Notes about shopping

Updated: 2012-01-28
Created: 2004-01-18

These notes are personal opinions about shopping, mostly in the Oxford-London (UK) area.

The reviews contained or listed in this page are usually my personal impression of the notable aspect and the overall worth of the things described rather than in depth ones.

After some wavering I have decided not to remove obsolete entries, but to mark them as such, if I notice they are obsolete and I remember to mark them. Obsolescence here means the stuff is no longer available or not at the noted price.

Shopping notes list

I used to put shopping notes into this page, but I have changed my mind as most notes become rather dated and fit better within my miscellaneous blog; I will put here brief pointers to those notes here:

Older notes:

Older shopping notes

Princes large grapefruit can (060911) obsolete
Just discovered at my local Coop supermarket that they have cans of grapefruit segments which are excellent value: £1.49 for 1.25kg (675g drained). it is a bit of a pity that they are IN LIGHT SYRUP but is is indeed light, and overall it contains 14g of sugars per 100g, which is not much higher than orange juice. The actual grapefruit segments are just about over half the contents, but the rest is in effect a grapefruit juice drink. Once opened the contents should be eaten within 3 days, but the can is not so large that is a problem.
Marks & Spencer british premium pork sausages (060615)
These are a fascinating example of the importance of reading carefully the label. The context is that most british sausages are made with relatively little meat, usually 50% or less (some with none at all). This peculiar situation has been immortalized in the popular culture, for example it is a central plot device in the popular Yes Minister comedy series:
Hacker: What have they got against our sausage?
Bernard: Don't you ever read the papers you give me?
Hacker: I glanced at it, but it rather put me off.
Bernard: Apparently, there's not enough meat in it: "The average British sausage consists of 32.5% fat, 6.5% rind, 20% water, 10% rusk, 5% seasoning, preservative and colouring and only 26% meat, which is mostly gristle, head meat, other offcuts and mechanically recovered meat... ...steamed off the carcasses."
Hacker: I don't feel particularly... I had one... I had one for breakfast.
Bernard: Perhaps the EEC commissioner is right.
Hacker: He may be, but it'll be extremely unpopular with the voters.
Some british consumers therefore have tired of semi-vegetarian (or worse) sausages, and there is therefore a market for premium sausages with meat in them. Well, these british premium pork sausages don't taste very meaty to me, and indeed the label says made with 93% british pork from selected cuts which means that any part of a swine can be an ingredient, including finely ground bones or sinews or hair or skin or whatever else.
Double checking, protein content (the leading indicator for meat content) for 100g is 14.5g, which is pretty low for meat; fat is 22g, which is somewhat lower than non-premium british sausage. The sum total of nutritional values includes also 3.5g of carbohydrate, 0.6g of fiber, and 0.6g of sodium. Total is 41.2g out of 93g. Then what is the remaining 51.8g of pork of no nutritional value?
Also, if one looks at this table of protein content for various types of meat where pork meat contains on average 27% protein, it seems to me that that perhaps these sausages may contain 93% pork, but probably only around 55% pork meat.
Great is the power of words... Food industry lawyers press ahead with dissembling and prevarication, for example I found this thoroughly amusing paper with this quote from a letter by a sausage manufacturer:
In your letter you state that "the use of an additive such as emulsifier disodium diphosphate is not in keeping with purchasers expectations for sausages described as traditional style" and as such this product should not be labelled "traditional style".
However, I refer to the Food Standards Agency "Criteria for the use of the terms fresh, pure, natural etc in food labelling" page 15, point 57 which states that "the term traditional should demonstrably be used to describe a recipe, fundamental formulation or processing method for a product that has existed for a significant period", (point 11 stating that this should be of the order of 2 generations/50 years).
With regard to this recipe, I can confirm that Country Park Foods, (formerly T.E. Newsholme Ltd) have been manufacturing sausages using the seasoning in question for over 50 years. Indeed three generations of the family are still working at this site in the capacities of Chief Executive, Directors and Managers.
Primark basic clothes (060509)
Primark specializes in cheap clothes, typically imported from eastern Asia, and they are indeed very cheap, with £2.50 polo shirts, £1.50 white t-shirts, £1.00 knitted boxer underwear and £0.40 for men's cotton socks, and £0.33 per handkerchief.
After a few weeks of use they seem all of reasonable endurance, but then I specifically chose plain simple items. I would be warier of more complicated items of clothing, especially brightly colored ones, as for these the temptation to cut corners maybe higher.
Anyhow corners have been cut even in the simple clothes, at least as to the quantity of materials. The shirts are shorter than they should be (while still barely adequate), the pockets of trousers are somewhat shallower than desirable.
Temple of Heaven green gunpowder chinese tea (050821)
Nice, good value box of loose gren tea, slightly smoky flavour (a bit like Oolong); the 125g box costs £0.80 from Oxford's nice Lung Wah Chong chinese supermarket (which I like quite a bit even if it is somewhat expensive), which also has good value bags of chinese pears for £1.00.
Green&Blacks's organic cocoa at Sainsbury's (050827)
This 125g tub contains pure cocoa powder, not chocolate powder, which contains mostly sugar and other stuff. The Sainsbury's price is £1.49, which is rather lower than most online places you can find it from. However Oxfam shops have the equivalent Divine Cocoa tubs of the same size for the same price.
I especially like it in the morning mixed in with milk. Cocoa powder mixed in with water was the traditional Aztec xocolatl (1, 2) which means bitter water, because good cocoa is bitter. But mixing it in with milk effectively hides the slightly bitter taste, which is not necessarily unpleasant anyhow.
Subscriptions to The Economist and Business Week (050815)
Subscriptions to The Economist and Business Week cost a lot less than buying the issues retail. But there are pitfalls, especially with The Economist, who try to be too clever by half, and probably succeed with most people.
For Business Week it is fairly straightforward even if the price for the UK is significantly higher than for other countries, at around £25 per year, which is however a the retail price of only six issues.
For The Economist the online subscription is to be carefully avoided, as only a one year deal is available and for £99. If one instead buys a retail copy and uses the included subscription form the one year deal is significantly cheaper, and the three year deal comes to around £165, or £55 per year.
The Economist also try to be clever with renewals, as they are significantly more expensive than subscribing from scratch again, and are yearly, so the price can be increased every year. It is much better towards the end of a subscription to buy a new retail copy, fill in the subscription form again; even a few weeks of overlap between the old and new subscription cost a lot less than the difference with a renewal.
The Economist clearly hopes that renewals, especially for non personal subscriptions, are mostly automatic and people do not check them closely, and the difficult bit is to get people to start a subscription, so that has to be priced keenly, and after that renewals are not price sensitive.
Co-op supermarket italian peach punnets (050820) obsolete
I particularly like because of quality and value Co-op's current punnet of italian peaches and usually french apricots. Both white and yellow peaches are currently available, and each punnet with at least 8 of them costs £0.99 which is quite cheap. Some of the punnets are ready-ripe, some take a few days to become riper. As to the apricots, the punnet of same size costs £1.99 which is a bit more expensive, but nice fresh apricots (mostly ripe) are usually worth it. Not always available though.
Foldable crates and plastic shelves at Argos (050331)
Argos is selling pretty good foldable boxes/crates, for £8.49 for a pack of 5 crates, and for £19.99 for a 5 tier shelf, each shelf being 38cm deep and 71cm wide. These shelves assemble very quickly without tools, and seem pretty robust (for now).
Argos also sell big fairly robust (shorter sides double walled) Fellowes cardboard boxes for £12.49 for a pack of four.
Acer AL1714 17" LCD at Office World (041122) obsolete
Occasionally big chains like OfficeWorld have well priced things, and the Acer AL1714 seems fairly decent and £199 is about as good as it gets for it, even for mail order.
PC133 SDRAM at eBuyer (040921) obsolete
Currently DDR SDRAM sticks sell for about £45 to £60 per 512MB, and presumably because there is less demand SDR SDRAM sticks sell for more. However eBuyer is selling PC133 SDR SDRAM for significantly less than that, around £28 per 512MB (and similarly for other sizes), which is not bad.
Haymans fish place in the Oxford covered market (040818)
Excellent fresh fish, and nice packaged fruit-de-mer salad, anchovies and kabanos.
Sainsbury's Extra Virgin Olive Oil, two varieties (050702) obsolete
Berio's 1.5 litre plastic bottle for £9.49, and the Casolare 1 litre glass bottle for £5.49. The Berio is smoother and sweeter, the Casolare is tastier and sharper. I quite like them both, typically for salads, but also just on bread, either toasted or untoasted, as a snack. The bread may be first rubbed with a garlic segment to do garlic bread (which is a lot better than the bizarre english variety with butter and ground garlic).
Doom III and books are cheap on (040813) obsolete
Quite surprisingly, it seems that the lowest UK prices for Doom III and Half-Life 2 can be found at Amazon, where they can be preordered (and at least for Doom3 the release date is really imminent and fairly solid) for £24.99 each, which is significantly lower than most other places. These are the pages for the two games: Doom III, Half-Life 2.
One can order both for the special price of £48.98! Now that sounds funny, but I guess they are already discounted enough.
The price for each is just a penny short of the £25 for free (but a little slower) delivery. Adding a book to cross that threshold is practically free, and I like these, even if they are not quite summer reading: The Tipping Point, Great Human Diasporas, Guns, Germs and Steel.
BTW, I haven't had a look at Amazon for a while, and it really seems that they have gone back to being a discounter. This will ensure their survival even if just as a low margin business (but presumably with relatively little capital, so high return on capital, except that they raised too much).
Sainsbury's Ricotta (040610)
This ricotta tub is not expensive at £0.86 for 250g and is quite good.
LG L1710S 17" LCD Comet (040523) obsolete
£290, and I have the L1710B (with DVI; the L1710S is analog only), and it is pretty good.
Bulk CD-R at The Computer Shop (040420) obsolete
£6 for a spindle of 25, or £17 for a spindle of 100. They have shiny metallic unmarked top.
Athlon 80mm fan+heatsink at The Computer Shop (040420) obsolete
£12 for a very nice Akasa copper case Athlon heatsink+fan with an 80mm diameter. 80mm fans are much quieter and more effective than 60mm ones. Possible problem: the fan rotates at 2500RPM, and some BIOSes have a lower threshold on power on of 3000RPM.
17" LCD Acer at The Computer Shop and Comet (040118) obsolete
Fairly good value 17" Acer, for under £300.
Sainsbury's Taste the difference mackerel (040115) obsolete
This is fairly nice and tasty, at £7/kg, compared with the nice, but not quite as nice, £6.40/kg ordinary variety in the same shop.
Cheap AA batteries at MusicWorld (0401xx) obsolete
They sell packs of 4 AA batteries for one pound or less. That's less than half than most. The packaging seems a bit dodgy, and the batteries, even if marked Duracell, may not be such. But they seem to be good. Perhaps they just buy them wholesale from Duracell and package them themselves.
Prince's reconstituted ham (040319)
This I really disliked, it seems to me that it can be called ham only by special dispensation. For what it is, and being only 61% ham the price is also very high.
Marks&Spencer's tins of Ox Tongue and Honey Roast Ham (040315)
Having long lasting tinned ox tongue and honey cured ham means never being without the meat for a sandwich or a quick meal, but the quality of the ox tongue is amazingly good and that of the honey roasted ham is also quite good. Slightly pricey, but not that expensive (less so than shrink wrapped equivalents).

On specific shops

Primark (060509)
Primark sells cheap clothes obviously imported from low cost manufacturing countries. The basic stuff is cheap and seems of sufficient quality.
It is surely a welcome sight to see such prices, because up to now most retailers have taken advantage of much cheaper wholesale costs (apparently garments from China are traded for ¢50 each irrespective of type) from globalisation to increase management salaries and sometimes company profits, without passing them on to consumers. The income of most consumers (those without protected jobs) instead has been reduced over time by globalisation.
The Computer Shop in the Westgate Shopping Centre obsolete
This is probably one of the best computer shops in the area. They tend to have a good selection of stuff, their systems are from Time Computers that tend to give good value, and the prices are quite decent. Way better value than PC World.
This shop is in the shopping park in Botley Road, a bit hidden in the back of Curry's. It's nothing special, but it is probably the best value electrical/electronic goods store in the area. Even some of the computer stuff is not too bad. Usually better prices and better stuff than Curry or PC World.
This shop is at the Kidlington roundabout, at the end of London Road. It's not too bad, and the prices are not bad either, but their selection tends to include fairly shoddy stuff (lots of Trust products for example, which I find to be often not very good).
MCM Computers
This shop is near the TESCO in Cowley Road. It's not too bad, even if prices are a bit high and their selection is a bit limited.
The Oriental Condor chinese restaurant
This is probably the best value chinese place in Oxford, and arguably the best quality too. The food is very freshly prepared and tends to have crisp, just-cooked flavours, and it seems to be popular with native chinese people.
The ambience is excellent too, and with some rather pretty murals, lots of light, simple and enjoyable, service is very good despite some occasional languag eproblems with the staff. prices are fairly low too, a pretty good meal can be less than £10.
The Pizza Express
The Pizza Express in the Golden Bow shopping area has rather good, thin and low, italian-style pizza (these notes are written by an Italian). The ambience is very pretty, as it is a 17th century building, tastefully and simply furnished, and prices are not too high either.
Caffe` Uno
Astonishingly, the Caffe` Uno italian restauran in George St. is not too bad. The italian dishes are done pretty well (an italian is writing this note). As usual, tend to avoid creamy recipes, that's not like most italian food (fettuccine Alfredo are fake).

Bizarre supermarket deals

Check the weight
Often supermarkets try to sell items by unit when they are obviously traded by weight, for example apples. As a rule, the price by unit is way higher than that by weight, when the latter is available too.
Packaged food is (usually) more expensive
As a rule, food which is packaged in any way is more expensive and lower quality than the same product sold loose. For example apples in a plastic bag tend to be less entincing and cost about 20% more than the same type of apples taken from a chest and put in a plastic bag by a customer. Shops seem to reckon that people that buy a bag of stuff will not check the weight/price and the quality of the individual items like they would do when buying the same product loose.
This applies to fruit and vegetables, but also, and in much greater measure to delicatessen. Sliced ham or whatever in bags usually costs a lot more (typically twice) than the equivalent product sold by the delicatessen counter.
Check the location
Usually shops will place product so that the more profitable ones will be nearer the entrance. For example, for orange juice, immediately after the door one can find little bottles of refrigerated juice that might cost £7/l, then further on some larged bottles of refrigerated juice for £4.50/l, then further on again cartons of non refrigerated juice for £1.20/l, and then half hidden in a corner cartons of value juice for £0.33/l.
Fish oil capsules
I had just bought a couple of bags of Taste the difference mackerel; apart from being quite tasty and easy to eat, for example in sandwiches, mackerel contains omega-3 oils that are quite fashionable. The price for 100g of mackerel is £0.70, and 100g contain about 6g of omega-3 oils.
Well, further on in the chemist shelf there were fish oil capsules from Seven Seas, each of which contains 0.200g of omega-3 oil; price is £4.50 for 60 of them, about 12g. Do the math, and enjoy your free mackerel ;->.

Nice online computer shops

The stuff in the DABS value section is usually quite good and very cheap. As a web site it is particularly well done and simple, without using stupid HTML/JS tricks, and good search options, and good account management.
Almost as good as DABS overall. But the web site is not as well done, using some stupid HTML/JS tricks, and annoying search options.
CCL Computers
Nice Yorkshire mail order, with a limited selection, but with good items and good prices, and good service.
They sell mostly memory, both RAM sticks and flash card, the prices and quality are good. They also sell a very limited range of video cards, currently all ATI based, for good prices.
Not particularly cheap, but good site, and sometimes they have hard to find stuff, and they have DVD/video stuff that computer shops often don't have.
They have a particularly well organized web site, and a good selection of some rarely found stuff, for example Geil memory.
Fairly cheap, fairly good selection, sometimes good bargains, good site organization.

On specific product types

5"/8cm DVD-R and DVD-RW (050331)
Mini DVD-R and DVD-RW are fairly difficult to find, but they are really rather useful as they hold 1.4GB, this allowing one to put a full GNU/Linux LiveCD such as Knoppix in a pocketable format. Unfortunately some of the prices are ridiculously high. From the UK:
  • BlankDiscShop has DataWrites for £0.85 each.
  • has Maxell DVD-R at £7 each.
  • has Maxell DVD-R at £8 each.
  • Argos astonishingly has rather expensive packs of three of two very rare items:
    • Single sided 5"/8cm DVD-RW.
    • Double sided 5"/8cm DVD-RW.
    That's right rewritable and double sided, each side with a 1.3GB capacity. The price is the same for either single or double sided, £19.99 for three.
  • I have also found both 5"/8cm DVD-R and DVD-RW at the BCF computer fair on Saturdays in London where I was happy to find a tub of 25 5"/8cm DVD-R for rather less extortionate prices than the individually packaged ones, and a reasonably cheap box of same size DVD-RWs.