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11 November 2022

The death of the £3 supermarket meal deal signals a grim new era

Where have all the discounts and cheap promotions gone?

By Anoosh Chakelian

It’s just after 1pm. My clicking finger is weary. I have refreshed the BBC homepage and Twitter enough times in the past four hours to warrant a lunch break (see me – ed). I trudge out of New Statesman HQ and slither along the streets of Hatton Garden in central London, hunting for prey. It doesn’t help that every shopfront apart from our humble magazine’s is a jeweller with diamonds in the window. The street-food market along Leather Lane feels too indulgent for a mere Tuesday. Pret is now £6,000 per prawn. And I have no leftovers for the overworked office microwave today.

So I head to Tesco.

Picking out a meal deal is always comforting. It has the reassuring illusion of choice. And there’s a certain chicness to tailoring one’s own gastronomic experience (the sharp tang of pickled onion Monster Munch, or the sour bomb of a nitrogenated pineapple hunk, cuts through the umami of a tuna sweetcorn sandwich, paired with a full-bodied yet versatile Diet Coke). I was briefly fixated by “Meal Deal Talk” and “Rate My Meal Deal” Facebook pages, where people mercilessly critique each other’s chosen combos.

And, of course, there’s the guarantee that you’ll always (at Tesco, at least) come out with two full pounds’ worth of change from a fiver. But not today. Today, my chicken, mozzarella and pesto sandwich, salt and vinegar ridged McCoy’s and Diet Coke cost me £3.90. What can I do with the leftover ten pence? Nothing on Hatton Garden, that’s for sure.

As food price inflation hits 14 per cent, Tesco has finally put the price up of its decade-old £3 lunch meal deal to £3.90 (£3.40 if you have a Clubcard).

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This marks the death of the £3 sandwich, snack and drink supermarket deal. You might still be able to swing it with the Asda three-for-two version, or a particularly complex Amazon Fresh foray if you’re happy to embrace dystopian dining, but the classic lunch cap has lifted.

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“That’s certainly what we’ve found: supermarkets increasing the price of their meal deals,” said Sue Davies, head of food policy at Which?, the consumer rights group. “Tesco offered the cheapest meal deal, but the price has gone up now… This just reflects the way that we’re seeing really dramatic food price inflation, and with these meal deals, we’re seeing changes in terms of promotions increasing in price.”

This comes as we rely increasingly on meal deals for a cheap lunchbreak choice – when we’re in the office, at least. Shoppers are buying meal deals 7 per cent more often now than in 2021, according to analysis shared with the New Statesman of shopping habits in the 52 weeks up to 2 October by Kantar, a consumer data firm.

[See also: The UK economy is shrinking: only investment will save it]

“The meal-deal market is currently regaining some of the ground it lost during the Covid lockdowns, when many people worked at home,” said Lucy Chapman, strategic insight director at Kantar. “We’re still 15 per cent below pre-pandemic levels though, as the shift to hybrid working has impacted on lunches for office workers.”

This is part of a wider change in promotions offered by Britain’s supermarkets – as food and drink prices rocket. When I interview people impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, they often mention the struggle to find good deals like they used to.

“There used to be promotions, discounts – now, when I go out to do the weekly shop and am trying to budget, there are far fewer reduced items, you have to be a much more savvy shopper,” said Faith Angwet, a 37-year-old charity fundraiser in south London, who has children aged two and five. She is struggling to find shifts around the demands of childcare, which she cannot afford to pay for.

Without discounts “we have to buy the cheapest food possible. We don’t have snacks. Fruit and vegetables are a luxury, fresh meat is a luxury,” said Kim, a 36-year-old woman in north Wales whose husband lost his construction job during the pandemic. They have four children, aged between eight and 18, and Kim cannot work due to early-onset osteoarthritis. “It’s heart-breaking when you look at your children’s face and say ‘there are no snacks in’.”

Even items on the discount shelf seem pricier. “Yellow-sticker steaks” are too expensive now for Joanne Barker-Marsh, a 49-year-old former photographer who switched to cleaning jobs, and has a 12-year-old son with special educational needs.

After monitoring how many promotions were available compared with two years previously, Which? discovered earlier this year that there has indeed been “a reduction in the number of promotions in general”, said Davies.

“Sainsbury’s has stopped doing multi-buys, for example. A lot of supermarkets are now linking their promotions to loyalty cards, so in Tesco you pay a different price if you have a Clubcard on quite a few products, and if you’re going for a meal deal in Co-op, you pay a different price if you’re using your Co-op membership.”

While it’s harder to afford the basics, luxury and premium products (like the posh ready meals in Valentine’s Day dinner bundles, for example) are less affected by inflation – a trend the budget recipe writer and food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe pointed out in January. “An upmarket ready meal range was £7.50 ten years ago, and is still £7.50 today,” they tweeted. “A high-end store’s ‘Dine In For Two For £10’ has been £10 for as long as I can remember.”

By their calculation, if the price of a £7.50 luxury lasagne had risen at the same rate as the cheapest rice, it would now cost £25.80. The £10 dine-in for two deal would cost £34.40. The Office for National Statistics agreed to reflect the unequal impact of inflation from then on.

By layering food-store locations on to a map highlighting the UK’s most food-poor areas, Which? has discovered the places with least access to supermarket budget ranges and deals.

Top of the index is Birmingham Hodge Hill, which has poor online delivery access and low car use. A food-bank volunteer there told the group: “Where this food bank is, there’s no supermarket within two miles.” Knowsley in Merseyside comes second, with high food poverty but half the number of large or very large supermarkets than the national average (suggesting fewer cheaper or own-brand products nearby).

“Supermarkets should be looking more to do straightforward discounts, rather than multi-buys where you end up having to make a bigger outlay, and which can lead to food waste, and incentives to buy more fatty, sugary and salty foods than you would want,” said Davies, who has written to the chief executives of supermarkets in the UK about helping customers with the rising cost of food.

Sainsbury’s gives £2 coupons for fruit and veg to shoppers eligible for Healthy Start vouchers (a government scheme to help poorer households buy healthier food), and Asda has introduced a £1 meal deal for over-sixties alongside its offer of unlimited tea and coffee.

“There should also be budget ranges available, particularly in stores in the areas where we know people are most likely to be struggling,” said Davies. “Supermarkets should look at targeting their promotions to support people most in need.”

[See also: What the price of diesel tells us about the coming recession]