeks), $1.99 (3 weeks), $2.09 (2 weeks), $2.19 (1 week), $2.29 (2 weeks), $2.39 (1 week)
  • Multi-buy $1.67 (1 week)

Sealord Canned Tuna 185g

Countdown Lower Hutt

  • Special $3.00 (1 week)
  • Multi-buy $2.33 (1 week), $2.50 (3 weeks)
  • Regular price $3.40 (7 weeks)

New World Lower Hutt

  • Saver $2.89 (1 week)
  • Super-saver $2.49 (1 week)
  • Multi-buy $2.50 (3 weeks)
  • Regular price $3.39 (7 weeks)

Pak’nSave Lower Hutt

  • Extra-low $2.31 (1 week), $2.48 (3 weeks), $2.79 (2 weeks), $2.89 (1 week), $2.98 (1 week)
  • Multi-buy $2.33 (1 week)
  • Everyday-low $3.17 (3 weeks)

Our survey

We tracked the online price of 22 products for 12 weeks. As well as food and drink, cleaning products were also on our shopping list. We didn’t include fresh meat or produce because for a fair comparison we’d need to consider quality. Wine and beer were also excluded.

All items were the same brand and size in each supermarket. The exception was one week in Countdown Mt Eden and one week in Pak’nSave Mt Albert where a different brand of butter was substituted. Where multi-buys were cheaper, we calculated a single price.

Online shopping isn’t available at New World and Pak’nSave in the South Island, so South Island stores couldn’t be surveyed.

Supermarket price survey


Unit pricing

Unit prices make it easier to compare apples with apples. They show the cost per unit measure – for example, per 100g or per litre – so you can tell if a large packet of pasta is better value than a smaller one.

You can also use it to compare one brand over another or a packaged versus bulk-bin product. This makes it your thriftiest friend when you’re shopping.

All three major supermarkets have voluntarily introduced unit pricing, though it isn’t shown on all items. But it’s not easy to compare products, especially when you’re shopping online.

Countdown made the comparison easiest for our basket of goods. The unit price was displayed on each product page. So if you searched for Fresh’n Fruity yoghurt, you could quickly see if it was cheaper to buy a 1L tub or a six-pack of pottles. For our basket of goods, the unit price was missing for Bell teabags.

At New World and Pak’nSave, it wasn’t as straightforward. At both stores the unit price wasn’t shown when the page displayed more than one product – you needed to click on the individual item before you got a unit price. This means you can’t compare unit prices side-by-side.

Unit pricing label template.

At New World, there was also no unit pricing when a product was on super-saver, club deal or multi-buy. At Pak’nSave there was no unit price for multi-buy offers.

Unit prices should be mandatory so it’s easier for consumers to make comparisons. It’s mandatory in Australia. Rules there require the unit price to be prominent and legible. Supermarkets must also display it in print ads and on their websites.

Here’s how we think prices should be displayed:

  • Weight/volume of product should be clear,
  • Unit and retail price should be in the same size type
  • Specials should show the special unit price and the date the offer expires.

Price matters

Price is a key influence on shoppers’ behaviour, especially for goods sold in supermarkets, said Professor Janet Hoek, lecturer at the University of Otago Department of Public Health and fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Marketing Academy.

“Consumer behaviour studies show that people typically purchase multiple brands in a product category. For example, switching between Vogel’s, Ploughman’s and Molenberg when buying bread. Price is one of the factors that shape this buying behaviour,” Professor Hoek said.

When specials aren’t offering a genuine price reduction, consumers risk being misled about the discount they’re getting. “Having a special price for 11 out of 12 weeks would seem close to establishing a new everyday price”, she said.

Companies that mislead consumers about price breach the Fair Trading Act. As the Commerce Commission points out, if a business continually sells products at a promotional price, that price is really the usual selling price. We’ll be providing the commission with our price data for products we found that were routinely discounted.

Supermarket complaints

Supermarkets make it into the top 10 of the Commerce Commission’s most complained-about traders.

From 1 July 2018 to 30 June 2019, the commission received 97 fair trading complaints about Foodstuffs (the company behind New World and Pak’nSave). Woolworths New Zealand (the owner of Countdown, FreshChoice and SuperValue) was on the receiving end of 48 complaints.

Countdown said it “aims to ensure that our prices are clear” and provides “comprehensive training for our buying team”. The retailer said, at the time of our survey, a couple of products were on special “more frequently than normal” due to the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Foodstuffs said “it works hard to ensure the integrity of our in-store specials programme”, and training is provided on stores’ legal obligations when making price claims. In any week, some 5000 products are on special. “We try not to make mistakes, but when we do, we always work to correct them as soon as we are aware,” Antoinette Laird, Foodstuffs head of corporate affairs, said.

We say

  • We think it’s time to take a hard look at supermarket pricing practices. When products are routinely on promotion, consumers risk being misled about what they’re buying.
  • Stores also need to be upfront about the discount available when products are marked down. Neither Pak’nSave nor New World stores show online shoppers the regular price next to the special price. We think they should.

Support our campaign for fair supermarket prices

Support our campaign for fair supermarket prices

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Support our campaign for fair supermarket prices

Have you been misled by a less than “special” supermarket deal? Have you noticed routinely discounted items being advertised as “special” offers? Have you got examples of confusing pricing from your local supermarket?

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