The Best Way To Save At The Supermarket

grocery stoe

What’s the best way to save at the super­mar­ket?   From the minute you walk in to the impulse buys at the check­out, gro­cery stores are experts at get­ting you to spend more.

Gro­cers map your every move

Gro­cery stores employ a whole arse­nal of clever tricks in an effort to get you to buy more. Among the clever sales tac­tics food store oper­a­tors pre­fer to keep hush-hush: the very steps you take once you enter their domain.

Even if you walk into the store with list in hand, you are fol­low­ing a planned map devised for you by retail psy­chol­o­gists. That means you’re unwit­tingly going to be look­ing where the stores want your eyes focused, at the goods that earn them the most money.


Shop­pers are like rats in a maze

Gro­cery giants have painstak­ingly dis­sected our shop­ping behav­iors. One thing they’ve dis­cov­ered: Most con­sumers travel stores in a coun­ter­clock­wise direc­tion. Amaz­ingly, retail­ers with a main entrance on the right side tend to do bet­ter than those with the pri­mary entry­way on the left, accord­ing to Psy­chol­ogy Today.

The whole design of a store is archi­tected to entice the cus­tomers to run the full cir­cle of the store,” said John Hern­don of Account­ing Enter­prise Advi­sors in Liv­er­more, Calif., who has worked with Clorox and Safeway.

End­caps — the eye-catching dis­plays placed at the head of each aisle, — are designed to draw shop­pers down an aisle, around the cor­ner and up the next aisle. “It’s like a rat in a maze,” said Herndon.

This prac­tice, he said, has been in place “for gen­er­a­tions” and is used by all the major chains.

In an indus­try like retail gro­cery, where the mar­gins are any­where between 2% and 3%, they can’t afford not to fol­low a best prac­tice like that because mar­ket share is so ten­u­ous,” he said. “They have you trapped in there (for an aver­age of) half an hour. It’s like a pachinko game.”


It’s cheaper on the outer loop

While end­caps cause many shop­pers to make a hard right and keep going, you should try to remain in an exter­nal orbit, said Hank Cole­man, the oper­a­tor of the web­site Money Q&A.

The aisles are “pri­mar­ily junk food, higher-margin items and things we really don’t need,” Cole­man said.

The smart con­sumer stays on the out­side and saves money while eat­ing health­ier (items such as) milk, meat and bread.”


To track how shop­pers tra­verse gro­cery stores, the Whar­ton School of Busi­ness authored a 2005 study in which radio fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tags were affixed to carts. They learned that some con­sumers are indeed out­smart­ing the stores by stick­ing to the outer “race­track,” while mak­ing only brief for­ays into cer­tain aisles to pluck things like a box of cereal or a stick of deodorant.


End­caps don’t mean discounts

End­caps pose another dan­ger for con­sumers. Many shop­pers have the false impres­sion that they always offer good deals.

Don’t go for the head fake, said Stephanie Nel­son, who runs the CouponMom.com website.

End­cap items cap­ture shop­pers’ atten­tion eas­ily. Some­times they fea­ture sales items, but that is not always the case, so shop­pers need to pay atten­tion,” Nel­son said.

Also, be aware on the day before store prices change that the stores may have stocked the end­cap with upcom­ing sale items early, which means you’ll pay full price on those items until the price drops on the day prices change,” she explained. “Look for the item price before assum­ing those end­cap dis­plays are good deals.”


Super­mar­kets play the shelf game

When you do ven­ture down the aisles, you should know that the way prod­ucts are arranged on shelves is the result of key busi­ness maneu­ver­ing between retail­ers and food dis­trib­u­tors. This is true at all the big chains.

The more expen­sive, brand-name items tend to be at eye level, while the less expen­sive, generic vari­eties may be on the bot­tom or the top shelf,” said Nel­son, of CouponMom.com. “Take time to look up and down to find bar­gain alter­na­tives, if the name brand items are not on sale.”

In short, if a bag of chips of is poised at eye level, it didn’t land there acci­den­tally. That bag is part of a strat­egy. The gro­cer and the snack maker want your atten­tion fixed on that very spot.

Bottom-shelf items often cost 50% less than their upstairs neigh­bors, said Jes­sica Patel, an edi­tor and ana­lyst at consumer-finance web­site Bankrate.com.


It pays to be seen

Man­u­fac­tur­ers aching to gain that cov­eted eye-level spot for their goods typ­i­cally must pay the big gro­cery out­fits a “slot­ting fee” for the privilege.

A slot­ting fee is a big source of rev­enue for retail gro­cers,” said Hern­don, of Account­ing Enter­prise Advi­sors.. “With­out that, you might find a lot of these guys going down the toilet.”

For man­u­fac­tur­ers, slot­ting fees “are just a way to get the great­est degree of vis­i­bil­ity to their prod­ucts. So you’ve got Clorox, Hid­den Val­ley Ranch, the cere­als, and on down the line,” he added.

In short, while shop­ping, you’re likely gaz­ing at labels that com­pa­nies invested a lot of money to place in front your eye­balls. Accord­ing to the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion, slot­ting fees for bread, hot dogs, ice cream, pasta and salad dress­ing prod­ucts have reached $30,000 a year to cover shelf place­ments inside just one region in one gro­cery store’s chain.


Free slices can save you big bucks

Instead of buy­ing your cold cuts at the deli counter, Bankrate’s Patel sug­gests you buy a whole cooked ham, a full turkey breast or a hunk of roast beef (prefer­ably a cut that’s on sale) from the meat sec­tion. Then head to the deli and put the store employ­ees to work for you.

You can save 50% on cold cuts by buy­ing (cooked meat) and ask­ing the deli sec­tion to slice it,” Patel said.

Many peo­ple have no idea they can do this, and it’s a nice trick to know if there’s a deal to be had on whole cooked, pack­aged meats. There isn’t a cost for the deli or butcher to slice it up for you,” she added. “It’s sim­i­lar to hav­ing the bak­ery write a name on a birth­day cake for you. It’s a ser­vice stores offer to their customers.”


‘Bulk’ doesn’t always equal ‘deal’

Many stores pro­mote their bulk offer­ings as sweet deals, and they often are. For exam­ple, if Amer­i­cans switched from buy­ing prepack­aged cof­fee to scoop­ing cof­fee in the bulk aisle, they would save the planet 240 mil­lion pounds in foil pack­ag­ing, and pocket some spare change, said Chris Rein­ing, the founder of the personal-finance blog Mr. Every­day Dol­lar.. He cited researchers at Port­land­Sta­te­U­ni­ver­sity, who found that pack­aged prod­ucts are 89% more expen­sive than their bulk counterparts.

Now, the secret.

A word of cau­tion: The bulk aisle is not a utopia,” Rein­ing said. “Be sure to com­pare the price of a bulk item to its pack­aged coun­ter­part. For instance, I did the leg­work and fig­ured out that bulk almonds are almost dou­ble the cost of pack­aged, so I buy pack­aged. But one of my favorite things about gro­cery stores is they list the price per ounce on the shelf, so it’s an easy comparison.”

Iron­i­cally, buy­ing in bulk can cost more when you’re buy­ing at a bulk store, Patel said.

It’s all about look­ing at the cost per item and break­ing down the prices,” she said. “You also need to think about how much of the prod­uct you are going to use. If you can get a 5-pound tub of mayo for $8, is it really worth it if you are only going to use half the jar? Not really. At that point you just paid $8 to use the same amount you would have got­ten in a smaller con­tainer worth $4.”


Sav­ings on pro­duce are in the bag

Are you one of those super-selective shop­pers who paws through the apple bin to ensure your fruit isn’t bruised? Do you inspect each potato to keep ugly spuds from enter­ing your cart?

Gro­cers love you per­snick­ety types. But fruit and veg­gies already pack­aged in a brand-name (or generic) bag are often the bet­ter buy, accord­ing to Patel.

The bonus to buy­ing items such as pota­toes, oranges or onions by the bag instead of singly is that each bag is required to have a min­i­mum weight by law,” Patel said. “You usu­ally wind up get­ting a bit more of the prod­uct, so gro­cers don’t go under that adver­tised weight — in essence, net­ting you a few free ounces of pota­toes or oranges.

Now you need to make sure you will use it all to get the best value,” she adds. “Spend­ing a bit more to get more pota­toes that you are going to wind up toss­ing isn’t a bar­gain at all; it’s a waste of food and money.”


Scan­ners make mistakes

Watch that beep­ing win­dow at the check­out, said Andrew Schrage, the edi­tor of the personal-finance blog Money Crashers.

Scan­ners aren’t error-proof. Pay atten­tion when the cashier is ring­ing up your gro­ceries, and ensure that all sale prices are rung up cor­rectly,” Schrage said.

Schrage points to sta­tis­tics pro­vided by the Wis­con­sin Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, which dis­patches state inspec­tors to con­duct spot checks of gro­cery scan­ners. Scan­ners there were incor­rectly over­pric­ing prod­ucts nearly 5% of the time five years ago. More recently, that error rate had dipped to 2.8%, accord­ing to the state agency.

The extra pen­nies add up. Accord­ing to ABC News, U.S. shop­pers lose $1 bil­lion to $2.5 bil­lion a year on scan­ner blun­ders. Those check­out slip-ups appear to peak dur­ing retail crunch times, like the hol­i­day sea­son, when cus­tomers are in the biggest hurry.


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