The 6 Items at the Grocery Store with the Biggest Markups — And What to Get Instead

updated Dec 8, 2021
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Obviously grocery stores (and all stores) have to mark up their products. They have to sell items for more than what they’ve paid. It’s how they make money and how they keep the lights on. Some items, however, are priced so much higher than what the stores paid, that it can feel almost like highway robbery! As a financial expert (and a woman on a budget!), I like to know which items have the highest markups — so that I can do my best to avoid them.

If you aren’t sure which items to buy and which ones to skip, here is a list of six grocery items that typically have the highest markups — along with some suggestions to help you save without having to sacrifice your favorite foods.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Pre-Cut Produce

The markup: Grocery prices, overall, have experienced a price increase of 2.8 percent, according to a recent survey, with fresh vegetables seeing a hike of around 2 percent since last year. Because produce is a big spending category at the grocery store, finding ways to save is more important than ever. This means skipping those fruits and vegetables that have been pre-sliced, diced, or chopped for our convenience … and then marked up by an average of 40 percent.

How to save: Because prepping fruits and vegetables on a daily basis can be a hassle, I usually find one hour a week to cut, chop, and dice all of our produce so that it’s all ready to cook at a moment’s notice. This makes it easy to whip up an omelette before signing on to work in the morning or stir-fry before Zoom book club in the evening.

Another option is going the frozen route. Frozen produce costs around 30 percent less than fresh and is just as healthy or possibly even more nutritious because the produce is flash frozen at peak ripeness. Plus, you don’t have to worry about anything spoiling.

Credit: Lauren Volo

2. Prepared Meat

The markup: In the same way that you have to pay more for pre-prepped produce, you can expect a markup of up to 60 percent on any meat, chicken, or fish that has been cut up, chopped, cubed, or marinated.

How to save: While buying a larger cut of meat or fillet of fish often will result in the best price, this isn’t the only way to save money on proteins. Typically, grocery stores offer deals on meat or fish nearing its expiration or sell-by date. If you aren’t sure where to look for these options, just ask a store associate or manager to point you in the right direction. I like to see which type of meat I can score on clearance and plan my recipes for the week around that. It’s important to note, though, that you must cook or freeze these options fairly quickly after purchase, so you don’t run the risk of spoilage.

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3. Name-Brand Cereal

The markup: The American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes had an average retail markup of nearly 44 percent. This is pretty true for all name-brand cereals. What many people don’t realize is that most often, you’re paying for packaging design and advertising rather than contents. In fact, comparing ingredients side-by-side between a name-brand cereal and similar generic version often reveals nearly identical ingredients.

How to save: You can save a lot of money by opting for the off-brand cereal without sacrificing quality. If you are not willing to give up your favorite name-brand cereal, though, shopping wisely can help you save. Stock up during your grocery store’s next sale and try to stack coupons to drive the price down even further.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

4. Name-Brand Spices

The markup: Name-brand spices can be incredibly expensive. In fact, spices are one of the highest markups of any grocery item, at a whopping 100 percent. Typically consumers are paying more for packaging, but there’s an easy swap that can result in big savings.

How to save: Look for generic spices and herbs sold in bulk (usually found at natural food stores and international markets) for a fraction of the cost. Buying in bulk often means giving up those convenient containers, as most will be sold in bags, so I recommend refilling old jars or buying inexpensive ones on Amazon.

Credit: Maria Midoes

5. Baking Supplies

The markup: With a couple of little kids running around, I like to keep my pantry stocked with baking ingredients, so I always have what I need to whip up a quick batch of cookies or brownies. (Easy at-home activities for the win!) But when it comes to baking basics (flour, sugar, and salt), there’s often a 20 to 30 percent markup.

How to save: I stick to generic store-brand options. Considering these are one-ingredient food items, there is no difference in taste or quality between the name brand or generic options. For candy or decorating sweets like sprinkles or chocolate morsels, I always look for holiday-themed items after the specific event passes, which can result in savings of 50 to 75 percent. Green and red sprinkles packaged for Christmas could be used to decorate cookies or cupcakes on Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day, while Halloween chocolates can be chopped up and added to your favorite sweet treats post-holiday.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

6. Baked Goods

The markup: Every time I walk into a grocery store, my nose is drawn to the sweet smell of the freshly baked cookies at the bakery section, which is conveniently positioned right by the entrance. Although I give in to buying a package of frosted cookies from time to time, I try my best to avoid this section. Why? Because treats in the bakery department have the highest price hikes compared to any other item in the store, with markups of 300 precent in some cases.

How to save: If you don’t have time to make something from scratch, opt for cookie or cake box mixes, which are a fraction of the cost and still time-savers. If you don’t even have time for that, ask the bakery staff if there are any discount options. Sometimes, you can find one-day-old cookies or cupcakes marked down by as much as 50 percent — and I’ve found that they still always taste just as good!

Andrea Woroch is a budget expert who uses her financial expertise to develop tips that are actually useful in your day-to-day life. She has worked with The Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and more.