/ 22 September 2023

Pick n Pay, Woolworths and Checkers charge up to 300% more for fresh produce

Fresh Produce2 (1)
Bargain: Prices at the Durban Fresh Produce Market are about two to three times lower than those bought at retailers such as Woolworths, Spar, Pick n Pay and Checkers. (Rogan Ward)

The Durban Fresh Produce Market is a lifeline for cash-strapped consumers who are shopping around to find bargains amid soaring food prices, particularly when it comes to basics such as bread, milk, meat and fresh produce.

But most consumers are either not aware of the fresh produce savings to be scored at the country’s large markets — Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg also have municipal markets — or do not realise the facilities are open to the public, easy to access and offer good service and attractive prices.

As one market agent who sells fresh produce on behalf of farmers said: “I don’t know why more housewives and consumers don’t shop here at the market, they should come. Things are going to get tougher and food is going to become a big, big issue in this country, especially if they keep getting rid of the farmers.

Food prices have dropped recently because of oversupply and no consumer buying power, but logistics costs are getting more expensive,” he warned.

The Mail & Guardian this week conducted a basic food price survey at the Durban Fresh Produce Market in Clairwood and compared its prices to those of four major supermarket chains — Woolworths, Pick n Pay, Checkers and Spar, all within 300 metres of each other in central Westville.

The prices gathered at the market were taken directly from farmers’ agents and not from the informal fruit and vegetable sellers around the perimeter of the main hall, who buy at the market to resell at variable cash prices. 

Fresh produce prices surveyed included tomatoes, onions, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and oranges. The supermarket prices of the cheapest two-litre fresh milk, bread, stewing beef, whole fresh chicken and cheddar cheese were also gathered to get an idea of what consumers are forking out for what are considered basic items. 

The Fresh Produce Market in Clairwood, Durban. (Rogan Ward)

Where there were options to select loose fresh produce and pay per kilogramme or bigger bulk packs (2kg to 7kg) in supermarkets, we chose the latter only if they offered the lowest price for the survey.

It must also be noted that quality of produce appeared to be high across supermarkets and at the market, although the latter produce is usually freshest because deliveries of new farm stock are done almost daily and sales are relatively quick.

At first glance, market prices appeared not to have risen much compared with a similar survey conducted by this journalist five years ago — a 6kg box of fresh, firm tomatoes could be purchased for R36 then, and this week fetched R40 to  R45. 

This equates to about R6.66 and R7.50 a kilogramme, three times cheaper than the price at Pick n Pay, Woolworths and Checkers, where per-kilogramme prices ranged from R22.49 to R26.99. 

Even at Spar, where tomatoes were on special for R13.99, this was still double the price for tomatoes at the market. 

Several market agents who spoke on condition of anonymity (because their customers, the supermarket chains and eThekwini metro, which runs the market, apparently do not appreciate them expressing their views on prices) said that vegetable prices listed in the M&G’s basket had dropped over the past six months after having increased to much higher levels.

The Fresh Produce Market in Clairwood, Durban. (Rogan Ward)

A 10kg pocket of onions, for example, had dropped in price from about R160 to between R75 and R85 a pocket (between R7.50 and R8.50 a kilogramme), depending on the size — small (bigger than pickling size) to medium. 

Once again, it appears that supermarket prices have remained upwardly sticky at double and triple these prices, ranging from R18.99 a kilogramme at Pick n Pay to R28.99 per kilogramme at Woolworths (see table for the other store prices).

The prices of carrots and cabbages tell a similar story. Supermarket markups were double to triple the market prices of R5 a kilogramme for carrots and R7.50 for cabbage, coming in at R8.99 (on special at Pick n Pay) and R16.99 (Checkers) for carrots and up to R22.99 for a single cabbage at Woolworths and Checkers. And these were not even super-large cabbages.

Consumers at least get some reprieve on potato prices by being able to buy bulk 7kg pockets at supermarkets, working out at R12.85 at Checkers and R14.28 at Pick n Pay,  but this is still rings up at least 30% more expensive than the market’s R88 to R105 a kilogramme for a 10kg pocket.

It is interesting to note the shrinking pack sizes — none of the supermarkets surveyed this week sold R10kg bags. Loose potatoes set one back by R19.99 a kilogramme at Woolworths and R24.99 a kilogramme at Checkers, making this the most expensive shopping option for this staple.

On a more positive note, orange prices bucked the trend, coming in at R45 for a large pocket at the market compared with R49.99 at Checkers. 

A market agent said the market price for oranges is currently relatively high because we are nearing the close of the citrus season. Interestingly, though, a 10kg pocket of lemons was being sold for just R50 a pocket at the market this week.

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

It turned out in the end that for R280 — even spending a little more per category to get bigger vegetables or highest quality — one could buy 6kg of tomatoes (R45), a 10kg bag of potatoes (R100), 10kg of carrots (R50) and a R10kg pocket of onions (R85). Not bad value for money at all.

Granted, one has to buy in bulk at the market because there are no options for smaller packs, but this is easily overcome by splitting the cost between two or three households. Even if a portion is given to a needy household, the cost of the overall basket still works out lower than one would have paid for a smaller quantity at the supermarket.

The Durban market is open from Monday to Friday from 5am to 11am (selling closes at 10.30am) and on Saturdays from 5am to 9.30am. 

Be sure to take your identity document with you as well as cash — there is an ATM inside the fresh produce hall if you forget.

But you will need your ID to get a temporary buyer’s card to be able to buy from the market agents. 

Alternatively, the myriad informal traders outside will happily take your cash for cost-effective bulk buys of quality fruit and vegetables.

Asked to comment on the factors driving the price of fresh produce at supermarket level, only Woolworths and Shoprite Checkers responded to the M&G’s questions by the time of publication.

Woolworths said potatoes and tomatoes have been hardest hit by price increases in the past few months. 

“These crops require high irrigation, and the cost of irrigation systems becomes unaffordable when load-shedding increases because it is dependent on electricity,” the retailer said.

“We factor in the cost of production and ensure we agree on sustainable prices that support farmers while at the same time providing value to our customers.”

Shoprite Checkers said food prices are fuelled by supply and demand, seasonality, fluctuating exchange and inflation rates and supplier input costs that influence the cost price to supermarkets.

“The supermarket chain will always negotiate the best possible price for its customers, without compromising on the quality we offer. It is policy that price advantages are passed on to consumers,” it said.