Website for Comparing Grocery Prices Launches in Iceland

Verðgáttin

A new website where consumers can compare the prices of food items in three major grocery chains in Iceland has officially launched. The website features around 80 food staples and prices are updated daily. RÚV reported first.

Verðgáttin, as the website is called, shows the prices of products at three major grocery chains: Bónus, Krónan, and Nettó. Products include basics such as butter, bread, vegetables, fruit, and meat products where each brand is compared across all three chains. A browse through the prices reveals that for many products, the difference is no greater than a single króna: cream, for example, costs ISK 709 at Bónus but ISK 710 at Krónan and Nettó. The difference is more dramatic for a loaf of bread from the producer Mylla, however, sold at ISK 455 in Bónus but ISK 556 at both Krónan and Nettó. Grocery stores submit prices to the website daily, meaning that consumers will also be able to see the price changes over time.

While inflation measured 10.2% in Iceland over the past year, the price of many food staples has risen at higher rates. The price of dairy products, for example, rose 16% over the past year.  On Monday, the government of Iceland introduced a series of measures to fight inflation, a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes, as well as reducing the salary increases of senior government officials.

The website is part of an agreement between businesses and the Icelandic Centre for Retail Studies (Rannsóknarsetur Verslunarinnar, or RSV) to closely monitor the development of the price of essential consumer goods and was partially funded by the Ministry of Culture and Trade.

Widespread Iodine Deficiency as Diets Change with Times

Fish Shop Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir

Icelanders have stopped consuming the large quantities of fish and milk that they used to, leading to widespread iodine deficiencies. RÚV reports that the situation has nutritionists concerned, as iodine deficiencies in pregnant people can lead to developmental delays in children.

Both fish and dairy are integral sources of iodine for people in industrialized countries. Nutritionists stress the importance of iodine intake during pregnancy, as children who do not receive enough iodine during this time tend to score low on developmental scales. In some countries, iodine-fortified salt is used in the production of baked goods as a way of introducing iodine into a wider diet when fish and milk consumption is low. This is an option that is currently under consideration in Iceland, but could create its own problems. If iodine was introduced into baked goods and breads, for instance, young children would be at risk of ingesting too much.

A brief history of the modern Icelandic diet

The typical Icelandic diet was first examined in 1939, when Professor Júlíus Sigurjónsson concluded that where people lived naturally had a significant effect on what they consumed. At the time, Júlíus found that Icelanders who lived close to the sea tended to eat a great deal of fish, while those who lived inland tended to drink large quantities of milk.

No further studies on the Icelandic diet were conducted until just over half a century later, in 1990. By that point, Icelanders’ lifestyle had undergone incredible change and their diets attested to that. Nearly all of the energy Icelanders consumed in the 90s came from protein and fat, with the average Icelander consuming roughly half a kilo [2.2 lbs] of dairy and four slices of bread a day. Water was only the fourth most-consumed beverage in the country, after coffee (an average of four cups a day), milk, and sugary soft drinks. Cholesterol was high and coronary artery disease was common. But at the same time, Icelanders ate the most fish of any nation in Europe, proportionally speaking.

2002 – 2010

A study in 2002 revealed more dramatic dietary shifts. By that point, fish, milk, and potatoes had been replaced by vegetables, cereal, and pasta in the diet of most Icelanders. The nation had also developed a taste for pork and chicken, neither of which had been consumed in great quantity in the past. Young boys no longer drank half a litre soda every day, but a full litre.

By 2010, however, it seemed Icelandic dietary habits were moving in the right direction. People were eating more fruit, vegetables, unprocessed bread and fish oil. Protein drinks became a major source of protein. Sugary soda consumption went down, although consumption of sugar-free soda remained high. Milk consumption went down.

2019 – 2021

The most recent survey, conducted over the years 2019 – 2021, found that fruit consumption is down among Icelanders, while consumption of saturated fat is on the rise. The Directorate of Health advises that people should only get a maximum of 10% of their energy from saturated fat, but according to this study, only 2% of Icelanders abide by that advice. Wholegrain bread has only recently become widely available in the country. Nutritionists say that Icelanders now have the opportunity to increase their consumption of not only whole grains, but also beans, nuts, and seeds. Low fibre intake is a broad cause for concern.

“If we look at what is causing most premature deaths around the world, a lack of fibre is one of the things that makes the biggest difference,” remarked Jóhanna Eyrún Torfadóttir, a nutritionist with the Directorate of Health. “Lack of fibre is causing premature death.” If the pattern of high consumption of saturated fat, low consumption of fibre continues, says Jóhanna Eyrún, there will be an increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: “[O]ur biggest, long-term illnesses that are causing the most deaths.”

Icelandic diets are more diverse than ever

Today, Icelandic diets are far more diverse than they were in the past. More Icelanders are vegans and vegetarians, and more people are on low-carb and other special diets. This has made it difficult for the Directorate of Health to issue broad nutritional advisories like it once did.

In general, however, the Directorate has simple advice: Each a varied diet of moderate portions. People are advised to eat lots of vegetables and fruits, more whole than processed grains, fish two to three times a week, and meat in moderation. Low-fat dairy products and soft fats are preferable over saturated fats. Salt and sugar should be consumed in moderation and vitamin D is important.

Bónus Lengthens Opening Hours, Gives Mascot Controversial Makeover

As of Friday, Bónus will have longer opening hours. Vísir reports that the extension was announced to customers at the same time that the discount grocery chain unveiled that its mascot, the iconic Bónus pig—an off-kilter, droopy-eyed swine that appeared to be recovering from a hard night out—had undergone a makeover. But while the later shopping hours will undoubtedly be welcomed, not all locals are equally enthused about the popular porker’s facelift.

Bónus CEO Guðmundur Marteinsson says the chain extended its hours in response to calls from consumers. “This is the complaint we receive most often,” he explained. “But we’re cost-conservative and opening hours are part of the cost. But by keeping the opening hours within reasonable limits—we’re not extending them by much—we believe we can implement this without increasing the cost too much. Prices won’t change because of this adjustment.”

Previously, Bónus closed at 6:30 pm. From now on, however, seven Bónus locations will be open until 8:00 pm every day: in the capital area, Smáratorg, Skeifan, Spöngin, Fiskislóð, and Mosfellsbær, as well as Helluhraun in Hafnarfjörður and Langholt in Akureyri. The remaining locations will be open until 7:00 pm. In addition, Bónus will open an hour earlier on Sundays, or 10:00 am.

‘He was always a bit cockeyed’

The original Bónus mascot, via Facebook

Remarking on the controversial mascot transformation, Guðmundur said, “We’ve just streamlined him a little—it isn’t that big a change. We took out one or two lines that it’s always looked like we forgot to erase when he was initially designed,” he continued, pointing to a crinkle on the Bónus pig’s nose and an extra line on his back.

More dramatic, however, is the adjustment of the pig’s left eye. “He was always a bit cockeyed,” Guðmundur said. “But as I see it, this is part of our evolution.”

The brand’s font has also been adjusted, moving from a blocky serif font to a cleaner sans serif.

‘Long live the Bónus pig!’

Change does not always come easy, though, and some locals took to social media to mourn the mascot.

“What kind of sick joke is this?” wrote Hrafn Jónsson on Facebook. “You take one of the most iconic pigs of all time and mess with it? […] What kind of personality-less impostor is this?”

“Why can’t *anything* be left alone in this country?” tweeted @siggiodds. “What is the point/goal? Take the nuance, the history, and the humor away so you’re left with just an empty, generic shell?”

Rex Beckett

The transformation has also already inspired several memes. “Long live the Bónus pig!” proclaimed Rex Beckett on Facebook, screen-capping the messages she sent directly to the company. “I just wanted to say that I am extremely sad about the decision to change the Bónus Piggy’s look,” she wrote. “He was a delightful little weirdo with such a fun personality and his wonky eye made everyone happy. […] Please let us hang onto our old friend.”

Upwards of 140% Difference on Food Prices Throughout Country

Food prices vary as much as 140% depending on where in Iceland you’re doing your grocery shopping. This per a recent price survey conducted by the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ÁSI).

ÁSI compared prices on 103 products sold at fifteen small grocers in rural areas. Fifty-six of the 103 surveyed products had a price difference of 60 – 140% between the highest and lowest listed prices on specific items. Twelve products had a difference of over 140%. This is especially concerning because many of the shops surveyed are located in isolated locations and are the only viable option for people living in the area.

As one example of a significant price difference, a package of standard, sliced sandwich cheese (brauðóstur) had an ISK 1,373 [$10.07; €8.52] or 106% difference between the highest and lowest surveyed price per kilo. The price of a box of Cheerios varied ISK 1,183 [$8.68; €7.34], or 103%. There was a 100% difference, or ISK 1,597 [$11.72; €9.91], between the highest and lowest surveyed per-kilo prices of veal. Butter varied 50% in listed prices, different kinds of bread 60 – 70%, coffee pads 80%, and clothes detergent 156%.

Looking at broader categories, there was between 80 – 100% difference between the highest and lowest prices on meat and fish, around 100% difference on canned and dry goods, and 80 – 100% difference on prices of snacks, sodas, and other beverages. The largest price difference was generally found among fresh vegetables, which averaged a difference of 200 – 300%.

Product selection also varied significantly from shop to shop. The largest selection (94 out of 103 products) was found at Skagafirðingabúð in Skagafjörður, North Iceland; the smallest (24 of 103 products) at Versluninn Ásbyrgi in Northeast Iceland.

Small, independent grocers fighting to stay in the black

For a merchant’s perspective on the price variances, RÚV spoke to Jón Stefán Ingólfsson who has run Jónasbúð in Grenivík, North Iceland, for 25 years. He agreed that 140% was a bit much in terms of a price difference, but said there could be a number of reasons for this. He said the survey included small, privately owned shops in small towns, as well as shops that are part of larger grocery chains. The chain stores can buy their goods at wholesale prices, he explained, which means they can offer lower prices to their customers than the owners of private grocers.

Jón Stefán says he thinks it unlikely that the shops charging higher prices are attempting to gouge their customers, as most small businesses are constantly fighting to stay in the black.

See ÁSI’s full table of price comparison results and shops surveyed (in Icelandic) here.

Price Increases at Village Grocer Angers Community

A large proportion of the residents of Dalabyggð, a municipality in West Iceland have added their name to a list of people unhappy that the Krambúð grocery chain has taken over the local shop in the village of Búðardalur and immediately raised prices. RÚV reports that many have stopped shopping in the village in protest.

Búðardalur has a population of 254 and is the main administrative and service centre in the municipality, with a petrol station, restaurant, coffee shop, health clinic, vínbúð, tourist information centre, and small grocery. According to a recent survey taken by residents, prices at the grocery have gone up as much as 25% since Krambúð took over the store and as such, they are opting to drive as far as the town of Borganes, some 78 km [48 mi] away, to do their shopping.

According to Baldvin Már Guðmundsson, who collected the residents’ signatures, the change in ownership of the grocery took locals by surprise and it’s had a significant financial impact. “It’s not good for our community here,” he said. Some may raise an eyebrow at the thought of driving two hours roundtrip to do the grocery shopping, but Baldvin Már asserted that in the long run, it’s worth it. “It can really pay off when the price increases are so great on necessities.” And it’s not just locals who are unhappy with the prices, he continued—tourists also find the prices high.

All the locals want now is for the store to return to its original ownership and go back to being a Kjörbúð, a different grocery store chain.

“We were quite happy with Kjörbúðin,” recalled Baldvin Már. “There was a good selection, the prices were okay, and there was no reason to go to Borganes, for example. People were satisfied with the shop and had started coming over from further away and it was all fine and good. Then we had this misfortune.”

 

‘There’s Plenty of Food’

The importation of food and goods to Iceland will continue unhindered, says the Icelandic Federation of Trade (FA). This comes per an announcement made on the Federation’s website on Friday, which aims to discourage Icelanders from hoarding food and goods while concerns about COVID-19 persist.

The announcement goes on to say that import companies in Iceland have received updates from their foreign suppliers outlining the measures being taken to ensure that there will be no interruption to the delivery of goods. Most large and medium-sized outfits have also taken internal measures to combat the spread of the virus, such as dividing their staff into different shifts so that they do not come into contact with one another and isolating the operations of different work sites. Many importers have also placed larger than usual orders for supplies that are on the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management’s list of desirable household supplies in the case of a flu outbreak.

Authorities’ request that Icelanders forgo stockpiling food and goods is particularly relevant in light of the recent state ban on public gatherings of more than 100 people, as crowding in grocery stores obviously makes it difficult for people to maintain more distance between one another. Following directives from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, staff members and/or employees of independent security companies will, in fact, begin monitoring the number of people entering or exiting shops and stores in order to prevent over-crowding. The number of employees working at any given time will also be monitored.

According to FA CEO Ólafur Stephensen, “the importation and supply status of essential goods is operating as per usual and so there is currently no reason to hoard goods.”

His assertion was seconded by Guðmundur Marteinsson, the CEO of the Bónus grocery store chain, in a TV interview on Thursday evening. “There are plenty of goods in the country,” he remarked. “There’s plenty of food. We don’t need to worry about this too much. We’ll take deep breaths, get through this together. The next few weeks are going to be difficult. But summer will come, and then everything will get brighter.”

 

Shortage of ‘First Class Icelandic Potatoes’ Say Grocers

The Icelandic Federation of Trade is calling for a suspension of duties on potatoes so that potatoes grown abroad can be imported at an acceptable cost to local consumers. RÚV reports that Iceland’s current potato crop suffered after a wet and cold summer last year. As such, locally-grown potatoes are not up to their usual standard and grocers and produce importers want to see customs duties adjusted accordingly.

“We have plenty of potatoes,” Gréta María Grétarsdóttir, CEO of the Krónan supermarket chain remarked. “But the quality of Icelandic potatoes is not as good as Icelanders are accustomed to…these are not the first class Icelandic potatoes that Icelanders are used to getting.”

 

Imported potatoes “30% more expensive than they need to be”

Guðmundur Marteinsson, CEO of the Bónus supermarket chain, echoed this sentiment, telling RÚV that he finds it strange that import duties on potatoes have not been waived for the time being, given that even the Sales Association of Vegetable Farmers (SFG) has support the idea.

In an announcement on its website, the Icelandic Federation of Trade stated that the Ministry of Industries and Innovation has not complied with requests from importers to suspend custom duties. The organization says this is to the detriment of consumers because imported potatoes will be more expensive. “It isn’t possible to import potatoes unless the duties are cancelled,” said Guðmundur. “We started complaining three weeks ago.”

“When this situation arises, it often happens that customs duties are lifted,” explained Gréta María. “But not now. As such, foreign potatoes are 30% more expensive than they need to be.”

 

No Shortage of Potatoes

By law, the Advisory Committee on the Import and Export of Agricultural Products, which is part of the Ministry for Industries, submits proposals to the minister regarding suspensions of custom duties. This happens, for instance, when there is a shortage of a specific agricultural product on the domestic market. Per the provisions of the laws governing agricultural products, this can only happen when two leading distributors and two key producers cannot keep up with demand. The committee says, however, that no such shortage exists. The situation is being closely monitored, they say, and new data on the local potato crop will be obtained on April 23.

“It’s very strange because SFG’s largest retailer has sent a letter to the committee in which it urges for tolls to be cancelled because there are not enough potatoes of an acceptable quality,” said Guðmundur. “There aren’t enough, but there are some. We’re scraping together what we can for the weekend,” he said, referring to the Easter holiday this week. “That’s where we’re at.”

Ólafur Stephensen, the CEO of The Icelandic Federation of Trade, had stronger words for the committee. “Saying that there’s no impending shortage is preposterous,” he wrote in the published announcement. “And it means that importers are losing the precious time it takes to order and bring into the country products that meet consumer demand.”

Says Supermarket Collusion Keeps Prices High

Silent consultation between low-cost retailers in Iceland keeps prices artificially inflated, says Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, project manager of price oversight at the Icelandic Confederation of Labour. Supermarkets Bónus and Krónan take advantage of a small market to keep prices high when they could be lowered, Auður stated in an interview on RÚV morning radio today.

“These two parties are in a very similar place in terms of prices and they naturally only see it in their favour to keep prices in a certain place,” stated Auður. “Although these are low-cost retailers in Iceland they could actually be lowering prices more than they are.”

“There is leeway here in Iceland for price reductions, as we saw when Costco came to the country. It’s cheap to import goods and the króna is strong. There are many factors that should have the effect of reducing prices, yet prices have remained quite stable for many years.”

This is because Krónan and Bónus take advantage of the Icelandic market’s lack of competition, Auður says. “They’re careful not to compete with each other’s prices too much because both parties would lose out. It is to the economic advantage of both to have it that way and they can do it by virtue of their strong position.”

Auður says she hoped Costco’s opening in May of last year would lower prices over the long term, but the wholesale retailer’s effect seems to have been temporary. Prices “took a little dip until they opened and into the fall and then rose again and are back to a similar level as before.”

Guðmundur Marteinsson, Bónus’ CEO, says the small price difference between products at Bónus and Krónan can be attributed to both companies lowering prices as much as possible. “There is no leeway for price reduction,” he stated. “We cannot sell products at below cost.” He pointed out that Costco’s recently published annual financial statement showed a loss of ISK 100 million ($900,000/€780,000).

Gréta Margrét Grétarsdóttir, CFO of Festi, also denies the two retailers are artificially inflating prices, insisting the similarity in price between the stores is a result of active competition rather than consultation.