Shop smart

Shop smart

For many families, grocery shopping is not just a monotonous
weekly ritual
– it’s increasingly painful, thanks to rising food prices and
the souring economy.
But shoppers also have never had more options. Think about it:
From Walgreens to Super Target, ethnic groceries to farmers
markets, food is everywhere.
For many families, grocery shopping is not just a monotonous weekly ritual – it’s increasingly painful, thanks to rising food prices and the souring economy.

But shoppers also have never had more options. Think about it: From Walgreens to Super Target, ethnic groceries to farmers markets, food is everywhere.

Those willing to invest extra time and effort – and break out of habits they’ve had for years – can find bargains, experts say.

“You have to break down the barriers to what you think,” says Phil Lempert, a consumer trend-watcher and food-marketing expert known as the Supermarket Guru. That means buying items in unexpected places, such as cheap milk in drugstores.

An increasing number of families are changing their ways, Lempert adds. He gets more than 6,000 e-mails every week from shoppers looking to cut their grocery bills. Here are some of his tips, as well as others from chefs and retailers. With their advice and a little research, you’ll keep more money in your wallet.

PLAN AHEAD

“The most important thing to do is have a shopping list and stick to it” to avoid wasting money on impulse buys, Lempert says. The list includes food for meals you’ll prepare, as well as staples. Using a list prevents you from wasting money on impulse buys.

Choose meals that use what’s already in your kitchen, as well as ones with similar ingredient lists, so you eat that whole bunch of cilantro before it spoils.

Also consider budget-friendly recipes. Examples include $2-per-serving recipes at pamperedchef. com, and the federal government’s collection of similarly priced recipes at recipefinder.nal.usda.gov.

After making a list, check the kitchen.

“Lots of people put stuff on their shopping list and find out later that they have it in the freezer or cupboard already,” Lempert says.

Then research groceries as you would a new computer. Using the Internet, newspaper advertisements and a telephone, shoppers can compare deals at supermarkets, drugstores, bulk and discount retailers, and other shops.

“You’ve got to read the ads,” says Tim Pashayan, co-owner of Hi-Life Catering & Banquets in Kingsburg.

Trips to these stores won’t even require extra gasoline – if you choose retailers that are part of your normal routine.

“Instead of going to one store, you’re going to go to two or three stores,” Lempert says.

And don’t forget coupons.

Lempert even has a suggestion for shoppers who don’t have time to clip coupons. “Put the kids in charge,” he says. “Give them a percentage of what they save as their allowance or part of their allowance.”

LOOK FOR DEALS

After you’ve made a grocery list and researched the week’s sales at different stores, it’s time to shop.

To get the best quality and value, treat food shopping like an adventure and not a chore. Lempert advises going food shopping several times a week.

“When you go shopping for two to three meals, you’re focused,” he says, pointing out that cramming enough food for a week (or more) into one shopping trip can require rushing through stores. As a result, shoppers might not check for healthy ingredients, compare per-unit prices or discover all the deals – especially if they’re in a store they haven’t explored before.

Yes, this approach takes more time than filling up the SUV at a Super Wal-Mart once a month. But it’s also more pleasant, Lempert says.

“In the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve taken the enjoyment out of shopping for food,” he says. “Food should be enjoyment. It’s more than just filling our bellies.”

Here are some examples of what you might miss if you don’t pay attention:

– Check discount grocers for specialty and organic food.

For example, the Grocery Outlet, a western discount chain, which started in the mid-1940s as a canned-food retailer, now carries discounted Kashi cereals, spices from Crate & Barrel and Horizon organic butter.

If you see something you like at a discount retailer, buy it quickly.

The selection changes all the time, says Blain Dorn, owner of the Grocery Outlet in Fresno. That’s because the stores sell discontinued items, production overruns, food with label changes and test market products.

Some customers come in to hunt for unusual items, such as the Siljans Traditional Whole Rye Swedish crisp bread, which sold out quickly, Dorn says. Others come in for the perennially low prices, such as $1.99 for four pounds of bananas.

Lempert sees stores such as the Grocery Outlet as places to “save money and have some fun” while hunting for treasures. But check the expiration dates, he says – some products may need to be consumed quickly.

– For organic produce, try the farmers markets. Double-check with farmers to be sure their fruits and vegetables are certified organic, and ask them whether they have deals. Some farms sell blemished organic fruits and vegetables at a deeply discounted rate. Look for the “ugly” sign, and choose items that don’t require you to cut off large pieces.

And compare prices with those at stores. “Just because it’s a farmers market doesn’t mean it’s less expensive,” Lempert says.

n Ethnic stores and butcher shops are great sources for low-cost meats, seafood, eggs and specialty items.

“They don’t advertise them, but they have killer deals,” Pashayan says. “If you’re a vegetarian, you have to go – otherwise you’re missing out.”

Lempert also likes independent grocers and butcher shops, as long as they meet certain standards.

“Talk to these people and ask questions,” he says. “Say, ‘When do you get your seafood and meat, and where does it come from?'”

Check expiration dates and the cleanliness of the meat and seafood cases, and be sure that different types of meat and seafood are kept separate from each other.

And check the origin of the products. Given China’s recent problems with melamine-tainted eggs, milk and candy, some shoppers may be wary of Chinese products.

– For higher-end meats, Costco is the place to go – if you have some butchering skills.

Shoppers get the best value by choosing bulk pieces and cutting it up themselves, says Wendy Carroll, the personal chef behind Seasoned to Taste in Fresno. For example, she buys the short end of beef tenderloin and slices it herself. It’s a much cheaper way to get filet mignon, she says.

– Even high-end stores are pushing the bargains. Some Whole Foods Markets are offering value tours for their shoppers, teaching them to look for its private label, the 365 Everyday Value brand.

Guides point out the “great buy” sales, which match the lowest price or are priced lower than any of Whole Foods’ competitors. They give out copies of “The Whole Deal,” a booklet with coupons and low-cost recipes using items sold in the store. Also, check out the Whole Deal section of Whole Foods’ Web site at www.wholefoodsmarket.com/ products/wholedeal/index.php

SHOP STRATEGICALLY

By now, it should be clear that you can find deals on groceries just about anywhere. But finding a good store is just one step. How you shop there also matters.

To take advantage of all the sales in a store, “you want to make sure that you’re signed up for the store’s frequent shopper program,” Lempert says. Also bring a notebook and write down per-unit prices for your staple foods at a variety of stores. Be sure to bring a calculator to stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club.

“Very often, warehouse clubs do not have unit pricing,” Lempert says. “And it’s not the same size that you’re used to.”

By keeping this record over time, you’ll get a good feel for prices and know at a glance whether you’re getting a great deal.

Also choose store brands over name brands to save money, but first check nutritional labels and ingredients to make sure you’re getting a comparable product. The store brands won’t offer you the latest innovations in flavors, Lempert says, but they do have another advantage: Since most private-label brands have a money-back guarantee, you usually can return them if you don’t like them.

When you find a great price on a staple, stock up – as long as it won’t spoil before you eat it, Lempert says. Follow the refrigerator and freezer guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ fttstore.html). Keep the product in its original packaging, and use a marker to date it.

With that caveat, the frozen-foods section of a store is a great place to find deals on seafood and produce that’s not in season.

Seafood lovers may thumb their noses at frozen fish, but if it’s flash-frozen at sea and sealed in cryovac, it often offers better flavor and texture than the days-old, so-called “fresh” fish, Lempert says. In addition, frozen fish also costs a fraction of the price at the counter.

And while you’ll generally get the best quality and prices for locally grown, fresh produce, frozen fruits and vegetables are the next-best option.

Warehouse stores, such as Sam’s Club, require a certain shopping strategy. Consider the package sizes and expiration dates of food, Lempert says. Make sure you have room to store the items and that you can finish them before they spoil.

“One of the things I buy is Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn,” he says. “The packages are small and will last.”

Armed with these experts’ tips, you’ll find new deals – if you spend some time in a wide range of shops.

“You’ve got to really slow down,” Lempert says. Once you’ve bought your preferred brands, shopping should be “a little adventurous and a little fun.”

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