16 ways to save at the supermarket

By Tod MarksConsumer Reports

Beyond death and taxes, few things in this world are certain—except, perhaps, for rising telecom and food prices. (Use these 5 ways to cut your monthly cable bill.) With the U.S. Department of Agriculuture recently estimating a 2.5 to 3.5 percent increase in food prices and The Wall Street Journal hinting at further hikes, check out these 16 ways to save at the supermarket.

1. Shop at a store that emphasizes low prices. Some stores simply charge less. According to Consumer Reports' most recent survey, the chains with the lowest prices are Trader Joe's, Costco, Market Basket, Fareway Stores, Stater Bros., WinCo, Aldi, ShopRite, Save-A-Lot, and Sam's Club. (Look for our full report and new Ratings on March 26.)

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2. Compare the unit price. The only way to determine which package size is the most economical is to compare the unit price. That's the price per ounce, per pound, per quart, per hundred sheets, and so forth that appears on a shelf tag beneath the product. In our experience, bigger isn't always cheaper.

3. Buy store brands. Seven of 10 Consumer Reports subscribers bought store brands, according to our latest survey, and 78 percent of them insist that the products are as good as the national names. Our own tests confirm that store brands are often as good as name brands, and they're a proven way to save. Store brands account for about a quarter of all supermarket products, and they sell for 22 percent less, on average.

4. Don't be a cut up. Prepped and precut, diced, sliced, and chunked commodities from watermelon and carrots to garlic and mushrooms can carry a hefty premium. During our visit to an upstate New York Price Chopper, sliced portobello mushrooms were $12.79 per pound ($3.99 for 5 ounces), compared with $4.99 per pound for whole mushrooms.

5. Buy bagged, not bulk. Bagged produce tends to be more economical than fruit and vegetables sold loose. Russet baking potatoes at the same store were $1.29 a pound individually and $2.99 for a 5-pound sack.

6. Shop online for packaged goods. Most walk-in stores sell a similar assortment of leading brands of packaged goods, including coffee, cereal, diapers, and detergent. They're commodities. Low price matters; service doesn't. That's where buying from an online national grocer with low everyday prices, such as Amazon.com or Walmart.com, can save you a trip to the store.

7. Capitalize on coupons. Consumers saved $3.5 billion with coupons for packaged goods last year, and the average savings was $1.62 per purchase. For all the chatter about electronic coupons that can be downloaded to smart phones or printed at home, 91 percent of all coupons reached shoppers the old-fashioned way: through inserts in newspapers. (Check our review of the best coupon apps.)

8. Be loyal. Fifty-two percent of readers surveyed belonged to bonus-card programs, and 84 percent were satisfied with the savings. Not only do many chains reserve their best deals for customers who enroll in those programs, but some also have added a fuel-rewards component. (The typical discount is 5 cents a gallon at participating gas stations for each $50 spent at the store.) Others offer rebates based on purchases (usually $5 for every $500 spent), or added benefits such as double coupons and buy-one-get-one-free specials.

As the cost of food increases, restaurants are bound to boost their menu prices. Check our restaurant buying guide and Ratings for advice on how on to save when dining out.

9. Show your age. Some chains designate one day a week as senior shopping day and extend discounts, usually 5 percent, to those age 55 or 60 and older.

10. Don't be seduced by a store's layout. Supermarkets are designed to extend your trip and increase your exposure to the merchandise so that you will buy more. The average store contains 73 product displays to stop you in your tracks. Items on those displays, particularly the eye-catching "end caps" at the front and back of every aisle, aren't always on sale. Displays often showcase promotional and full-price goods, sometimes even those items nearing their "use-by" date.

11. Stay focused. At many stores, your shopping trip begins with produce because fruit and vegetables make a statement about the store's commitment to freshness. The scent of baked rolls, evident the moment you step inside, stirs pangs of hunger—any maybe a desire to buy. Freezer and refrigerated cases without doors encourage unplanned purchases. Coffee bars and piped-in music soothe, distract, and disarm shoppers so that they linger longer and buy more. Meat and milk are relegated to the back of the store, partly because savvy marketers know that those high-traffic areas are a mandatory stop, so they force you to wander the perimeter, which usually contains more profitable items than do the aisles.

12. Know the high-low game. Most stores draw in customers with bargain-priced advertised weekly specials on staples such as cereal, bacon, and detergent, and mark up prices on other goods. Temporarily marked-down products are essentially sold at a loss. Stock up and save.

13. Beware of tricky signs. Though you'll see signs that advertise multiple purchases (10 containers of yogurt for $10), you rarely have to buy all 10 to get the discount. Nevertheless, the number tends to stick in shoppers' heads, biasing them toward purchasing the maximum amount.

14. Demand price accuracy. If you spot a pattern of mistakes, contact the Federal Trade Commission, your state's attorney general, or a local consumer affairs office. Chains can be fined for repeated violations. The FTC recommends that retailers offer consumers a reward, such as giving them the item free if they are overcharged. Many do so, though they rarely volunteer the information.

15. Consider some organic foods. Some nonorganic fruit and vegetables might carry relatively high pesticide residues even after washing. Consumer Reports recommends buying organic apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. Read "When to Buy Organic Food" for more details.

16. Join the club. For everyday deals on name-brand goods, warehouse clubs (video) such as Costco and Sam's Club are hard to beat, and you don't have to wait for a sale. Economies of scale—buying in unwieldy sizes or multipacks—often yield remarkable bargains. Weigh the $40 to $55 annual membership fee against the practicality of buying in bulk. Other drawbacks to club shopping: minimal service, limited selection, and long checkout lines, according to our survey.

—Tod Marks

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