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4 May 2022

Everything wrong with this minister’s tip for cutting costs

George Eustice suggested struggling Britons buy basics range supermarket food.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Feeling the pinch? Squished by the squeeze? Munched by the crunch? Well, dear voter, has George Eustice, Environment Secretary and one of the wealthiest men in the cabinet, got a tip for you!

Why not — wait, hear him out — try buying value range products instead of brands? Cost-of-living crisis? Completed it, mate.

“Generally speaking,” he told a particularly unimpressed Kay Burley on Sky News, “what people find is that by going for some sort of value brands, rather than, you know, own-branded [sic] products, that they can actually sort of contain and manage their household budget.”

There are so many problems with the minister’s remarks that — much like the Big Supermarket Shop — it’s difficult to know where to start.

People facing spiralling costs from the 7 per cent inflation rate are already ditching branded food. Since the recent assault on household budgets kicked in, shoppers have been turning to essentials ranges. Sales of branded products fell by over 5 per cent this March compared with the same time last year, while own-label product purchases rose 3.3 per cent, according to data from NeilsenIQ. During the four weeks to 17 April 50 per cent of supermarket sales in Great Britain were own-label products, a greater proportion than the same period last year, according to Fraser McKevitt, head of retail and consumer insight at the market research firm Kantar.

The response from supermarkets also indicates a basics boom. Asda announced “the largest budget-friendly essential range on the market” last month, overhauling its longstanding “Smart Price” products in favour of a new, 50 per cent bigger line called “Just Essentials”. This move spooked Waitrose so much it sent a legal letter challenging the name (the high-end supermarket’s equivalent is called “Essential Waitrose”).

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Value ranges are often most affected by inflation. As the budget recipe writer and food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe pointed out this year, rising prices hit poorer people relying on essentials the hardest — an observation so stark that the Office for National Statistics agreed to reflect it in its inflation reports from then onwards.

While the cost of white wine has risen 2.4 per cent since last April, for example, toilet roll has gone up 10.5 per cent and spaghetti 14 per cent, according to the comparison site Trolley.co.uk’s grocery price index. Supermarkets have raised the prices of dozens of essential range products since January. For example, a basic chicken soup at Sainsbury’s cost 29 per cent more on 25 March than it did on 20 January, as revealed in an investigation by NationalWorld. (Kantar was unable to provide a comparison of price hikes on own-brand versus luxury supermarket products for this period.)

It has become typical practice for the government, supermarkets and energy companies to put the onus on the consumer — who is not at fault for the global forces of inflation — to navigate the cost-of-living crisis. Ministers like Eustice offer patronising shopping advice; Waitrose produces a two-page spread in its latest weekly newspaper with “25 ways to save”; the energy company SSE suggests customers keep warm by eating “hearty bowls of porridge”, “cuddling your pets” and “doing a few star jumps”.

People struggling to get by are already making frugal choices. In fact, as the New Statesman reported before the Spring Statement, low-income families have been so successful at cutting down their outgoings that they have “nowhere else left to cut”, in the words of Ruth Patrick, a York University academic whose latest research shows poorer households have reached the limits of their budgeting practices and resourcefulness. Martin Lewis, founder of Moneysavingexpert.com, has said he is “virtually out of tools to help people now”.

Yet of all the implications of George Eustice’s advice, perhaps the idea of denying oneself tiny fragments of joy in a miserable period of inflation is the worst of all. Over Easter and Eid, the need to celebrate and indulge with family and friends — particularly after we’ve been kept apart during the pandemic — cannot be dismissed.

In March I interviewed a single mother who had recently turned to the basic range equivalents of all her favourite products. “A KitKat is a luxury,” she told me. “We’ve redefined what luxury is.”

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