Green grocer owner Prenil Balia says new customers came to his store over lockdown to avoid the long queues at the supermarkets, but have been returning for the low prices. 

Stephanie Bedford has been grocery shopping on a $200 budget for nine years for her family of four and says she’s hyper aware of prices fluctuating. 

Bedford says she usually adjusts her list to stick to her budget when prices go up because of seasonality or supply issues. 

“During the first lockdown I noticed the price of the tin of olive oil I normally paid $10 for had increased by $4. I spoke to a supplier at my local supermarket and he explained supply and demand issues at the time and the difficulty getting it from Italy and that was very helpful.”

But Bedford claims this lockdown was different.

“Last week a third of my food budget with an added $50 that week was gone at the end of the first aisle. I got up to the milk and looked at my calculator and I was at $88 already. I looked in the trolley and thought there’s no way that’s worth $88. It really took the wind out of my sails.”

Her shopping cart had two 1 litre bottles of milk, chicken breast, mince, skirt steak, pumpkin, a capsicum, block of cheese, a bag each of potatoes, apples and carrots, along with broccoli, lettuce and a bottle of Pepsi.

Bedford says she left the Pak‘nSave supermarket and decided to finish her shop at two smaller local grocers.

“I will no longer be doing my full grocery shop with any of the big supermarkets. Shopper feedback does nothing and I’m tired of watching spokespeople on the news pretending things will change and acting shocked at accusations of price gouging. I’m voting with my feet.”

Bedford says though it’s hard to avoid supermarkets, she wants to try her best to shop at her local grocer and butcher to support her community’s businesses.

“I still manage to get everything I need for less than $200. I told my husband we’re going to be eating a lot healthier without the snacks or anything else like that. I’ve had to go to the supermarket for shampoo and other bits and pieces for the kids, but I’ve tried to minimise it.”

The local grocer she started to shop at is Fruit World in Silverdale, Auckland and the shop’s owner Prenil Balia says he has seen a noticeable spike in new customers over lockdown.

Balia reckons long queues at supermarkets initially diverted shoppers to his grocery store, but high quality produce and lower prices kept them coming back. 

During the Level 4 lockdown, the local butcher, fishmonger and bakery in Silverdale sold through Balia’s grocery store as they were unable to operate their independent shops under the restrictions.

“We put in a fridge and provided them space to be able to keep working. And obviously they have better quality meat than the supermarkets so we had a very good response from our customers,” Balia says.

It’s worked so well that Balia was in talks with the other shop owners to collaborate regularly.

Balia says because his store has a large grocery section over the past 15 years, he has developed relationships with big suppliers around Auckland.

“Majority of our produce comes out of Pukekohe. Some stuff comes locally, we’ve got growers and suppliers in Kumeu, and Matakana.

“Even though we’re a very small fish in a big pond, with supermarkets there too, we actually get very good competitive pricing from suppliers. But most of the products we sell are niche products that supermarkets don’t sell because they won’t be able to push through the volumes.”

“I got up to the milk and looked at my calculator and I was at $88 already. I looked in the trolley and thought there’s no way that’s worth $88. It really took the wind out of my sails.”
– Stephanie Bedford, grocery shopper

Although Balia has seen more shoppers like Bedford spending at his shop, he puts the sudden popularity of his store down to cyclic shopping trends.

“It’s basically a 10-year cycle. People shop with the niche operators, greengrocers and local butchers and all that, but generally go back to the supermarket. And then 10 years later when they’re sick of the supermarket because they start taking customers for granted, shoppers go back to their greengrocers.

“We had a time where supermarkets were getting a lot stronger in terms of competitive pricing and how they operate. But now I think they’re at the back end of that downward trend.”

PriceWatch has received 459 complaints since August 17, and more than 400 have been about supermarkets or food and drink suppliers increasing prices.

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment consumer protection national manager Mark Hollingsworth said complaints had been low and sporadic.

None of the complaints have been referred to the Commerce Commission for potential breaches of the Fair Trading Act (FTA) so far, Hollingsworth says.

“We’d encourage businesses to let customers know if they may experience delays or price increases; and for consumers to be mindful that businesses may themselves be experiencing delays and price increases,” he says.

The Commerce Commission has received 80 complaints related to Countdown and Foodstuffs and more than half of those specifically mentioned high prices.

A spokeswoman for the Commerce Commission says complaints are being assessed to understand whether they raise possible concerns under the FTA.

Stephanie Bedford’s shopping cart at Pak ‘n Save Silverdale. Photo: Supplied

The commission released its draft report on its supermarket review in July, but has postponed the publication of its final report to next year instead of November.

In response to the draft report published in July, Foodstuffs North Island chief executive Chris Quin says the supermarket chain will clarify pricing and promotions and terms of its loyalty programme as well as follow a consistent unit of pricing.

It will also work with suppliers and the Government to create a grocery code that supports suppliers’ freedom to work with other retailers. Quin says Foodstuffs has also committed to ending the use of restrictive land covenants and exclusivity provisions in leases to encourage competition.

“This is a substantial action plan that we believe will collectively drive better outcomes for customers and improve the competitive landscape,” Quin says. 

Foodstuffs South Island chief executive Steve Anderson says supermarket prices were influenced by suppliers, global and national demand, seasonality and specials.  

“We know, now more than ever, getting great value is important to New Zealanders and we’re absolutely committed to do all we can to provide this. Our promotional programmes are being maintained, with the number of products on special consistent with a normal week,” Anderson says.

Competitor Countdown denies increasing the prices of items during lockdown. A spokeswoman says the supermarket chain has not increased any product prices because of lockdown nor as a result of the changes to alert levels in other parts of the country.

This week the supermarket has at least 10,000 products on specials, she says.

“Prices change for a variety of reasons. Sometimes products are on special, sometimes costs go up and down because of seasons or weather events, commodity prices change for products like dairy and meat, and sometimes there are extra costs from a supplier, transport or shipping partner that we have to take into account.”

“People shop with the niche operators, greengrocers and local butchers and all that, but generally go back to the supermarket. And then 10 years later when they’re sick of the supermarket because they start taking customers for granted, shoppers go back to their greengrocers.”
– Prenil Balia, Fruit World Silverdale owner

The Countdown spokeswoman says over the last 18 months, ongoing global sea freight challenges were continuing to create shipment delays, sparking shortages in some imported products, like pet food. “We’re working closely with our suppliers and supply chain partners to mitigate these impacts as best we can.”

A price comparison by Newsroom on September 28 found Fruit World had lower prices for five of the nine items it had a promotion for when compared with major supermarkets.

Gold kiwifruit 800g: Fruit World $4. Pak‘nSave $5.60. New World $5.60. Countdown $7.19.

Potatoes 5 kg: Fruit World bag $6. Pak‘nSave $11. New World $13.95. Countdown $14.95

Mandarins: Fruit World $5 per kg. Pak‘nSave $6.49/kg. New World $5/kg. Countdown $5.50/kg

Cherry tomatoes: Fruit World $4 punnet. Pak‘nSave $5. New World $8 . Countdown $5.50 punnet

Avocados: Fruit World 4 for $2.50. Pak‘nSave 5 for $5. New World 3 for $3. Countdown 2 for $2.50.

Capsicum: Fruit World 2 for $4. Pak‘nSave 2 for $3. New World $2 each. Countdown $1.70.

Cauliflower: Fruit World $3.50 each. Pak‘nSave $3. New World $3. Countdown $3.50 each

Plums: Fruit World $8/kg. Pak‘nSave not available. New World not available. Countdown $10/kg

Onions: Fruit World $1.50/kg. Pak‘nSave $1.20/kg. New World $1.50/kg. Countdown $2/kg

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