Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Before Rachel Nixon goes to the supermarket, she sketches a quick shopping list in her head. In the garage she usually has a sack of potatoes, and meat, green veg and bread in the freezer. For the bits in between, she will head either to her local, membership-only brand discounter, the Company Shop in Barnsley, or to a mainstream supermarket such as Aldi. “Today I’m going with a £50 budget to feed five of us – £10 a day, £2 per person per meal. I’ll go home and look at what I’ve got in the freezer, check the rice, pasta. It’s make do and mend.”

Unlike other shoppers, Nixon has a press pass, because when she’s filling her basket, she will also be filming a TikTok on her phone, and the Company Shop management requires permission. Her content, which “began as a joke”, follows her around the aisles, scrutinising produce and bargains against the biggest question at any supermarket in 2023: how can this cost this much? At many mainstream shops, Nixon says: “A £50 shop is now an £80 shop. People in the middle are floundering around.”

Inflation is something everyone has noticed – even Cardi B went online to decry the price of American lettuce – but not everyone feels the impact at the checkout. If you are experiencing the pinch, TikTok’s intuitive “For You” page will be a disjointed research trip to the country’s supermarkets, trailing behind the trolley in the company of total strangers who share information that used to be a stable and private part of our lives – what we spend on food.

“Come shopping with me at Lidl.” “Realistic food haul from Aldi.” “£58 shop at M&S.” “FarmFoods underrated gems.” The scroll goes deep into the massive digital gumbo of TikTok, where the simple act of spending and saving money at the supermarket has dug a deep content stream – in global lifetime counts, #shopwithme has amassed 3.9bn views and #costofliving 1.5bn views, according to figures from TikTok, which is owned by the ByteDance company, headquartered in China.

With these shoppers, you watch as they pick out a weekly food shop, formulating a guess for the receipt reveal at the end. You’ll hear a soundtrack of trolley rattles and packaging rustling off the shelves as someone you’ll never meet explains they’re not buying gravy this week (there’s some in the freezer), and they won’t be picking up bread because they’re gluten-free and Pete who does eat bread is on a work trip.

The receipt reveal has become a grimly unpredictable game, since inflation has been repricing foodstuffs at the fastest rate since 1977 and in lurid proportions, particularly for lower-priced items such as pasta, tea and bread. Of course, as Nixon says: “It’s not just food. The cost of gas, electric, breathing – everything has gone up. When will something give? We all have households to run.”

The government’s official figures saw food inflation rise to 18.2% in the year to January 2023, based on about 200 items in a representative basket. Other bodies such as the Food Foundation use a different basket of goods, and put food inflation higher. I’ve seen TikTokers joke about taking out a mortgage to buy butter, but generally speaking the social undertow of the videos is far from funny.

The unwritten template for the #shopwithme videos is based on honesty: what’s going in the basket and why, and how much it costs. Honesty, but also disbelief.

Jayne, a twentysomething teacher, describes her area of Cambridgeshire as relatively affluent, and with two incomes and no dependents in her household, she and her partner can afford a £300 monthly food budget, which they direct mostly to M&S Foodhalls. “M&S is quite small, so I get less distracted. Tesco has clothing, candles, I don’t think I’d be as disciplined. I just stick to my list.” This became the focus of her TikTok account, almost entirely a run of her routine supermarket shops at M&S.

“There isn’t a place [like TikTok] where people are sharing such an intimate part of their life. I’ve seen videos on what it costs to run a two-bed household in Wiltshire – there’s a natural curiosity from people, and if you’re willing to share parts of your life, it takes away from the unrealistic glamour of social media. I can’t believe how much people are interested in what’s going into the basket. I never expected the videos to do well,” says Jayne.

Supermarket shopping TikToks
The simple act of spending and saving money at the supermarket has dug a deep content stream. Illustration: Philip Lay

This curiosity seems to be a consequence of missing information: though the internet may tell us the average person spends about £40 a week on food, that doesn’t seem right – or to put it another way, it feels as though the average figure is lying to us. When an industrial park can make neighbours of supermarkets that are miles apart in cost and branding, it begins to seem like there is no point to an average figure, when differences between prices are also cultural distances.

“It costs a bomb to live in London,” says Nishat Tahsin, a biotech/bioengineering doctoral student who joined TikTok during lockdown, and now has more than 200,000 followers. Her content is about cooking imaginatively on a budget (think butter chicken puff pastry pie, or Bangladeshi satni citrus salad), but also organising grocery shopping habits.

“I never used to have a food budget, but now it’s more expensive to live I always make a plan at the weekend for what I’m doing during the week. Loads of students prioritise study, then food later. I look at what I have in the freezer, then the costs that would come with it to make a meal.”

At the beginning of each term, she bulk buys starches and bakery goods, adding fresh foods along the way in smaller shops, and heading to Asian or African markets for spices by the kilo. “I can do a weekly shop for under £20. A whole chicken for £3, go splits with flatmates on potatoes and onions, buy bread, cheese, milk, maybe a bit of nutmeg. But that’s because I buy essentials every few months.”

For the freezer, she flat-packs meat portions and fish fillets, and grates up cheese blocks so high-value protein is never wasted. Tahsin isn’t like her friends in this regard – she notes how many students have been buying toilet paper on TikTok (bales of 60 rolls for as little as £18), and “they’re buying things left, right and centre on TikTok Shop. They don’t want to spend the time and money at Asda.”

TikTok itself has inverted the surface logic of spontaneous buying on the platform by investing in a campaign around its library of money-saving tips. And brands that approach Tahsin also want a part of the problem. “Every time I do a brand deal they mention their new USP would be combating the cost of living crisis.”

Over time, I noticed a lot of people on TikTok name-checking specific brands, and began to wonder if campaign spend was behind it. M&S Foodhalls, for example, is getting traction on a “this is surprisingly affordable” theme on #shopwithme TikTok. The brand confirmed all the content is organic and not paid for, but says it has noticed a “huge surge” of it in recent months. Even an official Waitrose TikTok account gamely had a go at joining the £20-a-week family shop trend. The question is, does this help anyone?

Dr Sinéad Furey is a lecturer in consumer management and food innovation at Ulster University, focused on food insecurity. “There is no substitute for food,” she says bluntly. “But we are still talking about not knowing where the next meal comes from. For every one of us who goes to a food bank, there are nine of us who don’t. Stigma, pride, whatever. Food insecurity isn’t acute; it is chronic.”

For her research, she followed a cohort of 60 shoppers and analysed their supermarket habits. “There’s a huge reliance on shopping lists to frame or curtail your spend,” she says. “There is nobody better than those in lower-income households at micromanaging budgets. They know the price of a pint of milk across different stores and they know when the yellow stickers go on. It annoys me that there’s a presumption that lower-income consumers are bad with their money.”

TikTok is one of the few sources of a public, open conversation about how far money goes across different sections of society.
TikTok is one of the few sources of a public, open conversation about how far money goes across different sections of society. Illustration: Philip Lay

Shona Goudie at the Food Foundation leads the organisation’s Basic Basket programme, which has been tracking food prices based on baskets of goods at Tesco, as developed by Loughborough University and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for male and female archetypal shoppers.

“The government looks at food price inflation but we don’t feel it reflects what people are really buying, or the nutrition factor. We started tracking prices a year ago, and it’s increased 22% in that period.”

Mitch Lane is a nuts and bolts salesman who lives near Walsall, in the West Midlands. Like Tahsin, he joined TikTok during lockdown, at the request of his daughter: “She wanted another follower,” he says. “I was mostly doing the dad dances and press-up challenges. But one day I was cooking up a chilli con carne and [the video] went really well. I started to do “fakeaways” – how to make your own Nando’s, burgers. Simple stuff, one-pan meals.” This developed into a budget-conscious series of cookery ideas, under the moniker “Meals by Mitch”, with the shopping receipt under £5 shown first, and the method to follow. “As the cost of living developed into an absolute joke, I kept seeing budget meals where people drizzled balsamic vinegar from their pantry. I don’t have a pantry. I wanted to do everything for a flat fiver.”

Lane has picked up 1.2m followers and a book deal, and he is certain that “the cost of living has propelled it”. Other TikTokers who share photogenic techniques for prepping breakfast, lunch and dinner into neat ranks of Tupperware boxes or elongating the lifespan of lemons in jars of fridge water have also enjoyed success. But Lane wants to keep things grounded in reality. “I’ve lived on a budget most of my life. It’s not new to me. If I walked into a supermarket with a fiver, I used to get more. The budget meals are getting harder, whether it’s the price per kilo for veggies or the pasta and dried foods. People are finding it tough.”

Fraser Reynolds, a personal trainer based near Stirling, Scotland, started filming calorie-minded food TikToks from his mother’s “tiny council house kitchen – no gadgets”. This morphed into a recipe series he describes as “the poor man’s Joe Wicks”, with a popular stream of “12 meals for 20 quid”. However, he’s had to rethink this, “because I cannot keep it under the price. In the past three months I’ve struggled putting it together because to keep it under £20 I’m going to give you the main ingredients and assume you have the spices already at home.”

Though TikTok is worryingly good at distracting attention with dogs pressing doorbells or Wisconsin grandmothers dispensing life wisdom, it is arguably one of the few sources of a public, open conversation about how far money goes across different sections of society. Not what it looks like, aspirationally, but what it looks like literally, with a weekly shop spread out on the kitchen countertop.

“If people are showing the receipts and what they’ve bought, it definitely helps,” Lane says. “It’s good for people to see that if you write a list and stick to the brief, and are not dashing stuff into the trolley, and you base a shop around it, it’s a guaranteed money saver.”

Does being on TikTok as a creator bring anything extra to the table? “TikTok – there ain’t really any money in it,” Lane says. “We’re talking such a minimal amount per view. I get £150 a month off it, something like that. You couldn’t live off it.” Nixon says she receives, as a “relative minnow” with 27,000 followers, about 12p a day from TikTok.

Meanwhile, Tahsin has been thinking about “selling seasoning for cheaper than a supermarket on TikTok Shop”. For her, the platform is a creative and relatively kind place.

“I get a lot of diversity in my comments. In the UK our generation is really open to trying anything. I get requests for oxtail Jamaican curry, or Turkish kebabs. A lot of British people will want to know how to make samosas. It’s nice that people are less critical on TikTok. People will eat anything when they’re hungry.”

This article was amended on 19 April 2023. An earlier version suggested Walsall was in Birmingham. While it is close to that city, Walsall is a separate town and borough in the West Midlands.


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