/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Order sausage rolls, get Pampers

Question marks on plate

Are you an online grocery shopper? If you are then you’ll probably be familiar with substitutions. So have you suffered from any strange shopping swaps?

I used to be a regular online supermarket shopper, and it turns out it’s becoming popular for weekly shops. Our recent survey found that some 45% of shoppers now do their grocery shop online.

I opted for an online shop after finding carting all my shopping back to my flat a real pain. However, I soon realised that online shopping could be equally painful… as I always had a few substitutions.

The final straw came when in one order I had an entire box of eggs smashed, leaking milk and a spice called asafoetida, which the supermarket naturally assumed was an appropriate substitution for cinnamon.

Supermarket substitutions

To this day I haven’t used my asafoetida, and I’m not all that sure it would beat cinnamon on top of my porridge. I suppose swapping one spice for another isn’t all that strange when you compare it to some of the stories we’ve been hearing from you.

Last year we reported on the odd substitutions you’d had, with Steve telling us about his rather useless delivery:

And it would seem that supermarket substitutions are getting stranger based on the latest set of swaps Which? members have shared with us.

Latest supermarket substitutions

Pampers and sausage rollsWe heard from one member who had received nappies instead of a pack of four sausage rolls – of course.

Another member was delivered toilet roll when they’d ordered Bolognese sauce. And astonishingly someone else had a box of Tampax delivered instead of lettuce. Seems perfectly logical, don’t you think?

Now, what would you do if you were planning on a nice Sunday roast chicken and the supermarket proudly delivered you a packet of chicken crisps? Yes, this was also on our list of odd substitutions. Last time I consulted my Jamie Oliver Sunday Roast recipe it definitely didn’t incorporate any chicken crisps, although a Heston Blumenthal recipe might.

Curiouser and curiouser

Understandably substitutions can’t always be avoided. But I’m not too sure I can identify a logical thought process for some of the above.

Before I completely moved on from online grocery shopping, I did find a hidden section on the ordering page which allowed me to specifically nominate my substitution preferences. But the process was so laborious that it was more effort than it was worth. So I’ll stick to a weekly visit to my local supermarket.

Now I’m curious, have you had any strange supermarket substitution in your online shop?


It would help if the websites told you whether the product you ordered was in stock. Ocado is quite good at this and items are very rarely missing. They also tell you at the door if an item has been replaced and ask if you want it. It will be a sad day if Amazon take them over.

Problems arise when the order is collated in an actual supermarket rather than a warehouse. The websites need an easier method of telling them what you want if the product is not in stock not bury it away somewhere. I think it is Asda who list your order and you specify against each item what you would like to do if your product is not available. So if one of a special offer of 3 is unavailable you can tell them to give you one of the others you have ordered instead. Does help in not getting silly replacements.

Doesn’t help when you are relying on products to arrive though so you do need a plan B just in case.

I used to order online for my elderly mother to save her carrying heavy and bulky items. It did not matter that some things were not in stock because she could collect them and anything else she needed. I live less than a mile from a supermarket and have never considered it worthwhile ordering online. Apart from the problems Alfa mentions, you have to be at home for the delivery. I’m hoping to move home soon and will no longer have a supermarket on the doorstep, so online shopping is likely to be more appealing.

We use Sainsbury’s and occasionally Waitrose for deliveries and have never had any difficulty in ruling out substitutions either entirely or product by product. There is very rarely an unavailability problem – I assume that the ordering site is interlinked with the despatching store to ensure the products listed are available. Obviously if the order is placed several days before delivery is specified there is a risk that an item will go out of stock, but you can review the order and add to it or amend it up to 23:30 on the day before delivery.

I assume that the substitutions for out-of-stock items are done by the ordering system according to some abstruse algorithm and then loaded onto the pickers’ hand-held devices. The picker has no idea that the customer wanted something different, and no one (surely?) would walk halfway round the store to pick a pack of Tampax as a substitute for a lettuce.

We also use Sainsbury’s although we were for many years a 1/2 mile outside their delivery limit
We get the occasional substitute but it’s usually pretty close to the spec of what we wanted
If not reach it back to the driver
I cannot speak for every store but our daughters man is a driver amongst various other things he’s trained to do in there and its not a sophisticated method used for the picking. . Pickers simply go and pick. . It’s done in store not in some remote warehouse here anyhow
Regular the handheld thingy will say stock when there is non and most of the time there is new stock out the back but occasionally the stock has disappeared but there is a time lag between the shelf and the checkout and I’m told that usually within a half hour the item will go out of stock on the system
The son on law also does stock checks and says that if they were not done continually the place could not operate, , Shoplifters, , but all are not caught obviously so they end up endlessly with slight shortages
He says its very seldom that there are any serious amounts of missing items

If I order four items that are on special offer of 4 for the price of 3, and one of the items is not in stock, then I don’t want to buy any of the other three items either. I would instead wait till next week and take advantage of the offer when all items are in stock. However, while it is possible to refuse a substitution, it is not possible to refuse linked items. This is one of the reasons I prefer to shop in person.

That is a good point Clint. It’s a bit more complicated if the offer involves the customer choosing which of several alternative items they want included in their delivery but if the retailer cannot fulfill an offer as specified it should be withdrawn from the website or the unavailable product should be removed from the offer. The companies create these complications – they need to have systems in place to support them.

Asafoetida!!! I can only conclude Lauren you have not opened the packet. It is pretty powerful and fully revolting. Definitely not for porridge or for that matter most food.
“The English name is derived from asa, a Latinized form of Farsi azā, meaning “resin”, and Latin foetidus meaning “smelling, fetid”, which refers to its strong sulfurous odour.”

Indeed. Foetid or fetid in a name would be enough to put me off.

I’m intrigued to learn what the market is for this seemingly repugnant product.

I have a feeling that the herbs and spices gantries in supermarkets are filled and serviced by the distributors and not necessarily the store staff so all sorts of unusual victuals might lurk there to tempt the local epicures. Still, an odd selection by the picker.

Curries and other things. My wife has used it but really not worth the candle. Apparently attractive to wolves according to Wikipedia , in fact the article is quite amusing.

Some ‘rancid’ food is good as a background flavour – just think about fish sauce in Asian food. Horrible by itself, adds depth in a dish.

Do check that it has not reached the ‘Worst Before’ date. 🙂

I am even more intrigued that anyone should want to substitute anything else for garlic or onion – both of which are much more easily sourced than asafoetida.

Living in the middle of nowhere we’re lucky to have the big four – Sainsbury, Tesco, Waitrose and Asda – all competing with deliveries. We used to use Tesco, since it was the only option, but we both felt their attitude towards customers deteriorated, so we stopped using them and have recently added Asda to our list.

Asda remain the cheapest for branded items: they’ve never done a substitution. Sainsbury are good, but sometimes a sub appears. Waitrose – probably because it operates out of a tiny store in Menai Bridge – always has subs, but their delivery folk are simply outstanding. And the food quality is superb.

Asda has the second best website, with Sainsbury just pipping it to the post. What we both like, however, is the Asda Price Guarantee, whereby you ask them to check your shopping after delivery and most of the time you get a few pounds back as a refund.

Out here, online grocery delivery is a must. Only Rockall is more difficult to reach…


Another crackin’ case of online supermarket’s getting substitutes completely wrong…

At least it contains eggs. 🙂

Good for Tesco. Saves the twins from sugar and gives them a healthy treat instead. 🙁

Very true Malcolm – There’s nothing more healthy than a salad for Easter!

Personally, I prefer not to online food shop. Luckily, there’s nearly every main supermarket chain within a 2 mile radius of my house, so easier to drive! And if I must, I’d never buy fresh food online, because it’s all about picking which cut of meat or which vegetables look the freshest. 🙂

Hope you all had an excellent Easter weekend, though. Not long until the next Bank Holiday!

Now Easter is out of the way, how soon before the supermarkets start preparing us for Christmas? Any bets on the starting date?

I think it all starts about 20 weeks beforehand with savings cards, so round about the first of August I suppose. The stock usually starts moving on the first of October but there’s also Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night to fit in.

I saw some Christmas lights on sale in Homebase a week or so ago but I expect that was a stock clearance.

Perhaps order a Christmas cake and get a Simnel cake instead. 🙂

If my memory serves me, I swear I saw some retailers with Christmas stock as early as August, previously. *sigh*