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. Torn packaging, as on the Tesco fish fingers I bought recently, can halve the asking price. Reduced-price squashed loo rolls are one of our favourites.
It is not just alien and unwanted perishables that find themselves in the sell-by shopper's trolley. Premium produce also comes well within the budget, with discounted baking potatoes, herbs, prepared salads, mini quiches, Manx kippers and much, much more are regularly available across the supermarket chains. The delicatessen or fresh meat and fish counters offer some of the best reductions as stores approach closing time.
Convenience is sacrificed, however. Sell-by die-hards are more likely to shop more than once a week, while most family shoppers (60 per cent) make one trip a week, according to the research company Keynote. With more fresh items in their trolley requiring preparation, they will spend more time in the kitchen. We also tend to feel extra pressure without a list to guide decisions. In this we are unusual: the grocery specialist Nielsen says three out of five shoppers make a list before their weekly grocery shop.
Of course, buying significant amounts of discounted items requires managing their consumption. The freezer helps, but those with plenty of experience take "use by" dates on products with a pinch of salt. Supermarkets show "best by" or "use by" dates on perishable goods by law and work with suppliers to err well on the side of caution in setting them.
Some may say that life is too short to be a sell-by shopper. But we save money. And we are bound to a healthy diet by buying plenty of perfectly decent fresh fruit and veg. Unfortunately for the supermarket operators, we are a breed of shopper with a very long shelf-life.
When, where and how to buy your reduced-price food
l When you shop is as important as where - reduced-price goods are more readily available in the afternoon and evening than morning.
l Go shopping when bad weather, holidays or a big sporting event tempt you not to - these are prime times for reduced-price goods.
l Be prepared to buy what has been reduced, even if it is not something you would normally serve.
l Don't make a shopping list or aim to serve set meals.
l Check that you have been charged the reduced price, both at the service counter and the checkouts. Aim for at least 25 per cent of entries on your receipt to be reduced-price or promotion items.
l Try supermarkets that stock a lot of fresh produce, such as Safeway and Waitrose.
l Ignore sell-by dates and use your own judgement as to the latest that produce must be consumed. Use the freezer to help to manage multiple purchases that can't all be consumed fresh.
l Find out where reduced-price goods are displayed and shop these areas first.
l Shop twice a week at one or more supermarkets.
l Get to know the local store manager for fresh produce - reduced prices are controlled locally, not centrally. It won't hurt to remind managers when their displays are looking tired and it is time to drop their prices.
How much can you save by buying reduced-price foods?
Product Original price (pounds ) Reduced price (pounds ) Saving (pounds )
Lamb - leg fillet (3.49/lb) 8.50 (1.09/lb) 2.66 5.84
Pork - leg (2.49/lb) 7.20 (1.27/lb) 3.56 3.64
Haddock - Finnan (2.95/lb) 3.64 (0.99/.lb) 1.22 2.42
Kippers - Manx (1.85/lb) 1.57 (0.49/.lb) 0.42 1.15
Mini quiche x 12 2.79 0.50 2.29
Oranges x 4 0.99 0.50 0.49
Carrots 1.5kg 0.95 0.29 0.66
Spinach 300g 1.05 0.50 0.55
Potatoes, Cara 5kg 3.99 2.49 1.50
Cucumber 0.89 0.35 0.54
Wholemeal loaf 0.90 0.20 0.70
Muffins, raisin x 4 1.07 0.40 0.67
Baps floured x 12 1.22 0.40 0.82
Muller, fruit corner x 4 1.48 0.72 0.76
Apple/blackcurrant crush 1.19 0.39 0.80
Total 37.43 14.60 22.83
All items were bought at branches of Waitrose during December 1995