Returning to St Andrews after a gloriously mundane five-week break, I was itching to ignite a discussion about the newly expanded “Tesco’s Finest” range of ready meals. I try to look through the barrage of marketing strategies used by big corporations to slowly siphon our hard-earned student loans into their bank vaults. So at first glance, I thought the Tesco Finest range was nothing other than savvy marketing: fancy packaging and a delightful description on the box, masking what really is just a standard ready meal. The price point also seems to be wildly higher than other food on offer. I needed, once and for all, to get to the bottom of it and see if there was any considerable appeal to this food that warranted such a shocking price disparity. An investigation into value for money, if you will.

In October 2013, Tesco revamped and relaunched its Finest range with the strapline “Made by passionate people”, implying a renewed emphasis on quality and artisan products. It now offers 1,500 products, after adding 400 and removing 200 others. Early sales results were promising, including a 20% increase in flower sales. Tesco also used the relaunch to become the new sponsor of Downton Abbey, another reason to think it was a move to threaten more upmarket retailers such as Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. Indeed, Tesco came into direct competition with M&S by offering a dine-in-for-two for £10 offer, which includes a bottle of wine, main course, side and dessert. Yes, this seems like good value – but if the Finest range is simply standard ready meals dressed up in fancier packaging, is it really too good to be true?

In recent articles I had simply (and possibly controversially) asserted my word to be true. One of my new year’s resolutions is to make sure that what I claim always has a basis in fact. With this in mind, therefore, I thought it best to enlist the help of two of my flatmates in order to gauge a more well-rounded opinion on the apparently elite ready meals Tesco have on offer.Tuesday was my day to cook dinner: a perfect time to begin a taste experiment. The plan was to serve the exact same Tesco’s Finest main course, side and dessert alongside its cheaper counterpart and assess whether my flatmates could tell the difference. This may all sound very pedantic and pointless, but as a means of better informing the reader and contributing to a more scientifically accurate study, I decided to go through with it.

Entering Tesco, I was met by a blackened, refrigerated shelf filled with fanciful meals fit for a St Andrews student. With food such as “Petit Pois, Leeks & Pancetta” and ,  “Crab, Rocket & Chilli Linguine”, it appears that restaurant-standard food is within a much cheaper touching distance. I went for the shepherd’s pie, some potato wedges and a cheesecake for dessert. Of course the cheaper, regular version falls short of the elaborate description so eloquently put on the packaging of the “Finest” alternative. The packaging on the Finest offering, however, is a sleek grey affair through which you can easily see the product, suggesting the higher quality of the ingredients and presentation compared to the standard brand.

It surprised me when I found that the Finest meal was one and a half times more expensive than the regular alternative. Putting it in the oven, I eagerly awaited the timer going off to see what this difference in price might mean for the difference in taste. Once my flatmates had eaten the full meal, I told them which was the more expensive one and gathered their final thoughts on the matter. The verdict from flatmate A was that “there was a taste difference in the two meals and I did prefer the cheaper version at times”. Flatmates B and C, surprisingly, had the same opinion. On the nutrition front, both product ranges had similar fat and salt content but the quality of ingredients differed.

What meaningful information can you take from this seemingly pointless report? On the whole, Tesco appear to have mastered the art of upselling their regular ready meal products by simply changing the packaging and altering the texture of the food. In fact, the Finest range currently constitutes £1.4 billion worth of Tesco’s overall sales, and their recent relaunch suggests that they are keen to expand and promote the range heavily in order to reap even more profit from it. It also suggests that people are suckers for fancy packaging and words like ‘artisan’ and ‘homemade’. Posh packaging does not a tasty meal make, however, so if you are not trying to woo a guest for dinner with your fancy packaged food, simple budgeting would suggest that the Finest range (or the slightly-nicer range, as I now like to call it) can be substituted for the regular meal without any loss of food quality.

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