For most Singaporeans, picking up groceries from the nearby NTUC FairPrice outlet is as commonplace as popping over to the Singapore Pools to buy 4D — it’s practically a national institution.
But being a Giant and Cold Storage type of girl (yes, I am the proud owner of a PAssion Card), I’ve managed to avoid going there for almost a decade.
… Which is why I got a huge shock when I casually dropped by my neighbourhood NTUC FairPrice the other day.
A quick walk down the aisles revealed more brands of Japanese short grain rice than I could count. The freezers were stocked with gourmet ice cream, while the produce section had bunches of fresh basil and thyme.
There was a deli counter and multiple aisles devoted to Korean, Western and Japanese groceries. And is that charcuterie?! Good lord.
Erm… Isn’t NTUC FairPrice supposed to be for the poor?
I always had the impression that NTUC FairPrice would stock mainly basic essentials like rice and oil and infant formula, being a sort social enterprise / co-op kind of business.
Just to check that I’m not crazy, I went to see what their official website says:
“NTUC Fairprice Co-operative Ltd was founded by the labour movement in 1973, with a social mission to moderate the cost of living in Singapore.”
See? I’m not nuts.
In the decades since, Singaporeans’ appetite for gourmet food and international groceries have grown, and from a business standpoint, they are well within rights to stock their aisles with high SES stuff.
In fact, their corporate story acknowledges this:
“Today, with our multiple retail formats serving the varied needs and interests of people from all walks of life, we are keeping pace with the changing needs of customers while remaining committed to our social mission”
So yup, NTUC FairPrice still markets itself as a social enterprise now, and its mission remains the same.
How does NTUC FairPrice “moderate the cost of living in Singapore” today?
Certainly not with gluten-free quinoa patties…
But even their regular groceries such as canned food and produce aren’t all that cheap. Although prices for most most everyday branded products are about on par with that of Sheng Siong and Giant, NTUC FairPrice tends to lose out to heartland stores like Ang Mo Supermarket and U Stars.
So how does it actually carry out its “social mission”?
According to the (very pro-NTUC) website Unscrambled.sg, NTUC FairPrice never intended to be the cheapest supermarket around, but it helps with the cost of living by selling affordable housebrand products.
Indeed, NTUC FairPrice made some waves earlier this year by announcing that they’re freezing the prices of 100 housebrand products for over a year.
So it does seem like housebrand products are NTUC’s secret weapon for keeping grocery prices low for the everyday Singaporean.
The Unscrambled.sg article concludes with this line:
“In other words, things you see in FairPrice may not necessarily be the cheapest, but if you search for daily essential products under the Housebrand, then yes, they are cheaper than those in the market.”
… I can’t resist a challenge like that.
Are NTUC FairPrice housebrand products really cheaper?
First, let me start by saying I fully believed Unscrambled.sg’s assertion that NTUC’s housebrand groceries are the cheapest on the market. If it’s published on the internet, it can’t possibly be untrue, right?
But being a “data scientist”, I needed to test the assumption.
So I filled my virtual shopping cart on FairPrice online with 18 housebrand products. They really have a LOT of housebrand stuff — I think it’s the most I’ve ever seen from any supermarket! — but I tried to stick to the basic necessities.
Then I went to the Giant, Sheng Siong, Cold Storage, RedMart and OpenTaste websites to check if I could find any cheaper substitutes for the NTUC FairPrice housebrand product.
Here are my findings:
|Item||NTUC FairPrice||Competitor||Price difference*|
|Ice cream 2L||$5.75||$4.60 for 1.5L (Nestle at Giant)||-$0.38|
|Tofu 300g||$0.75||$0.80 (Unicurd at Sheng Siong)||-$0.05|
|Sliced bread 500g||$1.25||$1.15 (Giant housebrand)||+$0.10|
|Vegetable oil 1L||$2.65||$2.45 (Sheng Siong housebrand)||+$0.20|
|Sugar 1kg||$1.35||$1.15 (Sheng Siong housebrand)||+$0.20|
|Toilet paper 30pcs||$5.15||$4.95 (Giant housebrand)||+$0.20|
|Kopi-O bags 30pcs||$3.95||$2.45 for 20pcs (Coffee Hock at Sheng Siong)||+$0.27|
|Eggs 10pcs||$1.80||$1.45 (Sheng Siong housebrand)||+$0.35|
|Frozen fries 1kg||$3.35||$2.95 (Golden Phoenix at Sheng Siong)||+$0.40|
|Tuna 185g||$2.10||$1.70 (Giant housebrand)||+$0.40|
|Fresh milk 1L||$2.95||$2.50 (Fleurieu on OpenTaste)||+$0.45|
|Spaghetti 500g||$1.95||$1.50 (Balducci on RedMart)||+$0.45|
|Disinfectant 2L||$3.95||$3.45 (Giant housebrand)||+$0.50|
|Luncheon meat 340g||$3.40||$2.85 (Ma Ling at Cold Storage)||+$0.55|
|Sliced cheese 250g||$4.15||$3.50 (Devondale on OpenTaste)||+$0.65|
|Kaya 250g||$2.50||$1.50 for 220g (Giant housebrand)||+$0.70|
|Jasmine rice 5kg||$8.20||$7.30 (Giant housebrand)||+$0.90|
|Liquid detergent 4.4kg||$8.55||$7.50 (Leo Green at Sheng Siong)||+$1.05|
*Price difference is weighted to account for different packaged sizes. For example, NTUC FairPrice coffee is sold in a pack of 30 while Coffee Hock’s is 20 pieces. I divided the cost of Coffee Hock by 20 and multiplied by 30.
Lo and behold, I was able to find a cheaper alternative to NTUC FairPrice housebrand in 16 out of 18 cases, or 88% of the time.
In most cases, NTUC’s housebrand was beaten by either the Giant or Sheng Siong (All For You) housebrand, which isn’t surprising since both are popularly regarded as below NTUC FairPrice in the Singapore supermarket hierarchy.
But I was legit shocked that more atas online retailers like RedMart and OpenTaste were able to beat NTUC FairPrice’s housebrand in some cases.
Aiyah, a few cents’ difference only what!
True. Although I was a little surprised by the results, my little survey of NTUC housebrand prices is not exactly damning, because the fact remains that the prices are still very, very affordable.
You might have to pay a few cents more at NTUC for the same generic product than, say, Giant, but many Singaporeans believe that NTUC has better quality control.
But personally, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference in the quality of things like salt and sugar, so if I were really watching my budget, I’d rather shop at Giant. (I did have some really good FairPrice housebrand brown rice the other day though.)
But there was something else that bothered me…
I started this mini-study of FairPrice products from a pure price-centric point of view, but while researching the multitude of NTUC FairPrice housebrand offerings, I couldn’t help but notice something odd in their packaging design.
Some of NTUC FairPrice housebrand products are packaged way too similarly to the original branded product to be coincidental.
Here are a few examples of these creepy doppelgangers:
You be the judge of whether these packaging design choices were “accidental”. By the way, this one is my favourite:
So? What’s the problem here?
You might think I’m purely nitpicking here if you’ve never shopped at other supermarket chains’ for their housebrands.
But to me, this is what a housebrand should look like:
Or this. Notice the consistent design aesthetic here?
The point is, when I’m buying a supermarket’s housebrand… I want to know that I’m buying housebrand!
Making your germicide look as Dettol-like as possible may translate into better sales, but it’s not very ethical. First, it seems like a dick move to the more established brands by undercutting them with “dupe” housebrand products. But more importantly, it could also fool shoppers who are in a rush.
I was totally prepared to be swayed by the reasonable housebrand prices, but it’s very difficult to support FairPrice’s practice of copying the established brand’s design. Yes, they may have “fair prices”, but they also should play fair in every other aspect, right?
Would you support NTUC FairPrice’s housebrand? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.
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