July 25

The ultimate cheatsheet to getting cheap groceries in Singapore

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Saving cents, losing dollars

As a poor student, I remember always going to the supermarkets late at night, to find their reduced to clear items. I would also go from supermarket to supermarket, just to find savings on the dollar.

I thought that saving 5 cents here and there would really add up to a lot!

But the turning point came when I realised that the few cents I saved on, didn’t really contribute to me being happier. In fact, I was even more tired dragging grocery bags from supermarket to supermarket just to save a few cents!

With the recent rise in inflation, everyone is looking to save money. Buying cheaper groceries would be a helpful first step. But finding cheaper groceries also needs to be balanced with your quality of life and the time you spend going from place to place.

Here are some principles to hold in mind, before looking at how to get cheaper groceries in Singapore.

Different groceries at different places

Not all groceries are created equal. In general, there are 3 types of groceries you would buy weekly.

  1. Fresh food
  2. Fruits
  3. Personal care products (things like shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes)
  4. Toiletries (toilet paper, tissue paper)

Different grocers would have cheaper prices for different items. This is due to the different terms of procurement. If a grocer specialises in personal car products, they would get a better rate due to the larger bulk they buy. But if you have grocers that specialise in fresh food, their wide network of suppliers ensures that you have the best price. Beside, the economies of scale ensure that you can get a better price.

For example, NTUC FairPrice, with its network of 230 stores, is able to secure a better price from retailers as they buy in greater bulk. Compared to your typical mama store at the bottom of your void deck, this may be much, much cheaper.

Personal care products can also often be gotten at better rates at dollar shops like Value Dollar. Value Dollar obtains items that are meant to be sold in other markets, and sells them here. That’s why you see the back of your toothbrush box is often filled with Thai or Hindi print, because they are originally meant to be sold in other countries. That also means that the prices are at prices that are much cheaper than if the product was originally meant to be sold in Singapore.

This is where we will dive deeper into the economics of procurement.

If you look at an Oral-B toothbrush (owned by Procter and Gamble, or P&G), it’s usually manufactured abroad, before being imported by P&G Singapore. They then charge you those rates. But if you buy from someplace like Value Dollar, you will realise that the item you buy there isn’t imported by P&G Singapore. Rather, Value Dollar buys directly in the Thai market for example, and then ships it to Singapore.

The Value Dollar shops offer you discounts that you will never believe

That’s why you get it much cheaper.

Plan for the weekly shop

Going to the supermarket without a plan is a guaranteed way to not have cheaper groceries. Because you don’t have a plan, you will pick whatever catches your fancy. You will realise that you will go back again and again over the week to get things that you didn’t get initially.

A simple way to plan is this.

During the week, plan out what you’re going to eat for each meal. Will you be cooking, or buying it? Be detailed about breakfast, lunch and dinner, across the 7 days. Even if you’re going to eat out, put it down.

Then write down what you will need for each meal, if you are cooking.

Write down everything you need on a checklist, and head to the shops.

Decide to cook

In Singapore, when you can get affordable food at the hawker centre, and not have to wash your plates, why bother cooking?

Because it saves money in the long run, by helping you become healthier. There’s something special about making your own food. For the first time, you realise how much salt, oil and fats you are including in your meal. You become more mindful before you eat. After all, at your typical hawker, you don’t know how many times they have deep fried something to make it delicious. Or you don’t know how much MSG they have added so that you will come back for more.

When you cook, you know.

Eat before grocery shopping

Whenever I shopped, there would be the strong smell of bread wafting into my nostrils. I would be deeply tempted to buy those. Later I learnt that this was a typical trick used by grocers to get people to buy what they didn’t need.

But I soon learnt a trick to avoid the temptation of buying what I didn’t need.

cheap grocery Singapore
Sometimes maybe you should smell the food instead of buying it

Eat before you go grocery shopping. When you do that, you’re no longer as tempted, because you feel full. You won’t imagine the savoury bread that drips into your mouth.

Nah.

Buy frozen

We may think fresh is better, but it’s often more expensive than the typical frozen livestock.

Frozen food can be cheaper, and much better.

Shop at your local wet market

If we touch our hearts, we don’t really like wet markets. They smell fishy, they’re humid and they have no air-conditioning. They are squeezy, have tight-corners, and you’re not very sure how to converse in Hokkien with the storeowner. Why go there?

Whilst you may see the typical, big name brands in this article, I would also advise you to go for smaller shops.

cheap grocery Singapore
Sometimes it helps to just go to that corner store

There’s value in doing that. I remember the first time I bought from a small popup store selling fruits. The stall owner threw in an additional bag of fruits, for free! In a smaller shop, you get to bargain and you get to build a longer term relationship with the storeowner. These relationships are priceless.

Whilst you may get all you want at a typical supermarket, you will definitely not get an undisclosed discount. What you see is what you will get. At your wet markets, you may build a relationship that results in your friendly grocer reducing the prices.

So where should you go to shop?

That corner fruit shop

You see that corner fruit shop near your heartland centre? Go there.

cheap grocery Singapore
That corner store uncle will probably give you a better deal than the NTUC aunty

Often, we may choose to do a big shop at a hypermarket like NTUC Fairprice, but doing that may end up in us getting fruits that are not as cheap.

At the corner fruit shops, you get to find reduced to clear fruits that are often going to be thrown away. Here you will find premium foods like honeydews, avocados and even durians reduced to clear.

Besides, it helps to support your local grocer. Whilst we can argue that Singapore is small, and supporting supermarkets like NTUC Fairprice is good enough already, there’s a case to supporting small businesses. They are the heartbeat of our economy, and they add a certain distinctiveness to our heartlands. Could you imagine Singapore without our wet markets or hawker centres?

The smaller supermarket around your home

In recent years, smaller supermarkets have popped up around my home, such as USTARS Supermarket, PRIME Supermarket, and others.

The prices of these places can often be comparable, or even cheaper than the bigger supermarket chains.

Whilst they may have a smaller range compared to those larger chains, they offer attractive offers for the range they have.

When you shop at these smaller supermarkets, there’s also a cosy, convivial feel to where you shop. You get to know the store assistants, their names, and they start to look out for you. I’ve had store assistants who’ve seen me so often that they now know what I look out for whenever I come.

Of course there are the larger supermarkets. This article will also cover my personal review of these places.

Cold Storage

Cold Storage is by far my favourite supermarket, by a long way. I especially love their cooked foods section, where they have pork knuckles, chicken wings, and char siew! Often, if you go at 8pm, you will find that these items are reduced by as much as 50%, and it helps to get your meals for the week at those times.

Cold Storage is supposedly also a premium, upmarket supermarket that sells more luxury items. Think of organic peanut butter, silky toilet paper, and the like.

But when you go at times like 8pm, these items may sometimes be reduced to clear.

NTUC Fairprice

For those who love NTUC Fairprice, you’re probably going to hate me after reading this.

If you love crowded places and are ready to squeeze, go to NTUC Fairprice. With harsh florescent lights, long aisles, and thousands of items, it’s shoppers galore, or a saver’s nightmare. You may find yourself buying things that you don’t need, finding items that you never thought existed, and being bombarded by ‘discounts’ everywhere. You may soon want to buy everything there.

Over the weekend, at any time, be prepared to queue for at least 10 minutes to checkout your items. And if you want to find an item, be prepared to walk for a few minutes before you find someone who can help you.

Whilst the items there may be cheaper than other places, it may not be worth the squeeze. There are far better places to go to.

Sheng Siong

Sheng Siong is a good place, especially with their prices. You have to be careful of not spending too much though. Over the years, Sheng Siong has figured how to perfectly take every possible penny out of your pocket. Great for shareholders, not great for shoppers.

For example, if you go to the double storey supermarket, they will have tidbits as you go up the travelator. Not having anything to do except to stare at the lovely chocolates, you may find yourself throwing a couple into your cart.

Because of their extensive network of suppliers, they maintain a competitive edge over their competitors, with their prices often coming much lower than most.

The best thing about Sheng Siong is that they have a wet market section in their supermarkets. Meaning wet markets with aircon!

Where do you ever find that? They may not necessarily be cheaper though.

The fresh food section has been responsible for much of the growth in the profit margins of Sheng Siong, with the directors acknowledging that the changes in the product mix to concentrate on fresh produce resulting in their growth in margins.

Growth in profit margins attributed to more fresh produce sold
Growth in profit margins attributed to more fresh produce sold

To save money on groceries…

As a poor student, I remember cycling around on my bicycle with a 10kg bag, trying to find the next best deal. But eventually I realised that my time was money. And cycling between store to store was wasting time. Sure, I would have saved some cents, and possibly even a dollar, but the time I wasted?

Priceless.

There’s a balance.

After reading this article, you would have seen that the most important things to do is to:

  1. Shop at different places for different products
  2. Save on your weekly shop by planning
  3. See what’s nearby

Doing this will help you to stretch your dollar further.


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