Store price drops offer plenty food for thought

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Supermarket food bills were supposed to soar, so why are the contents of shopping baskets getting cheaper, ask Mark McLaughlin and Benjamin Zand

THE warnings have been so dire that you would be forgiven for being too scared to push your trolley down the supermarket aisle.

A global wheat shortage after the Russian harvests failed, world record wholesale prices for red meat and soaring costs of cocoa and coffee have hit us in quick succession.

Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, poor harvests pushed the price of sunflower and rapeseed oils up almost a third, threatening the cost of our beloved fish suppers and crisps.

Even the traditional Christmas pudding isn't safe after bad harvests in the US and Turkey sent the price of nuts and fruit up by 25 per cent.

Totting up the cost of your weekly shop right now should be a frightening business but, despite all the alarming headlines, things have not quite turned out that way.

In fact, a test shop by the Evening News has found that the price of a basket of kitchen basics has actually fallen since the start of the year at two of the big four supermarkets.

The results on the surface seem incredible until you take a closer look at what the supermarkets have been up to.

They may not necessarily be loss-leaders, but big stores have made a determined effort to keep the cost of basic items down to encourage us to keep coming through their doors.

"Supermarket retailing is fantastically competitive and retailers will do all that they can to prevent a rise in the price of commodities filtering down to their shelves, particularly in the most commonly bought items," says Richard Dodd, of the British Retail Consortium, which has carried out a major study into grocery price rises.

"Our index looked at 500 different items and also found that some had gone up, some had gone down, but the overall figure showed that food prices had risen by four per cent."

Traditional farm and dairy produce has tended to stay still or even fall, prompting protests from the National Farmers Union that its members are being squeezed by the big retailers, something the BRC denies.

So, while the basics might still be good value, what should you avoid if you want to keep the price of your weekly shop down?

Meat, tea, tinned food and cleaning products are the ones to be wary of, according to price comparison website

"Other family staples have been hit hard too; tinned tomatoes have gone up by 30 per cent and dishwashing products up by 29 per cent. In the last year alone, tea has gone up in price by 12 per cent and meat such as lamb has risen by five per cent," says a Mysupermarket spokeswoman."These price increases mean shoppers need to hunt around for the best deal they can find in their supermarkets, or they may find themselves considerably out of pocket."

The price rises on the store shelves may not have hit the levels many predicted, but could that happen yet?

It is unlikely in the immediate future, says the BRC, although the cost of many tinned and packaged foods may still rise in the coming months.

"The recent volatility is still going to have a knock-on effect on food prices in UK, particularly in items such as tinned and packaged goods which are less perishable and would have been purchased at a time when commodity prices were at their highest," says Mr Dodd.

"However, you should start to see the effects of this stabilisation in fresh goods, which react more immediately, but as for what the more distant future holds, it's hard to say.

"Food prices are susceptible to all kinds of environmental factors, as we have seen this year, so who knows what the future will hold."