4 ways to save time at the supermarket

By Tod MarksConsumer Reports

Love supermarket shopping? We thought not. Use these four ways to save time and the supermarket to speed up your trip and make it more efficient.

Go mobile. Most chains have rolled out apps for iPhones and Android devices that let users create grocery lists, browse weekly circulars, view product photos, add manufacturers’ coupons to an account, check off items placed in a virtual cart, scan bar codes of products at home so that they’ll be added to your list, and get real-time prices. You can do many of those tasks online, too.

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Shop online. More than half of consumers buy groceries online at least occasionally, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s 2012 Food Trends. Yet food purchases account for less than 3 percent of all transactions, and online supermarket shopping has been slow to grow. “Everyone has had to develop a shop-at-home option to counter the Amazon effect,” Craig Rosenblum of the industry consultant Willard Bishop said. “But it’s a struggle for most retailers to pacify that need. They’re struggling to find the best model and the right amount to charge.”

Amazon.com and Walmart.com sell packaged goods, and Amazon has a fledgling service, Amazon Fresh, selling perishable foods in several West Coast markets. Walmart is testing fresh-food sales in a few cities as part of its Walmart To Go program. Nationwide online supermarkets include Netgrocer.com; FreshDirect is among regional ones. Many grocery chains have their own programs. At Safeway, customers can order online or by smart phone, but they must buy at least $49 in merchandise. Delivery (about $10 for orders of more than $150; about $13 for less) is scheduled at a prearranged time. Other chains let you order online, then pick up the packed goods at the store.

Read our new report on supermarket shopping. Then learn 16 ways to save at the grocer, and check our supermarket buying guide and Ratings to find the best stores.

Check yourself out. At least 60 percent of supermarkets have one or more self-checkout stations to let people scan, bag, and pay for groceries without a cashier. Theoretically, they also let you skip long lines. Fifty-six percent of our survey respondents used self-checkout during the last year, and 67 percent of them said it saved time. But about one-quarter of users complained that the checkout didn’t work properly or that slowpokes held them up. One in five had a tough time figuring out how to operate the scanner and couldn’t find an employee to help.

Kroger and its affiliates (Fred Meyer, Fry’s, and King Soopers, among many others) have another way to get customers out fast. They have installed infrared cameras above entrances, exits, and checkouts that measure the heat radiated by shoppers’ bodies. Higher heat means more customers. Information from the cameras is fed into a database that lets a manager know the number of checkouts that need to be open.

The cameras have reduced average customer waiting time to 26 seconds, Kroger claims. Before they were installed, the typical wait was 4 minutes.

Try a meal to go. That won’t save time in the store, but it will once you’re home. More appealing fare plus consumers’ desire for convenience, healthier options, and affordability help explain why shoppers bought 1.7 billion meals from food retailers in 2012. “It’s like having a restaurant right in your kitchen,” the chef Peter Dow of Harris Teeter said in a video promoting the chain’s Chef Prepared Dinner at Home lineup of ready-to-cook meals. Until now, Dow says, supermarket meals were of “average quality” and designed mainly for a long shelf life. Newer meals involve less processing and come in packaging that’s more attractive and better at keeping food fresh.

If you prefer to do your own cooking, find out how to save time in the kitchen.

—Tod Marks

This report also appeared in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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