For the past few weeks, I’ve taken a detour from blogging to research and write our upcoming magazine feature in which we’ll Rate 59 of the nation’s largest grocery chains. It’s been nearly 20 years since I worked on my first supermarket study with the survey experts from Consumer Reports National Research Center, and the story remains a reader favorite. The media can’t get enough of supermarkets, too, and in the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on Fox & Friends, the CBS Early Show, and elsewhere, offering my two cents on how to be a savvy shopper.
This year’s edition, a followup to our 2006 report, will be featured prominently in the May 2009 issue. More than 32,000 Consumer Reports subscribers told us which chains have the lowest prices, best service, cleanest stores, and best meat and produce. Readers also gave us insight into which chains are plagued by problems.
While I can’t reveal our survey results until early April – I’m under strict orders to keep mum until the magazine hits newsstands and arrives in subscriber mailboxes – I can say that respondents were a bit more satisfied overall with their shopping experiences than they were three years ago. However, annoyances like congested aisles, long checkout lines, and out-of-stock specials persist.
The most alarming part of my research had little to do with our survey and everything to do with the sorry state of the economy. While many of us are reeling under the weight of mortgage and car payments, utility bills, and taxes, now add to the list the cost of putting food on the table. According to Information Resources Inc., a market-research firm, 60 percent of Americans are struggling to feed their families. That’s a shocker.
The good news is that it’s easier to trim your grocery bills than other most major expenses, and not by just a few bucks. Here are some of the trends we’ve identified to help you cut costs:
• Choose store brands. Virtually all retailers are churning out high-quality, low-cost store brands (some of which are actually made by national brand manufacturers), which sell for 25 percent less, on average, that the big brands, because they don’t carry heavy product development, advertising, and promotion costs. In many instances, I found store brand products at half the price than their big-brand counterparts.
• Don’t dismiss value brands. Remember those low-cost generic groceries that emerged during hard times back in the late 1970s? Don’t confuse them with store brands. They weren’t very good (I can still recall the canned peaches with traces of skin and pits) and the packaging wasn’t pretty (how about those black and white labels?), but they were cheap, at a time when pinching pennies was paramount. No matter how bad things get, experts don’t expect no-frills groceries to make a comeback. But do expect to see more “second-tier” or price-oriented store-brand products that sell for around 35 percent less, on average, than the national brands. Such products stress value in their names, for instance, A&P’s Savings Plus and Safeway’s Basic Red.
• Use that bonus card. Next to purchasing store brands, a bonus card is the surest way to save at most chains. Half of retailers offer customers significant savings through loyalty-card programs, lavishing them with exclusive discounts.
• Take advantage of longer sales. Some chains have extended the duration of their customary weekly sales or implemented price freezes on thousands of items. Weis Markets, for instance, dropped the price on thousands of staples for 90 days, alerting customers to the long-term markdowns in print, TV, and radio ads, as well on tags throughout the store. Other chains have enacted similar programs with catchy names like “Big Deal,” “Red Dot Specials,” “Red Tag,” and “Unreal Deals.”
• Clip and download coupons. If you aren’t clipping coupons for items you buy regularly, you’re missing out on a tremendous opportunity to cut costs – about $1 per item, on average. Unfortunately, 35 percent of Americans rarely, if ever, use coupons. While newspaper inserts and magazines remain the primary way coupons are distributed, some manufacturers, such as Proctor & Gamble, are making them available through Web site downloads. Dedicated coupon sites such as coolsavings.com, valpak.com, and smartsource.com, are worth trying, too. With these, you generally have to register and provide personal information, so familiarize yourself with the privacy and spam policies.
• Compound savings with double and triple coupons. Speaking of coupons, the savings really add up when retailers double or triple the face value. You won’t find this windfall everywhere, but if you live in a fiercely competitive market like the New York Metro area, you might be the beneficiary of a price war in which chains double or triple manufacturer’s coupons (usually up to 99 cents). In our local market, no fewer than four chains were engaged in a coupon war at presstime: A&P, ShopRite, Waldbaum’s, and Pathmark.
• Shop and order online. One sure way to avoid impulse buys is to order your groceries online. Most supermarkets have developed sophisticated Web sites that allow customers to view the current store flyer, pick out hot specials, print out coupons, and create customized shopping lists. An estimated 44 percent also accept online orders, which are typically readied for pickup by a personal shopper, and loaded into your car when you drive up. The price: about $5 to $10. Some chains will also deliver for around double the fee.
Don't forget to check out the upcoming May issue in print or online for additional tips and survey results, along with an entertaining first-person account of my shopping odyssey to buy the most groceries at the cheapest price.