Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Frugal Food Shopping: Hitting Up Multiple Stores

NOTE UP TOP: In almost four years of blogging, I can’t believe I haven’t dedicated a column to the following food shopping strategy, because it’s one of the most effective around. Experienced frugalists, you're probably familiar with this already, but it shouldn’t stop you from seeing the, er … surprise note from … uh … Bob, um, Barker? … at the end of this article. So let’s get to it.

My old apartment was within a mile of three major supermarket chains.

“Whee?” you might say. “Let’s throw a fiesta?”

And while the prospect of ending this column here and grabbing a margarita is highly tempting, I endeavor to persevere, meaning this: It may sound like it ain’t no thang, but having access to multiple supermarkets allowed me to save huge, big, hulking bucks on my grocery bill every month. In fact, hitting up two or more food stores is one of the most effective food shopping strategies around. (Where have I heard that before?)


Two simple reasons:

1) To attract shoppers, grocers within the same region price certain foods competitively.
In order for Pathmark to compete with a Waldbaums two miles away, it offers lower prices on select goods, called loss leaders, to lure potential customers in the door. These are the deals you see on the front of the circular, and can include everything from in-season produce to debuting products pushed by major corporations. For example, my local supermarket is currently offering pasta for $0.89 and asparagus for $1.99/lb, prices that aren't too shabby these days.

2) Simply, some grocers price their products differently.
A can of olives may be $1.29 in one supermarket, and $1.79 in the bigger one up the block. Reasons for this are unbeknownst to society at large, but learning what’s cheaper where will make a difference when you visit more than one destination.


The very first thing you should do is take stock of the markets in your area. Look beyond where you normally shop, at similar stores in the same general vicinity. (Google Maps and Yelp are very helpful for this.)

Then, log on and see if they have circulars online, which most chain grocers do nowadays. Browse through, and record A) what seem like really good deals and B) what you need soon. Here’s an example, using the current circulars of two Brooklyn supermarkets within a half-mile of one another:

Grapes - $0.99/lb
Oranges – $2/4lb
Pasta – 5/$5
Honey Nut Cheerios – BOGO (Buy one get one free)
Canned Tomatoes – 5/$5 (28oz)

Green beans - $0.99/lb
Chicken breast - $1.79/lb
Canned tuna – 3/$2
Mozzarella - $2.99/16oz
Cracker Barrel sharp cheddar block - $2.99/10oz

Finally, choose a time and map out a route. But know - this shouldn’t be a strenuous task. If your new itinerary is taking much longer than usual (which, if you have a list, hopefully it shouldn’t), try doing it another way.


Don’t limit yourself to supermarkets, since there are many deals to be found outside those curiously sanitary walls. If they’re on the way, or if you don’t mind an additional trip at some point over the month, never forget:
And more.


Of course, there are a few qualifiers, should you try shopping at multiple destinations.
  • I, like thousands of vaguely dazed Americans, use public transportation. As a result, I know next to nothing about gas prices, though I understand filling a Volkswagen Beetle can cost thousands of ducats nowadays. So, use your head - if your two closest markets are 50 miles apart, it’s silly to blow $20 to save $0.50 on a box of macaroni.
  • Remember, cheaper isn’t always better. If your butcher gives you good cuts of meat for a slightly higher price, stick with him (or her), because you can’t buy that kind of personal attention at a chain. Same goes for farmer’s market food.
  • If you have many shops on your list, don’t visit every one, every week. You’ll drive yourself crazy, and it kind of misses the point of the previous streamlining tips.
And finally, take all the previous advice with a grain of salt. In the famous words of Yao Ming, “I didn’t realize Americans were so short.” “Do what works best for you.” Shopping at multiple stores can be wonderful, but only if you’re comfortable with the process.

Readers, what’d I miss? The comment section is open.

P.S. Bob Barker says hi.

P.P.S. I made that up.


Hey! Read more about this kind of stuff here:

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April said...

I used to go to two stores as well, but then I asked Publix (a great chain down in the Southeast) if they would accept Bi-Lo (another chain's) coupons and they do. They even double any couples 55 cents or higher, which is great because more savings! That nearly eliminates my need to go to Bi-Lo, unless they are having a 10 for $10 sale.

Julie said...

Great post! So true about gas vs. savings! I did a similar post on my blog:

I also use the weekly circulars to help decide which of the many stores I'll go to that week. If store A has things on sale that I can make full meals out of, and store B's sale items are ho-hum by comparison, store A gets my business that week! It's amazing how fast you get a feel for the best places to buy things when you really pay attention to it.

Lorena said...

I'd also mention local health food stores. There are two local chains near me and they both offer good deals in the bulk section and on produce.

One of the chains also offers discounts to faculty, staff and students at my university for the first month of every semester. Once I combine that special (20-30% off your purchase) with coupons and weekly sales, I can stock up on needed items and save quite a bit of money.

The other, larger local chain also offers good prices on bulk and produce, but it also does occasional BOGO sales on packaged goods and natural cleaners. So, be sure to check those stores out -- especially for the bulk section. As long as they've got good turnover, you can save by only buying what you need, in addition to not having to pay for advertising and packaging like you would at a regular grocery store.

suerocks said...

I am a big proponent of multiple store shopping, though my husband thinks I'm nuts.

One additional thing to consider is: keeping cold things cold. If I hit two stores I will usually bring a cooler with ice packs (the volume of ice depends on how hot it is outside and how long I think I will be in store #2.) If I am getting chicken or some sort of meat I make that the second stop on the tour so they can get into my fridge faster.

Marcia said...

I live near a lot of stores. I used to shop at all of them and hit the best sales.

But as I've gotten older, become a mom, and gotten really busy, that has fallen out the window. And I've gotten disillusioned by shopping at grocery chains. So much of the food is so unhealthy. And I'm trying to eat more local.

I tend to by my food here, in order of how much money I spend a year:
1. Trader Joe's (great prices on staples, better than most sale prices at stores).
2. The CSA
3. Farmer's market
4. The local produce stand
5. Costco

On occasion I read the flyers and find SUCH a good deal on something like asparagus or cantaloupe that I will make a trip there.

However, if major chains are your best option, this is a great strategy and one I used to use often.

Barry Tanner said...

Hi, I live in Australia And here we 2 main supermarket giants that have a monopoly on just about everything to do with groceries and are squeezing the life out of small business owners such as grocers, butchers etc, all the while driving prices through the roof. So wherever possible i always try to buy fresh food at these small business which are ofter cheaper to do my bit to take the wind out of the big business' sails

Dee Seiffer said...

I live in the 'burbs with lots of grocery stores + Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, independent health food stores & all of the drug store chains... and a year 'round farmers' market. I could spend all of my time chasing down the best price.
One trick I have found is that the grocery stores have on-line and pick-up shopping services. I can log-in as is I'm shopping to find the price of any item. I can comparison shop from home. Yay.

alternakiddy said...

Where I live in Queens, there's two supermarkets within two blocks of each other (maybe 1/10th of a mile, one four blocks away (1/5th of a mile), and one a train stop away (1/2 mile).

I actually prefer the farther one, but I take the train there, and the quality of fresh stuff is way better. The closer stores tend to have sad produce and even sadder meat (it's gray before it even leaves the store, ew)

When it comes to non-perishables, I scan the circulars for stuff I need, or stuff that's a good bargain. At worst it's a few minutes out of my way, but the savings are awesome. 2 for $5 Haagen Daz, yeah!

Then when I get a ride from my bf, we go to Aldi (we've become Aldi groupies), and BJs for bulk items, although Aldi has really good deals and the quality is no different than the name brands. Variety is lacking though, but I don't see a problem with it so far.

NYCers, if you can make a trip to Aldi, even if it's once a month, I highly recommend it.

KnitNana said...

I used to do this, until very recently. When gas prices jumped I realized that by buying the bulk of everything at one specific store, I am able to get up to $1 per gallon of gas credited based on the amount of groceries I've bought. So I not only save the gas I'd use to shop around, but buying their gas is cheaper, too. It's made life a bit calmer as well!

mother in israel said...

I rotate, stocking up on non-perishables at the store where they are cheapest. We buy produce weekly at the market and other foods once about every three weeks, alternating stores from time to time.

Emily Brunell Pious said...

This is almost exactly what I do. With 3 stores within 10 minutes of my house (all of which are on the way to other places I go frequently) it makes sense to see who's got the best deals. I wrote about it here:

Megan said...

Usually I will go to Target to stock up on pantry staple items like pasta, sauces, snacks, and canned goods. Also, sometimes Target PFresh locations have great sales on chicken and meat, so if that's happening I'll also stock up on that. Otherwise I buy all my produce and perishables at a grocery chain like Shaw's or Stop and Shop. And I find stocking up really does save tons!

Thanks for your tips!

Anonymous said...

Many stores will match prices with their competitors, if you bring your flyers with you. It takes a little time at customer service, but it's time you don't spend running around to multiple stores.

Calina Jane said...

When ever we have to go foe shopping then we have to hit multiple store to get our favorite things and hence that makes our schedule busier and we are get totally fad up by these things.

Anonymous said...

If any of you are like us (which I find doubtful), then you really need to take desperate measures to save. Recently we committed to eating what I call one "actual" meal a day, and have oatmeal or something equally cheap once a day. We budgeted $200/ month in groceries, and we're coming in with plenty of extra bucks! We also are trying lots of soups; soup is cheap and if you're picky, really healthy. So, breakfast = healthy smoothie, lunch = oatmeal, and dinner = soup/soup left-overs!