Supermarket Shopping for Savers: 6 Ways to Avoid Their Tricky Traps

By Nora Dunn on 29 September 2008 (Updated 30 June 2009) 18 comments
Photo: Nora Dunn

Going to the supermarket and sticking to a list is an exercise in discipline and requires fortitude and resilience of epic proportions. Employing tips like “don’t shop when you’re hungry”, “look for the no-name brand”, and “avoid the checkout counter displays” are simply damage control for an experience that (if you are like me) categorically breaks the budget.

But most of us still need to shop, and supermarkets often offer the best prices and selection. In some cases, the supermarket is all we have. Here are six tips on how to get in and get out without going over your budget:

 

Put Blinders On

Staple foods (like eggs and milk) are often located at the back of the store. And for good reason: the only way to get there is to walk through aisles upon aisles of temptation. If all you need is a quart of milk, then do not allow yourself to get sidetracked by an “amazing deal” (see below) on something you don’t really need.

 

Be Wary of Amazing Deals

Many people (myself included) look for sales, and will often formulate the week’s menu accordingly. However the supermarket marketing gurus are on to us: when your eyes scan the shelves looking for the sale stickers, take a peek at the original price before you decide that it’s a steal; you may find that the amazing deal is a discount of a whole whopping 8 cents. Now I’m all for a deal, but 8 cents is not enough incentive to buy that can of corn for a dish I may not have otherwise used the corn for.

 

That Special Display is Just for Show

The gondolas (displays at the end of each aisle, and racks of product hung where shelves join) and other special displays - be they seasonal promotions or just a mountain of cases of pop in the middle of the floor - are also tricky traps. You may automatically assume that they are featuring sale items, since they are prominently displayed and have a neon sign highlighting the price. Again, buyer beware: check the original price and compare it to other similar products. Often the items displayed on gondolas are actually more expensive, be they on sale or not. Only after some due diligence should you decide if that pretty pyramid of product is really meant to compliment your shopping cart.

 

“Complimentation” – the Ultimate Distraction

Coffee or tea is on your list. And before you know it, a package of yummy-looking biscuits that are temptingly displayed next to the coffee and tea is also in your cart. Then you head for the pasta aisle, and walk out with an over-priced pesto sauce that simply looked too good to resist. Be wary of items which compliment each other that are positioned near one another in the supermarket. If you aren’t the sort to rigidly stick to a list, complimentary items will jump off the shelves and into your cart before you know what happened.

 

Watch the Checkout Like a Hawk

You may not remember the exact prices for everything that is in your cart, but you likely have a good idea of what you will be charged, especially if you picked up a few sale items and are proud of it. But upon reaching the checkout, you could well discover that those items you thought were on sale are not scanning through as such – either because the actual sale item was next to or below the one you picked up (a very sly maneuver on the part of grocery stores), or because the scanner codes were “accidentally” never adjusted.

If there is a huge line up behind you and you don’t want to cause a stir with the check-out clerk (who will likely have to call for assistance and stare belligerently at you while you both wait for somebody to run around the store doing price checks), then simply march your items and receipt up to customer service and politely point out the discrepancy.

 

Try a Cupboard Special

After reading this, are you angry at supermarkets for their little ploys and marketing decoys? Great! Skip your next scheduled trip to the supermarket! See what you can scrounge up from the dark corners of your cupboards or frost-bitten freezer, and get creative. Some of my best meals have been dubbed “cupboard specials”, making use of what I have on hand when supplies start to dwindle.

 

 

Does anybody have some supermarket saving tips of their own? Let’s beat sneaky stores at their own game!

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Guest's picture

Go with a shopping list in hand and don't ever divert from it. Anything else you feel like buying, write on another paper and think over at home before adding it to your next shopping list.

Guest's picture
Ellen

Pay attention to the cost per SERVING rather than the cost per pound or anything else. Something a bit more expensive by the pound that makes twice as many servings is well worth it. I have a cost per serving calculator on my site that you can use to check out the grocery flyers. (And I guess those of you with web access in the grocery store could use it there too!) Select the type of meat and the cut and enter the price and it will show you the price per serving. Of course you can stretch that even further by making stir fries, fried rice, soup, burritos, and other dishes where meat is side thing rather than the main thing.

Ellen

Guest's picture
Allie

We use the "embarrassment factor" at the grocery store. We go in with our list, and each of us (there are two of us) has up to three "credits." These are impulse buys - up to three each. Invariably what happens is that we're each embarrassed to show less restraint at the store than the other person, so if we use any of our "credits," it usually winds up being on a staple we actually were out of but hadn't remembered to put on the list.

The only other "exceptions" are surprise deals (1/lb meats, etc) we find that tend to be large quantities I'm able to make into sauces to can myself.

Guest's picture
Ginny

Please forgive me for calling your attention to this in public, but the word you needed was "complement," not "compliment." They have very different meanings. I don't mean to be a spelling nazi; I just thought you might want to know for future use.

Good post though.

Guest's picture
Nicki

Not sure if this would work for everyone but I've noticed that since we started making a monthly order at the grocery store for home delivery, our monthly bill has gone down €100 on average. We started out getting just the heavy stuff as we don't have a car (Brussels has good public transport so we don't need one) but then I started including the rest of what we would usually need each month (the list is still being perfected). I still have to go to the store for fruit and small things that I've forgotten but not like before. I suppose that since I am in the store less, I am buying less. And the delivery is only €3 so that's pretty interesting (although I usually give the delivery guy a small tip, too).

Guest's picture
Marc

To keep a rough estimate of my total, I take the price of each item I put in my cart and round it up to the next dollar. This does a pretty good job of accounting for tax and is surprisingly easy to keep track of. The total in my head is usually within a few dollars of the total at the checkout line.

Guest's picture
Dee

I do the same thing and when I use coupons, I have a big smile at the end.

Guest's picture
Guest

If you don't need it, it's not a good deal! It doesn't matter how cheap something is, don't buy it if you don't have a plan for it. Also, those Buy 10 get $5 off deals can be really great, but only if you really need 10 of that particular item. How long is its shelf life? Stocking up on food can be good, but only if it lasts longer than a couple of months.

Guest's picture
Mom of 6

A lot of my friends shop at warehouses because they "must" be getting a better deal on a gallon of vinegar than a quart at a time at the store. But my price book tells me otherwise. Knowing the average prices of staples is valuable information.

Our kids take a monthly inventory of our food storage. The week after the inventory I will make as many meals as I can from the cans and boxes stored in the garage and hidden in the back of the pantry.

I know not many have time anymore, but cooking from scratch has been my biggest money saver. Instead of prepackaged snacks for an afternoon munch for the kids, I'll bake 12 muffins. Costs me pennies.

These days, don't forget to factor in the cost of gas. I used to shop at three stores to get the best deals at each. But with gas pushing $5 a gallon my savings aren't holding up. I find the best deals on the majority of my list and shop at one store a week.

Eat before you go, take a bottled tap water and go alone. I will sometimes take one child with me, but two can talk me into purchases we don't need and three can talk me into eating lunch on the way home. Know your limitations!

Guest's picture
Amy

Good article, very useful tips here!

A comment on the first tip-- staple foods (meats, dairy, produce, bread) are often arrange around the perimeter of the store if not all at the back (Ever wonder why bread is so far away from the milk?) This layout forces you to go through the entire store (or grocery section if it's a mass merchandiser type store) to get what you need, increasing the chances you will get dragged into middle aisles.

Guest's picture

Skip the "blinders" and shop the edge - the produce edge - of the store. We go in where the fruit and vegetables are, and do a large "U," shopping only the edge of the store where the packaged items are not stocked and he healthier items are. And if we must venture into the middle, we only do so with a list.

And while you are at it, avoid the POP (point of purchase) candies and gum and magazines and soda and travel sizes of all sorts of things. Tempting to drop into your cart, these are little items with a big mark-up.

Cheers!

Guest's picture

As someone who is always looking for a bargain at the supermarket - I regularly clip coupons. However, as you point out with regard to amazing store sales, the $1.00 off coupon for two brand name jars of jelly (or insert almost any product) usually doesn't come close to matching the store brand pricing

Guest's picture
Guest

One of my best money saving tricks is to leave my husband at home. He rarely shops for groceries, so (a) he has no idea what a "good" price is, and (b) he wants to buy everything that looks appealing.

Guest's picture
katy

I just read this (on frugal dad??) about how products were shrinking and still keeping the old upc symbols from when there were larger amounts?

check the upc prices for the products and calculate whether or not they're deals.

Guest's picture
Anne

My supermarket savings tip comes from shopping lower on the food chain. I mean this two ways and I do both of them at the store.

The first is to bypass processed foods by learning to make the things I like. Boxed cereal is expensive. Rolled oats and other grains aren't. So I mix half a cup of rolled oats plus 1/4 cup rolled barley and 1/4 cup bulgar wheat to make my own hot cereal. 1 cup of this mix gets cooked in 1 2/3 cups of water for about 20 minutes. (I actually use my rice cooker.)

The second meaning is to eat lots of beans, nuts, grains, and veggies with a bit of meat here and there instead of planning all my meals around a meat main course.

Guest's picture

One thought that hasn't yet been mentioned:

Shop the lower shelves. Stores merchandise the higher-priced items at eye level (or in the cereal aisle at kid's-eye level!)

Guest's picture

i've learned one of the best ways to save money overall at the grocery store is to eat EVERYTHING in your fridge before you get another round of food. exhaust the goods in your cupboard and get creative with meals by using what you have.

it may take a bit of sacrifice but your wallet will thank you.

Guest's picture
Guest

The supermarket scams are getting out of control ever since that couponing show! They're determined to make somebody pay for all of the freebies that the extreme couponers got over the years, I guess. In the couponing show, they mention that you should compare prices using the PER UNIT cost listed on the shelf tag in most stores. Well, I caught my local grocery trying to find a way around this...and it made me SOOOO MAD! What they did was put an incorrect, less expensive per unit price on the tag for the store brand vanilla ice cream. The numbers weren't making sense in my head, so I took out a calculator, and low & behold! The brand name vanilla ice cream was actually cheaper, but they didn't expect customers to check the accuracy of per unit price. It was SO VERY obvious that they fraudulently put the wrong per unit price in there! I mean, usually it is calculated by a computer, so basically they had to override the calculation. I let that manager know that it was wrong & that I DID NOT appreciate them trying to take advantage of loyal customers.