Need to know
- Loose produce is more often cheaper than packaged produce – but not always
- Using unit prices to find the cheapest format could save you more than $1900 a year
- Imperfect fruit and veg is 37% cheaper than regular produce
There are many reasons for buying food that's sold loose rather than pre-packed. You can avoid plastic packaging, and you can choose the exact size, amount and quality of the produce you're after. But will you save at the checkout?
Bird's eye chilies at Coles priced at $34 per kg, compared with $95 per kg pre-packed.
We recorded and compared the supermarket unit prices of 33 different foods that are sold in both loose and pre-packed formats to see which was cheaper. See How we surveyed for details.
Loose produce cheaper 48% of the time
Significant savings can be had on buying loose chilies in particular, with bird's eye chilies at Coles priced at $34 per kg, compared with $95 per kg pre-packed.
Jarlsberg cheese slices from the deli were also about half the price of their pre-packed version at both Coles and Woolies.
Shortcut rindless bacon, green beans, shaved Champagne ham, Packham pears, snow peas and truss tomatoes were also cheaper in their loose format at both Coles and Woolworths.
Pre-packed produce cheaper 33% of the time
Some items were cheaper in the packaged format at both Coles and Woolworths – carrots, lemons, limes, onions (brown and red), and washed potatoes – so it's worth buying these products pre-packed if saving money is a priority.
In some cases, the savings on pre-packed produce were significant. For example, packaged carrots were less than half the price of loose carrots at both Coles and Woolworths.
A small percentage of products were either the same price loose or packed (11%), or the unit pricing didn't allow for comparisons (8%).
At each supermarket we compared the price of a basket of items in their cheapest format (whether that be loose or packaged) with the same items in their most expensive format to see how much money you could save. (This is the same as comparing unit pricing.)
- At Coles we saved $36.95 (19%) on 27 items by buying the format with the lowest unit price (a basket total of $155.50 compared with $192.45).
- At Woolies we saved $24.83 (17%) on 23 items ($117.07 compared with $141.90).
- At Aldi we saved $15.56 (29%) on 11 items ($38.82 compared with $54.38).
At Coles we saved $36.95 (19%) on a basket of 27 items.
On a product level, Jarlsberg cheese and shaved Champagne ham (at both Coles and Woolworths), bird's eye chilies, almonds and seafood marinara mix (at Coles), Kensington Pride mangoes (at Aldi) and jalapeño chilies and Tasmanian salmon fillets (at Woolworths) offered the biggest savings if you choose the cheapest format, with at least $4 a kilo between the most expensive and cheapest options.
Savings of at least $2 a kilo could be had on green beans and truss tomatoes (at both Coles and Woolworths), mandarins (at Coles), and Danish fetta and snow peas (at Woolworths).
These kinds of price differences can have a major impact on your household grocery costs over the long term. If the basket at Coles represented a weekly shop, for example, using unit prices to choose the cheapest format could save you more than $1900 a year.
More reasons to compare unit prices
Comparing loose and packaged formats of the same food items is just one way unit prices can help you save money.
Unit price comparisons can also reveal big differences in value between national brands and smaller brands or supermarket own brands, or large versus smaller pack sizes of the same product.
You can even find a cheaper version of the same product in different aisles of the supermarket! A 250g pack of Woolworths Macro dry roasted almonds in the health food aisle cost us $7.50 ($30 per kg). For the same price, we could buy a much larger 400g pack of Woolworths brand dry roasted almonds in the fresh food section, where they were just $18.75 per kilo.
Sure, you may pick a product with a higher unit price because you prefer how it tastes, because it looks fresher, because it's in a more convenient pack size, or because you want to reduce your use of packaging. But if you're simply keen on getting the best value for money, focusing on the unit price rather than selling price can really help.
Imperfect products were on average 37% cheaper per kilo.
Both major supermarkets sell packages of 'ugly' fruit and vegetables under the labels 'I'm Perfect' (Coles) and 'The Odd Bunch' (Woolworths). The idea is that shoppers can save money by buying imperfect fruits and vegetables, and farmers are able to sell produce that would otherwise go to waste.
Our comparison of seven products across the standard and imperfect ranges found that imperfect products were on average 37% cheaper per kilo than the cheapest alternative format. On a product level, The Odd Bunch green apples offered the biggest saving per kilo ($2.90/kg versus $4.90/kg for loose or packaged Granny Smith apples).
In many cases, though, the imperfect products don't state the variety of fruit or vegetable. This makes it hard to compare directly with the standard produce, but you can usually take a pretty good guess by looking at the produce inside the pack. The imperfect range also generally comes in larger pack sizes than the standard produce, which may mean it only represents good value if you need a large quantity.
If you've ever shopped at Woolworths Online, you may have noticed that it's harder to compare the cost of some popular loose and packaged fruits and vegetables to find the best value for money. This is because the supermarket giant displays the costs for some loose produce per piece, but the price for packaged produce is shown per kilo.
For example, the price of loose Packham pears is displayed at 67c/each, and the 1kg package of Packham pears is $3.50/kg. Without knowing the weight of the pears (which isn't displayed) it's impossible to calculate which format is cheaper.
Coles Online also displays an estimated price per piece of fruit/vegetable, but the cost per kilo is displayed in smaller font underneath with the approximate weight of the pear so that customers can more easily compare prices.
We asked Woolworths about this. A spokesperson told us, "For some individual pieces of fruit and vegetables the price is calculated using the same per kilogram price offered in store and an average weight per piece. This is regularly checked to ensure seasonal or supply variations are reflected in the average."
You can choose to take Woolworths at their word, but if you like to be able to compare prices yourself to get the best value, it's going to be difficult when shopping with Woolworths Online.
We used a combination of online and instore shopping and compared loose and packaged items.
Our survey was carried out instore at Aldi and online at Coles. For Woolworths, we shopped online for some products and instore for others, as the pricing for some of the fresh produce in our survey didn’t allow us to compare loose and packaged items online. We recorded the price of a range of products available in both loose and pre-packaged formats within each store. For each product, the two prices were recorded on the same day, and when on special we used the regular price where this was available. We then calculated the cost of the loose product if we were to buy the same weight as the packed format and compared the difference in price.
When comparing loose and packaged produce, we excluded The Odd Bunch/I’m Perfect products, except when that was the only packaged option available. We then compared the cost per kilo of the cheapest form of produce from the standard range with the cost per kilo of The Odd Bunch/I’m Perfect products.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.