Forget the Knightsbridge crush for cut-price designer dresses - try the designer food sales instead. They are on throughout the year at a supermarket near you and there is a new breed of sell-by-date shopper buying apple and blackcurrant crush at 75 per cent off. Addicted to shopping for "sell-by foods" at the local supermarket, they scour the aisles for increasingly diverse and exotic fresh food that has been left on the shelf by less creative and less thrifty shoppers and which the supermarket has reduced in order to guarantee minimal profit.
The sell-by shopper has long discarded shopping lists and long abandoned brand loyalty in favour of precision timing and last-minute culinary decisions. As the addiction takes hold, more and more of their grocery needs have to be met by reduced-price items approaching their sell-by date. Like all the best sale shoppers, they have been known to return home empty- handed if the bargains just are not there. For them, cut-price food has the same appeal as the designer label sales: items on offer are likely to be fresh produce and often of the premium variety. The aim is not simply to buy cheaply, but to buy that which offers better value for money.
It is hardly surprising that shoppers have developed their own strategies for getting round the supermarkets in one financial and emotional piece. Choice in our mainstream supermarkets has evolved to the point where shopping for groceries is complicated and time-consuming. Sainsbury's is typical in stocking almost 20,000 lines in its larger stores. On top of this, it runs several hundred promotions each week. And from all this it expects us to select our handful of items.
At a time when new discount chains such as Aldi and Netto have heightened price competition for packaged groceries, the mainstream supermarkets have increased their commitment to fresh produce. Most fresh food is sold unbranded, leaving higher margins for the supermarkets. According to the research company AGB, grocery multiples enjoy a 60 per cent share of fresh fruit and veg sales, up from 33 per cent in 1983. The supermarkets' gain has been the independent greengrocer's loss: only 10,000 survive today from the 44,000 independents operating in the early Fifties. Tesco, the country's largest retailer of fruit and veg, stocks about 500 fruit and vegetable lines, accounting for 10 per cent of its business. An even higher 12 per cent of Waitrose's business is in fruit and veg.
The sell-by shopper has watched eagerly as supermarkets have expanded their fresh produce. They know that the computerised precision with which supermarkets manage non-perishable goods cannot be applied so successfully to fresh produce. Anything from a sudden change in the weather to England making it to the World Cup final will alter plans for dinner across the country, leaving supermarkets no option but to manage excess stocks of fresh produce through reduced prices.
When, rather than where, they shop is crucial. Sell-by shoppers know the optimum time of the day, or the week, to shop. An addicted sell-by shopper myself, I also know exactly which sections to head for. On my preferred route, driving the trolley becomes that much harder as we move against the flow, veering off the route dictated by the aisles. Children, usually the bane of a shopper's life, come into their own as they go forth, scouting around the bakery, fish or delicatessen counters for red stickers before reporting back to base. If the children pick out fresh pasta, bacon, spinach, mushrooms and cream, then the evening meal becomes spaghetti carbonara served with spinach and mushrooms.
Sell-by shopping means that meals can be served at anything up to 50 per cent off the original price, and also takes in the damaged goods dumped in bins or at aisle ends. This extends the range across non-perishable goods. Dented tins typically earn a 5p or 10p saving. …