THE big four supermarkets are now beating their no-frills rivals on the price of many weekly shopping basics.
Budget own brand ranges introduced by Asda, Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury's are undercutting traditional discounters Lidl and Aldi on a wide range of staple items.
A price comparison of a shopping basket containing 31 basics – from bread, milk and cheese to fresh meat, frozen food and toiletries – found mainstream supermarkets were either cheaper than or matched the discount chains more than half the time.
The Evening News's test shop at six stores in and around Edinburgh found the budget ranges at the "big four" up to 73 per cent cheaper than the discount chains' equivalent products.
But Aldi and Lidl were still generally cheaper for fresh produce, such as fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs.
At least one of the mainstream supermarkets was cheapest on 15 out of 31 items, while Lidl and Aldi undercut them on 14 products, with two items being almost identically priced across the board.
Asda was the cheapest for the overall shop, at 42.90, narrowly beating Lidl by just 17p – the cost of a tube of value brand toothpaste. Only Sainsbury's (48.16) was more expensive than Aldi, at 46.39.
The no-frills stores have – perhaps turning popular preconceptions on their head – defended their prices, saying it is about value for money and shoppers have to take quality into account.
The new value brands may not go as far as the price wars of the mid-1990s, when supermarkets sold tins of beans for as little as 3p, but there has been significant discounting, including two litres of lemonade for 18p at the "big four" supermarkets.
Some of the cheapest items are thought to be "loss-leaders" designed simply to lure shoppers into the store.
Cost-cutting may be the main battleground for Scotland's supermarkets, but bargain basement shoppers can expect little in the way of choice. A Consumer Focus Scotland spokeman said: "The size of your weekly bill is a huge factor in where you choose to go to shop.
"Supermarkets know how important price is, which is why we've seen a lot of work going in to offering a range of low-cost items to help customers, especially with so many people finding money tight at the moment.
"But at these lowest prices, whether in the specialist discount supermarkets or the others, consumers have only very limited choice.
"If you don't like what's on offer for this cheapest price, there's very rarely an alternative for the same amount. Your only option then is to pay more."
As shoppers have looked to save money during the economic crisis, the discount chains have been making big inroads into the mainstream stores' traditional market.
Their collective turnover increased by more than a quarter last year.
Lidl now has seven stores in Edinburgh, and Aldi, which currently has a store in Musselburgh, plans to open its first Edinburgh premises in Gorgie this year, with a dozen more Aldi stores eventually planned for the Capital.
But the big four have responded to the competition from discounters with their own low-cost brands – in February, Tesco announced it was to add a further 100 lines to its discount brand range in an attempt to fight off the growing threat posed by Aldi and Lidl.
The Evening News visited Lidl in Dalry Road, Aldi in Musselburgh, Sainsbury's at Meadowbank, Tesco at Corstorphine, Asda at Chesser and Morrisons at Piershill and searched for the cheapest version of 31 basic items.
Our findings echo those of the trade magazine The Grocer, which found that Asda was the cheapest place to shop in the UK.
Its basket of 33 basic items cost 30.76 at Aldi – 11.66 more than the cheapest supermarket Asda.
According to the report from independent price checker ESA, no-frills stores Lidl, Aldi and Netto are up to 61 per cent dearer when compared with budget label goods at the big four supermarkets.
It found Lidl was 4 more expensive than Tesco and 8 dearer than Asda. Adam Donaldson, chief executive of ESA, said: "These findings are really significant, given consumers' perception that discounters are less expensive.
"The question for consumers now becomes one of value. Consumers must decide whether they can obtain the same or better levels of quality at Tesco or Asda as the discounters.
"If the answer is yes, the shift in shoppers to the discounters could easily reverse."
Lidl spokesman Marco Ivone said: "At Lidl we are keen to provide the people of Scotland with a quality offering at the best possible price.
"Our products are not comparable with value ranges from other retailers in price, simply because the quality is completely different.
"Families across Scotland can get quality products at the best price, along with some familiar Scottish brands, at Lidl."
CHEAP AS CHIPS
THE rock-bottom prices being offered by the supermarkets open up the prospect of some incredibly cheap meals.
You could feed a family of four for just 61p if you shopped around a little, by throwing together pasta from Lidl (25p for a 500g bag) with Asda's 36p Smart Price bolognese sauce.
Or if you wanted to push the boat out, you might fancy a feast of sausage, chips, egg and beans for 1.43.
You would need a pack of eight budget sausages for 48p from any of the "big four" supermarkets; a tin of beans from Asda at 27p; half a bag of Lidl's frozen chips for 30p; and four eggs for 38p from the discount chain.
And why not wash it all down with two litres of own-brand lemonade for 18p available from many of the supermarkets.
One drawback with this meal though is that you would blow everything you might have saved before you even start eating – on petrol to get round all the supermarkets.