Struggling UK households are turning to online discount stores to buy almost-out-of-date food as the cost of living crisis puts pressure on budgets.
Some of these shops, which sell big-brand food and drink products that are nearing or past their best-before dates at reduced prices, are experiencing a big increase in customer numbers.
Rising inflation is pushing up food prices: it was reported on Tuesday that annual supermarket bills will typically soar by £533, or more than £10 a week, as grocery price inflation hits its highest level since at least 2008.
So it is not surprising that more households are searching for ways to reduce their weekly food costs.
There are a growing number of retailers selling branded foods near their best-before dates at discounted prices, including Approved Food, Motatos, Company Shop and Low Price Foods.
However, a quick price test by Guardian Money this week indicated that while there are some bargains to be had, you will sometimes get cheaper prices on certain items at the main supermarkets, so you need to examine prices closely and shop around.
Best-before dates give guidance on when a product will be past its peak quality and are different from use-by dates, which indicate it could be unsafe to eat.
“The best-before date … is about quality and not safety. The food will be safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best. Its flavour and texture might not be as good,” Food Standards Agency guidance states.
Approved Food says it had more than 1,000 new customers in the first week of August this year – a tenfold increase compared with the same week in 2021.
Andy Needham, the managing director of Surplus Group, which owns the Approved Food website, says: “The cost of living crisis is definitely starting to hit home, although we are still at the early stages. Our website visits and new customers are all showing an increase in a period which is historically more static, with school shutdowns and the holiday season in full flow.”
However, he adds: “Average basket sizes are slightly less, which indicates customers have less to spend at present. We expect that trend to continue as energy bills take a larger and larger proportion of people’s available money to spend.”
At the time of writing, examples of products and savings at Approved Food included a 1kg packet of Napolina spaghetti with a best-before date of 31 July 2022 for £1.49, down from a stated recommended retail price (RRP) of £1.95.
A 500g pack of the same spaghetti was £1 at Asda, while a 1kg pack was £1.75. At Sainsbury’s the 500g and 1kg packs were £1.30 and £1.75 respectively.
A 420g jar of Sharwood’s tikka masala cooking sauce with a best-before date of 28 February 2023 was £1.19, down from a stated RRP of £1.70.
What appeared to be the same item was priced at £1.80 at Asda and £2 at Tesco.
At Low Price Foods, shoppers could pick up three boxes of Cadbury’s peanut protein brunch bars (with a best-before of 2 November 2022) for £3.50 instead of the stated £6, and two packs of Ben’s Original microwave rice golden vegetable (with a best-before of 1 September 2022) for £1.75, down from £2.98.
It was £1.50 for one box of the brunch bars at Morrisons, meaning three packs would cost £4.50, but only £1 at Sainsbury’s, adding up to £3 for three.
Crucially, as the discounted shops typically sell branded food, shoppers will often be able to get cheaper own-brand options by visiting a traditional supermarket, where you can also sometimes pick up some great “yellow sticker” bargains.
When we looked, Asda own-brand versions of 500g spaghetti and tikka masala cooking sauce cost 23p and 90p respectively, while Tesco own-brand versions were 23p and 95p respectively.
Consumers also need to factor in delivery costs. For example, a basket of shopping worth £29 at Approved Food will typically cost £3 to deliver to a London postcode (it offers free delivery when you spend more than £55), while the delivery fees at Low Price Foods start at £4.95. Also bear in mind how long it might take for the stuff to come. For example, when we looked, the Low Price Foods site mentioned three to five working days but also four to seven working days.
As the stock is limited, there may also be restrictions on how much of each item shoppers are allowed to buy.
Oli Townsend, a deals expert at MoneySavingExpert, says buying food that is discounted because it is approaching or beyond its best-before date “can be a useful way of helping to combat the rising cost of groceries”.
He adds: “Grocery clearance sites such as Approved Food and Motatos are best used for bagging heavily discounted kitchen cupboard essentials that you regularly buy. The downside to these is there’s often a hefty minimum spend, and delivery generally isn’t cheap, so it’s only worth it if you’re willing to bulk-buy.”
Townsend says that while use-by dates are a health warning and shouldn’t be exceeded, “best-before dates are just a manufacturer’s guidance on optimum quality, and so food that’s past its best is still safe to eat”.
Concerns have also been raised in some quarters about the health implications of eating discounted food items, which are often packaged and processed.
Ben Reynolds, the deputy chief executive of the food charity Sustain, says: “With more and more people on the breadline, it’s understandable to see a rise in shops specialising in cheap produce. But people want to have a healthy, balanced diet rather than little other choice than highly processed unhealthy food and drink.”
Supermarkets including Waitrose, Tesco and Marks & Spencer have been scrapping best-before dates on certain products to reduce food waste in stores and prevent households from throwing away food that is fine to eat.
Laura Rettie, the editor of Finance.co.uk, says it is “ultimately a positive move” for shoppers.
The difference between a best-before and a use-by date can easily be mistaken, and decent food often goes to waste, costing consumers money to replace perfectly good food, she says.
“I empathise with shoppers who may fear this move will mean they might end up with food that won’t keep for as long without the guidance of a best-before date. I urge supermarkets not to take advantage of shoppers by selling fresh goods close to or past their best-before dates to prove this move is a positive one.”
Apps such as Too Good To Go and Olio have gained popularity in recent years, allowing users to pick up leftover food from shops and cafes in their local area at a discounted price.
There are also organisations such as FareShare that distribute unwanted food from shops to charities and food banks.