When things get busy in grocery stores, it’s all hands on deck. In my grocery days, the siren call from Sarge (the nickname for the drill sergeant-like cashier in charge of the intercom system) could be heard through the store and into the corporate offices: ALL CASHIERS AND CARRYOUTS TO THE FRONT, PLEASE. The “please” at the end was code for “everyone.” And so I’d go to the registers, bag groceries, and load trunks with paper sacks of specialty cheeses, gluten-free crackers, and Meyer lemons.
Whatever joy I’d had in realizing that my promotional email about cave-aged Gruyere worked would be destroyed when I saw the other inhabitants of the trunk: paper towels peeked out of Target bags, frozen dinners spilled from a reusable Trader Joe's bag, and cases of Diet Coke donned the iconic “I’ve been Krogering” sticker.
Our customers knew what I didn’t want to believe: When you have time to do it, it pays to shop around. Time, of course, is the key word. Below is a guide for what to buy, and where to save a buck or two. Just don’t, you know, think about gas.
Eggs, Milk, and Bananas
The items on everyone’s shopping list are what the grocery industry prices low to get you in their doors. (To entice you to buy their pesto pasta salad, pine nuts, peach tarts, and other things not originally on your shopping list, of course.) And before you think it’s an evil grocery conspiracy, take a look at every retail experience you’ve ever had. A bag of vegan marshmallows is way less of a mistake than that three-quarter-length-sleeved leopard print cardigan in the back of your closet.
Hit your conventional market or big box store for everyday items, but be aware of what else you’re buying. The loss leaders (deeply discounted sales) will be big and bright on the sales flier. Not everything on the flier is a deal (just like not everything in the Target One Spot is worth $1), so if your plan is to save money, make sure you have a baseline for what an item is worth before you throw it in the basket.
Cooking tonight: Hit up an Aldi or an Asian market. Both have ripe, ready-to-eat-like-right-now fruits and vegetables available. They might not be super polished, but they’ll do the job.
Planning for the week: Costco has all the basics, and in big quantities. (Hope you like those oranges.)
Quality is king: Specialty independent markets and natural chains might not always have the best prices, but you’re more likely to get organics and hand-selected produce. Subscribe to their emails to find out what’s on sale. Some chains, like Lucky’s Market and Sprouts Farmers Market, do “double ad” Wednesdays, where the previous week’s sales and the next week’s sales are valid on the same day.
Meat and Seafood
Cooking tonight: Hit up your conventional grocery market and look for those orange “manager’s special” stickers. It’s The Price Is Right for dinner. (Who knows what’s behind that door — chicken? Pork? Beef tips?) This strategy requires flexibility in menu, or a big freezer.
Planning for the week: Again, Costco is a place to get great pricing, as long as you have a big crowd or freezer.
Quality is king: Specialty markets typically have at least one major meat and seafood item on sale. Stock up.
Spices and Olive Oil
Have a Mediterranean market nearby? Lucky you. This is the place to get pantry basics. Buy peppercorns, cooking oils, and salt in bulk, but only buy what you need when it comes to other spices.
Some states have pricing laws; others don’t. In Ohio, it’s illegal for retailers to price wine and beer below a state minimum, so it’s highly unlikely that one retailer will provide a better price than another. Sadly, there are no bargain bins in the Buckeye State. Two-Buck Chuck is, like, four dollars here. Learn your state’s laws, and then shop accordingly.
In general, the bigger the store, the better the buying power, and the lower the prices.
Where do you go to snag a deal?