The Best Things to Buy to Help Your Local Mom & Pop Grocer

(Image credit: Flickr: Robert Huffstutter)

Hey there, Intentional Shopper, Mom and Pop markets appreciate you. Those giant “thank you for your patronage” signs as you leave aren’t just eye candy.

Independents (owner-operated groceries with fewer than four locations) have had a tough time of it. They pay more for grocery items than the big guys, they have very little advertising budget, and the products that used to be their niche (bulk herbs, Dr. Bronner’s, British jellies) are now available pretty much everywhere. So if you love your local independent grocer, how can you help? Here’s how.

Throw in operating overhead (the electricity bills alone are extraordinary), the occasional broken meat case, and the overall low margin in the industry (much lower than other styles of retail), and the Mom & Pop industry is getting smaller every day. Taking over dad’s grocery means low payout, no weekends off, and an unreasonable financial reliance on the threat of snowstorms. And if those obstacles aren’t enough, new chain groceries are announced on the regular.

But despite all these obstacles, independents often go above and beyond the big boxes in ways that can’t be quantified in a television ad. Their career cashiers will walk your dogs, and chase you down the street with a forgotten bag of eggs. Their managers have no qualms with letting your daughter sell Girl Scout cookies in front of the store, even though it cuts into their bakery sales for the day. And they continue to order four-packs of Diet Vernor’s for when your parents are in town, even though no one else buys the stuff.

In short, independent markets know you have dozens of other places to get your chicken thighs and dish soap. When you shop around (everyone does it), there’s an art to making sure your dollars spent locally go a long way.

The Best Things to Buy at Independent Markets

If you want to support and engage with your local independent market, here are the best things to buy to contribute to their bottom line.

Prepared Foods & Catering

Crab-stuffed mushrooms, sandwich platters, and pre-ordered fruit bowls not only make it easier to throw a party, but they also pay the bills (and help your independent grocer be green).

Perishables: Produce, Meat, and Seafood

Buy these! Produce, meat, and seafood that don’t get sold take away from the bottom line. And by buying them, you’re taking part in an overall dialogue with the grocer. Ever been to a tiny IGA that doesn’t have any fresh seafood? It’s not that the grocer doesn’t want to stock salmon, it’s that their base customer has shown throughout time that they do not want to buy salmon.

Bulk Foods, Cheese, Olives & Salad Bar

These non-necessities are some of the most profitable areas of the grocery store, so you can feel good about going for the Gouda.

The Things You Should Skip

Don’t not buy these items, but keep in mind that they’re not doing much to add to the bottom line.

Stamps, Sushi, Newspapers & Magazines

Brought to the market as a convenience to customers, these items have very little markup. But if you rent a DVD or, better yet, win the lotto from a ticket purchased at your independent grocer, things will go well for your grocer.


State rules complicate things when it comes to buying booze. Buy the weird stuff, so they can continue to stock it, but know that a weekly purchase of PBR probably doesn’t do much to help the market pay bills. The limes, lemons, seltzer water, and if you’re in a college town, ping pong balls situated near the liquor will have a greater impact.

Do you have a local independent grocery you love? I’d love to hear all about them!