Mrs Spownall’s Great Supermarket Comparison

Written by  //  March 24, 2011  //  biz  //  2 Comments

There was a time when I hadn’t been inside a supermarket for years, which might explain why I’m something of a supermarket enthusiast these days.

When I was at home, rather than in barracks or on a mission, a Mrs Amelia Longfoot had always made sure my larder was stocked. Mrs Longfoot, whom we almost never met, took care of all of us, except for the rare exception when someone had a wife at home. Mrs Longfoot and her talents were not an infrequent topic of discussion between the boys and I, regarding the special items she had anticipated we might need on our return from abroad, exhausted, beaten or sometimes worse. A diverting book would be added to the shopping, or she’d leave special bath salts (for me) or even a girly magazine (for one of the others). How she managed to have everything in its place when so often we’d be home with an hour’s notice, or when we’d come back altogether from a team mission, would confound me. She was like an invisible fairy godmother, one with an uncanny intuition for knowing you’d be needing tagliatelle ai funghi porcini and a good bordeaux for tea.

Anyway, which is the cheapest supermarket in Portugal? The advertising would have us believe all of them are the cheapest. There’s far more to it than that.

I compared minipreco, intermarche, modelo/continente, lidl and pão de açucar. All of these were in Lousã. I compared the prices of milk, tinned tomatoes, rice, lasagne sheets, soy milk, ground pepper, cornflakes, butter, olive oil and vegetable oil. Yes, prices do vary day to day and between locations. There are a lot of variables.

The majority of the items listed above showed only a difference of a few cents throughout all stores, for the cheapest available product in the range. Notable price differences only appeared when you compared a product without any brand competition. The lidl and minipreço I went to had a much narrower range of most things; for example only one type of soy milk. In this case, it was 73c in lidl, 99c in minipreço and 97c in modelo.

If price is your only concern then generally speaking minipreço is the cheapest because their dia house brand covers most products and is very competitively priced. Take pepper for example: 58c for ground black pepper in a jar and there’s only one other brand to choose from (lack of choice is a good thing when it all depends on price). 69c in lidl for the only brand they stock and upwards of €1.20 in modelo with 3 brands, topping out at €2.40. The trouble with modelo is that the continente house brand range isn’t that extensive in the bargain price items, but instead has a higher priced “gourmet” type character.

The bottom line on being the cheapest depends on your personal shopping habits. People I know swear by lidl being the führer of cheapness and certainly for some particular products this is true. But often these are very random, here this week and gone the next. What you can rely on lidl for is for a certain germanic slant to their jams, biscuits, chocolate and cheese. Lidl has a very good range of bread for a small store (blackbread! sometimes) and it offers the above mentioned randomness which brings you taco shells and jalapeno peppers (not available in modelo, minipreço or intermarché). Very unexpectedly, amongst the chaos of bad shelving and worse lighting, lidl stocks lobster, foie gras and sorbets in plastic flutes. So, if you like surprises, lidl is probably your store.

Modelo is at the other end of the scale. It is much easier to spend a fortune at modelo, if only because every temptation is in stock, and consistently so. While ordinary milk is still 49c there are 17 different types of milk, for a higher price. I’m sure that modelo’s broader range of products is what gets people hooked – not the range itself but that one particular product in the range that no one else carries. Mr Spownall and I developed a taste for a certain brand of whisky that we could get nowhere else which kept us coming to modelo. Mercifully they put the price up, a lot, because while I was buying the bargain whiskey I would also pick up the rather nice continente teas, or parmesan or take advantage of their 50c lovely bowl assortment et cetera, and then they’d be nothing left to feed the dog. Modelo is a supermarket for those that need it all.

I would also say that pingo doce is the same sort of thing, but does it better. I wish I had known about pingo doce when I first arrived in Portugal and was finding grocery shopping culturally challenging. In general terms they carry more foreign foods, more “gourmet” foods. You’ll find more bio products in pingo doce than any of the others. If you’re still having dinner parties and quality is your bug, then I’d find a pingo doce.

Intermarché sits somewhere in the middle of all of these. In Lousã the intermarche store was the first and these days its car park is empty. However in Figueiró Dos Vinhos there is only a minipreço so intermarche trumps not for price but for range. Take jam for example: I’m something of a jam junkie and I’ll always detour to a modelo for some bonne maman, but in her absence then I’d prefer intermarché over minipreço. Minipreço’s jams are rubbish, and at least intermarché’s have a certain je ne sais quoi. Frenchness, actually.

There is also docemel, the little old lady of supermarkets. Hard to find, sort of shy and retiring, but still hanging in there in old fashioned places like Miranda do Corvo, Avelar, Castaneira de Pera and Figueiro DV. Generally speaking rather more expensive but then again you’re buying a little bit of Portuguese history.

Another issue you should consider is the store’s loyalty cards, not available at lidl or pingo doce, but the rest. Each has its own little personality, offering special prices on the shelves, and/or vouchers to use later. Often there are proper bargains to be had. There’s no harm in joining them all.

One last contending factor is the fruit & veg and the butcher. Personally I’m all for sharing the love, buying at the farmer’s market and forming deep and enduring relationships with particular butchers. But I must confess, modelo’s meat is rather cheap. Tonight I’m defrosting a 1.7kg chunk of pork that cost €2.95. (So if you’re thinking of dropping over for tea then get to the phone now.) And after I’ve finished with it, it will be delicious. On the other hand the beef is always disappointing and the chicken is just chicken. Excellent dog food though at €1.59/kg.

The quality of the butcher will vary from store to store, and I think in minipreço it’s actually a franchise, such that I’ve seen a large variation in the set up and the quality.
I’m much more suspect about the fruit and vegetables in these chain supermarkets however. Just how far have those oranges travelled when the public streets of Lousã are heavy with same? Convenient it is, cheap it is, loaded with chemicals it is also. Grow it yourself if you can.

Must go attend to the half a pig. Do excuse me.

2 Comments on "Mrs Spownall’s Great Supermarket Comparison"

  1. frogdropping March 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm · Reply

    For me it’s Pingo Doce, Mini Preço and the local butchers. Bread and staples at MP, upmarket and frivolous foods from PD and cracking cuts of meat (excluding steaks … never found a good one yet, unless it’s served up ready to eat in a great restaraunt I have frequented) from our local butchers. Friendly chaps and horribly fascinating to watch whilst the work with wild abandon, with no thought to how sharp their knives are and how much damage they can wreak upon vulnerable fingers.

    When in the UK, it’s Tescos, Morrisons and Asda. I flirt with all three, each grabbing my time and attention according to what they’re not going to charge me for the basics. Sans car (need one over here, public transport is still inventing the wheel) I’m forced to use the Co-op, which I detest. Overpriced, over-hyped and the only damn place within walking distance.

  2. Steve Masters April 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm · Reply

    A great round up, but I have to say one thing I prefer to supermarkets these days is shopping the old fashioned way. Our local butchers (Matosinhos) sell a week’s worth of meat for €20, the local fruit and veg shop gives you more for the money charged in supermarkets, and we have a small grocer around the corner who sells things at much lower prices than the big supermarkets, so for convenience it’s great.

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