Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Circular Game: Decoding Your Supermarket Weekly

Tuesday evening’s rolled around, and it’s time for some spur-of-the-moment food shopping. You saunter through the sticky sliding glass doors of your local grocery store, pondering what to purchase with the $15.09 you’ve budgeted until Friday. Then you spot it, lying prostrate and unused in a misshapen stack by the shopping carts: the Supermarket Circular.

Cackling like a maniac, you scuttle over to snatch the half-soaked, seven-page spreadsheet. You’re hunched over, madly scanning the deli section when it hits you: you have no blessed clue how to read this thing. Sure, there are pretty pictures, and yes, the numbers look tantalizingly low, but do you have to buy seven freakin’ jars of jelly to get the 7-for-$7 discount?

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.

Just kidding. The answer is actually “no.” More often than not, that jelly is priced individually. Since this isn’t intuitive knowledge, like breathing or refusing a pit bull from a man with missing fingers, here are a few decoding tips for the Supermarket Circular, the mightiest of cash-saving weapons.


If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Lots of circulars advertise sales like “Tuna: 5 cans, 3 bucks” or “10 boxes of Ronzoni pasta for $10.” The majority of the time, each item is individually priced, meaning you don’t have to dogpile ten cartons of penne to get the deal. Buy three and it’ll be $3. Buy six and it’ll be $6. Buy one, it’ll be $1, and you won’t have 144 extra ounces of pasta hanging around your cupboards.

Read the small print. Oftentimes, stores will list purchasing requirements in Lilliputian typeface at the bottom of an ad. You don’t see it until it’s too late, and then you’re stuck paying regular price at the register. Criminals here include caveats like: “With minimum purchase of $25,” “With club card only,” and “Limit one per customer.”

Look out for loss leaders. Normally depicted in giant photos on the front or back covers, loss leaders are priced at rock bottom to lure in shoppers. Frequently they’re perishables, daily menu foods, or other stuff you buy with some regularity - meat, fruit, vegetables, etc. Hands down the best values in the market, according to Womans Day, “if you make those two pages … the base of what you’re going to eat all week, you’ll save about 30 percent.”

Keep in mind not everything in the circular is on sale. As Consumer Reports informs us, “A mere mention of a product in a circular can boost sales by as much as 500 percent, even without a price reduction.” In fact, says, “Some stores raise prices on advertised specials.” If those on sale hot dogs still seem pretty expensive to you, they probably are. Keep moving.

Do the math. On smarter blogs, this is called “comparing unit prices,” but either way, it goes for all shopping everywhere. Just because a product is sold in bulk doesn’t mean it’s a better deal, even if it appears in the circular. In other words, if a 32-oz. olive oil is listed in the weekly at $10, and the 16-oz. version of that same item regularly sells for $4, the 32-oz. bottle is a rip-off. They’re tricking you into buying more product for more money. Tricksters.

Use your judgment. When you finally arrive at that bin of $0.01/lb chicken breast, take a good, long look at the quality of the meat. Is it gray? Does it stink? Is it housing a maggot colony? There’s a reason it’s on sale. Chalk it up in the loss column and move on. (Same goes for fruits and veggies.) However, if it’s pinkish, and still a day or two away from going bad? Stellar. Take it home and freeze what you don’t use immediately.

Bring the circular with you as you shop. Last week, I saw a 2-for-$1 deal on Goya beans in the circular at my local Key Food. When I got to the shelf, there was no indication anywhere they were on sale. Still, I picked up six cans, brought ‘em to Checkout, and sure enough, got the discount. I don’t know if a lot of supermarkets purposely obscure sales, but man, what a villainous ploy if they do.

Bring the circular with you to Checkout. Whether the machines register a wrong promotion code, or simple humans make simple errors, you will inevitably pay extra for an item on sale. If you’re using a circular to shop and suspect you’ve been overcharged, show the cashier. Are you correct? Sweet! You can bask in the glorious victory of the righteous. (Are you wrong? Boo! Apologize, smile sheepishly, and back away slowly.)

If you’ve got a coupon for an item in a circular, go ahead and try it. Waffles are on sale for ½ off. You have an additional $0.50 coupon. It’s worth a shot, right?

Try a raincheck. Not all supermarkets do this, but if a circular item’s sold out, you can try obtaining a raincheck for later. Those $0.88/lb green bell peppers will come in handy in September, you know.


Look online. Circulars are increasingly accessible via la web, and chains are including all sorts of extras to entice you. Instant shopping lists, recipe suggestions, back massagers – whatever. The internet availability makes it much, much easier to compare prices between grocery stores, too.

Check to see if your market will match competitors’ circular prices. Rumor has it that some stores have a lowest-price guarantee, as long as you can prove it using another market’s circular. Print it up and bring it with you on your next shopping trip.

Start a pricebook. Are there products you buy with some regularity? Do they go on sale often? Using the online circular and your last receipt, start keeping track of sale prices. This way, you’ll know when something’s just a nickel off, or 75%. Snazzy!

Plan meals around what’s on sale. See: Loss leaders; Look out for. That $0.79/lb pork shoulder could feed you and/or the Marine Corps for a whole week.

Prepare to shop at the start of a new sales cycle. Lots of circulars go into effect on Fridays, and end the following Thursdays. Generally, the better-quality stuff will be made available at the beginning. Don’t wait.

And that’s our ballgame, folks. I specifically didn’t go into coupons or the Sunday newspaper supplement, since they’ll provide plenty of fodder for a future column. If you’re interested in examining either, I highly suggest Stephanie knows the score.

  • Green, Geoffrey M. and John L Park. “New Insights Into Supermarket Promotions via Scanner Data Analysis: The Case of Milk.” Journal of Food Distribution Research. Volume 29, Number 3. November 1998.
  • Kadet, Anne. “10 Things Your Supermarket Won’t Tell You.” August 2001.
  • Moran, Gwen. “Hide and Seek Savings.” Womans Day. p. 98. April 2005.
  • Nelson, Stephanie. “Grocery Store Savings Secrets.” 2006.
  • Nelson, Stephanie. “Savings Programs Keep Money in Pocket.” The Augusta Chronicle. P. D02. January 2006.
  • “Winning at the Grocery Game: How to Shop Smarter, Cheaper, Faster.” Consumer Reports. October 2006.

Stumble Upon Toolbar


story girl said...

What a GREAT post. You really get into all the details on how to shop intelligently. I always try to make a game plan before I go to the store, and even keep an aisle guide for my grocery store. I then read the circulars and make my list in order as I would walk around the store (produce, then dry goods in order by aisle, then cold stuff). I even list next to each item what it should cost according to the circular. That way I know how much I will spend before I set foot in the store.

Rob in Madrid said...

"Read the small print" I have the same problem except it's understanding Spanish. I have a chain (Carrefour) I shop at regularly and they always have huge sales and print off tons of copouns. If you know your prices you can really save big bucks. Problem is, my Spanish is weak so sometimes I've bought something thinking it was on sale but wasn't. Biggest one was the spend 60€ save 3, usually it's good till, this time it was good from and I used it a day early. Grrrr I even moved my shopping up day to take advantage of it. With them you really really have to pay attention to the fine print on the coupon!

Anonymous said...

How about the V-8 pictured in recent A&P circular at 3/5.00 but tiny print shows 46 oz. at 2/5.00
I picked up three 46oz.cans that rang up at 2.79 ea. Was told only plastic bottles on sale. I picked up 3 bottles, 46 Oz. Each rang up at $3.99. It was then I realized that I'd misunderstood the ad. So, the 3 bottles cost me 7.50 not 5.00, with "shoppers discount" card. Had I not used card, 3 (46oz) bottles would have cost 11.97 vs. 3 cans at 8.37. What a rip off!
The FCC Tariffs I used to have to read before retiring from AT&T, were easier to understand than store circulars!

Katrina said...

You won me over using the word "Lilliputian"

made my freaking day.

Juliette Aiava said...

Thanks for mentioning CouponMom! I also like to recommend It is a great similar site as well.

Anonymous said...

maybe 4 years off your column date, but just found it and let me tell you, your column was great and you write so freakin funny. Thanks needed to laugh a bit today. Would love to read more colums by you, send them my way