Most people assume that buying your supermarket produce loose gives you a better price. But that may not be true.

In a comparison of 10 products on the Woolworths website, we found that four were cheaper purchased loose, but the remaining six were actually cheaper per unit when packaged.

 LoosePackaged
Spinach$17/kg$5/280g ($17.86kg) or $2/60g ($33.33kg)
Brown onion$2.80/kg$1.5/kg or $5/2kg
Almonds$26.50/kg$9.00/400g ($22.5/kg)
Chilli red$22/kg$150/kg ($3/20g)
Fetta Australian$15/kg$25/kg ($5/200g)
D’orsogna Shaved leg ham$21/kg$12.50/kg ($5/400g)
Carrots$2.20/kg$2/kg
Sultanas$10/kg$3.99/kg
Mushroom cups$11/kg$4/200g ($20/kg) or $6/500g ($12/kg)
Bhuja mix$20/kg$5/390g ($12.82/kg)

Unfortunately this means you can’t always opt for one over the other and be guaranteed the best price: you’ll have to do a comparison. To do that, you’ll look at the unit pricing of the product, and that’s where a lot of people run into trouble.

Supermarkets and online retailers are required to comply with the Unit Pricing Code, which means they must display a unit code for all grocery items which is: prominent, legible, unambiguous, and in close proximity to the selling price.

In general, products should be unit priced using the following measurements:

  • if sold by volume – per 100 millilitres
  • if sold by weight – per 100 grams
  • if sold by length – per metre
  • if sold by number – per item for a pack of 40 or fewer items; or per 100 items for a pack of 41 or more items
  • some items are priced using different units. Fruit and vegetables, for example, are displayed as per kilogram rather than 100 grams

This is supposed to make comparisons of loose versus packaged products easy, but it doesn’t always work that simply.

For example, on the Woolworths website, loose Baby Hot Chillis are priced at $24 per kilo, but loose Red Chillis (a very similar product) are priced at $2.20 per kilo. Packets of bhuja mix next to each other on the virtual shelf were randomly priced per kilo or per 100 grams, seemingly at random. Certainly it’s a simple matter of moving a decimal point, but it’s a stumbling block for people not paying attention.

Or you may find, as we did, limes priced at $4 for a three pack, $0.80 cents each, or $3.50 for a 500 gram-bag. You would have to count and weigh all of them to figure out the best value.

Of course, it’s not just the unit price that you should take into consideration when comparing products. While it may be less expensive (either in terms of unit price or selling price) to buy a product in a larger package, if it’s got a short shelf life and it goes off before you can use it, it’s not a better deal.

And then there’s the issue of unnecessary plastics on packaged produce. Many people choose to buy loose because there is less or no packaging, but if the packaged option is cheaper (which seems ridiculous considering the extra cost of packaging) and you’re on a budget, it leaves you with a bit of a dilemma.

If you really can’t justify spending more to avoid the excess plastic, be sure to reuse or recycle. Much of it can be recycled at home, or at specific bins in larger stores.

And always remember your reusable shopping bags. Woolworths are stopping free plastic shopping bags from June 20.