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Think of supermarkets as giant selling machines, where traffic patterns, product placement, smells, displays and signs lure you to spend more time cruising the aisles and more money at the checkout. These tips should keep you from falling for the tricks:
Look high and low
Supermarkets are in the real estate business, and prime selling space includes the middle or eye-level shelving. Vendors sometimes pay retailers hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in slotting fees to take on new products or display products prominently. There are differing schools of thought on slotting fees, with critics contending that they stifle competition and boost prices. In any event, check whether similar products on top or bottom rungs are less expensive.
Eye end caps
Some shoppers assume that products on aisle ends are on sale, which is why those displays can boost sales by a third. But end caps can highlight items about to expire or those that aren't a bargain. At an A&P near our Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters, we spotted an end cap loaded with Pepperidge Farm cookies, all at full price. The end-cap tie-in is another trick: Related items are featured, not all of them on sale. Take the Tostitos display we saw at Stop & Shop. The chips were on sale; salsa and dips weren't.
Only a few states and metro areas have laws requiring price tags on every item. Elsewhere you'll typically find shelf tags under each product that reveal the cost per ounce, quart, pound, or 100 sheets. To see whether big packages really are cheaper, compare the unit price. We found many instances in which bigger wasn't better. At a ShopRite, for example, we eyed a 14-ounce box of Frosted Flakes on sale at $2.29 per pound compared with $4.38 per pound for a 17-ounce box.
Consider organics sometimes
Organic means expensive, so buy organic versions of produce that's most likely to harbor pesticides when grown conventionally, such as peaches, strawberries and bell peppers. Organic meats and dairy foods might be worthwhile but not "organic" seafood because standards aren't in place. (And always cook meat thoroughly to avoid pathogens.)
Weigh the cost of convenience
Is it that much work to cut up carrots, celery, lettuce, and cheese? During one of our many shopping trips, we spotted a 6-ounce bag of shredded carrots for $1.50, almost five times as much, on a unit-cost basis, as a bag of whole carrots.
Snacks at the checkout look more appealing the longer you're in line. But they're overpriced. At a Stop & Shop, a chilled 20-ounce Coke was $1.49 at the register. In the beverage aisle, a six-pack of slightly smaller bottles cost $3.33 on sale—about 66 cents per 20 ounces. For that much in savings, you might want to wait until you get home and add ice.
Retailers regularly rotate stock so that you see the oldest milk, cereal, cold cuts and other packaged goods first; the newest stuff is pushed to the back. To get the longest shelf life from the food you've bought, burrow to the rear of the shelf, refrigerator, or freezer.