Saturday, May 15, 2010

Saturday Throwback: The Circular Game - Decoding Your Supermarket Weekly

Each and every Saturday, CHG posts something from our archives. Today's piece is an oldie-but-goodie from way back in July 2007. Remember then? I don't.

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 and focused, 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.

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Lauren said...

Thank you for sharing about the circulars! I've often wondered if some things are really on sale because they still seem so expensive!

Maja said...

aargh, just wanted to let you know I can't read your most recent post because there is an ad from Bog Her that stick out and covers the text of the post and the ad won't go away. Thought you might want to know. Love the blog.

Susan Hagen said...

I don't see a way to contact you so will try leaving a comment. I love CHG, read it daily, use the recipes. Unfortunately the BlogHer sidebar overlays the central content with no way to click it off. It's becoming so annoying that I'm close to giving up on your site altogether. Please see if there is a way to resolve this. It's happening on two different computers so I don't think it's a problem on my end.

Kris said...

Hi Maja and Susan. Thank you so much for the heads up. I'm not sure what's going on. If I can ask, which browser do you use? And is it a specific ad, or all of them?

I'm on Safari and Firefox, and haven't seen anything expand. Maybe it's in Explorer? Either way, I'll e-mail the BlogHer folks and see what the score is. Thanks again.

Lauren said...

I use FireFox and my phone browser and have had no problems reading content.

MagnoliaSouth said...

About that price book...

This is a suggestion that is universal, I believe. We see it everywhere and it is a good idea, but I am curious about a few things.

1. How many people actually keep one and keep it up to date?

2. For those that do, what do you use for your book? A spiral bound notebook? An organizer? A 3-ring binder? What?

3. How did you start your book? Did you go down the aisle and make notes? Use receipts? Look online?

4. How long did it take you to initially start one? How long does it take to maintain it?

This isn't for an article of my own or anything. Just for my personal curiosity. I've seen this suggestion at, in my book by Mary Ostyn and now here.

I just want to know if this really works out or is it something everyone suggests but gives up on later.

Kris said...

Magnolia! These are all excellent questions, and I can tell you what I do:

1) I keep an informal pricebook, which I update weekly. It's a huge Word document, which I can easily search and compare for good deals.

2) A Word doc. I'm a faster typist than pen-and-paper girl at this point.

3) I base my prices mostly on online circular deals. Once I find something at a low price, I record it. That number stands as the best deal until I find something better.

4) A few minutes to start, plus a few minutes per week. Now that I have a general idea of food costs 'round here, it's much faster.

In my experience, pricebooks are fantastic tools when you A) move to a new area, B) try out a new grocery store, or C) are a beginning cheap eater. They become a little less useful as time marches on, and you learn your local prices better.

MagnoliaSouth said...

Thanks Kris! Sorry but I have another question for you that did not occur to me until your reply.

About your #3, do you mean that you don't list comparison prices? Only the item and the best price you've found for it and where you found it?

See I was thinking, like you, about doing it on the computer. The only difference was instead of Word, I had in mind a spreadsheet with columns for different stores and prices for each of those stores.

Is that more time consuming than it should be, do you think?

Lili said...

@Maja and Susan: I had the same problem (I use Explorer) and refreshed the page. The ad was gone. Try and see if it works for you too.

I've received my supermarket circular and I'm going to examine it with a very critical eye :) Thanks for the tips!

harper said...

Don't forget: Just because it's on sale doesn't make it a good deal. For example, $0.99/lb for asparagus is a good deal, but $0.75/lb not marked down for kale is a better one and will go further.

Magnolia South-I've kept a price book. I used an Excel file and I updated it with the circular and receipts (best prices only). I used it to formulate my shopping list.

P.S. I'm having the same problem as Maga and Susan. I'm on Firefox and Explorer.

MagnoliaSouth said...

First off, I'm loving my price book. :)

That said, I'm back with another question! What is anyone's experience, when reading circulars, with Winn-Dixie on their "buy one get one free" (BOGOF)? Let's use this one as an example:


Sanderson Farms all natural • grade A family pack

save up to $1.79 on 2 lbs. with Customer Reward Card

Um, "save up to"? So what does that mean? It sounds like we're buying two packages that are 1 lb. each. If you're saving 1.79 on two pounds (with one free), then the regular price is $1.79 a pound.

Am I right? Do any of you know what their deal is? I mean, I'll find out tomorrow but was just wondering if any readers, subscribed to these comments (if anyone is), might know right off hand.

RB said...


So-called FamilyPacks (also sold under other names like ValuePack, ThisPack, ThatPack) typically come in larger and variable weights.

For example, two FamilyPaks of say chicken breasts or ground beef will have slightly different weight and thus price because every chicken breast is different, and packing equal weights of ground beef (as supermarket meat departments do by hand) is too labor intensive and time consuming.

When they say "save up to $1.79" it means you will save $1.79 if you buy two packs of equal weight, and slightly less than $1.79 if you buy two packs of almost but not quite equal weight.

For example, if you have a $1.85 pack and a $1.75 pack, you will pay $1.85 and save $1.75.

Of course, you're not going to find two packs of equal weight at the same time, so just try to get as close as you can.

RB said...

While items are usually priced individually, sometimes you really do have to buy the specified quantity to get the advertised discount.

There is a supermarket in my area that regularly has a few mix and match deals scattered through the circular where you get $5 off if you buy 10. So if they have five of these deals going this week, you must buy 10 to get the discount, but all five items count. So you could buy 2 of each and get the discount, or 4/3/2/1/0 or whatever combination you like, but the discount doesn't apply until the 10th item is rung up.

Sometimes these deals are so good that I stock up on nonperishables I use, even if it will take six months or so to use the quantity I'm buying.

RB said...

Recently I've started seeing a new form of price creep I hadn't noticed before.

You've all probably noticed shrinking product sizes, now I'm noticing the disappearance of best-value product sizes.

Today i was shopping and my favorite 24 ounce bottle of store brand ketchup (78 cents, or 3.25 cents per ounce) was gone, with its shelf space taken over by an expansion of the 36 ounce ($1.53, 4.25 cents per ounce) display.

Which reminds me, economy size products are increasingly becoming not such a good deal, and sometimes the unit pricing is worse than the smallest size.