Teri Gault stops in her tracks in the personal care aisle at Ralphs when she learns someone has never heard of a BOGO.
"How about peelies or blinkies?" she asks, with disbelief. "Catalinas?" A look of urgency passes across her face: "You don't throw your Catalinas away, do you?"
Gault is the Santa Clarita-based creator of the Grocery Game (www.thegrocerygame.com), an online service that helps members strategically navigate the world of supermarket sales. Though it's just one of several websites that promise to help slash grocery costs, Gault has such a faithful following that she can charge for her services (minimum fee, about $5 a month.)
And fee notwithstanding, business is booming. Members in 50 states can now tap into lists of bargains at supermarkets in their ZIP Codes, as well as in France, Germany and the U.K. This year alone, membership has grown from 100,000 to more than 150,000 households.
Website traffic has jumped 59% since last year, according to hitwise.com, an Internet research and tracking firm. And Gault has a book on how to save money by cutting household expenses due out in January.
"I don't enjoy the fact that I'm benefiting because people are hurting," Gault said. "But it makes me happy that I'm helping people save money."
Indeed. It's hard to imagine anyone who enjoys supermarket shopping, or spreading the word about saving money, more than Gault.
Know the lingo
She whispers conspiratorially and there's a naughty gleam in her eye (the kind women usually use when talking about Jimmy Choos) -- as she lapses into the couponing lingo. Couponing, it turns out, goes beyond those colorful little strips in the Sunday newspaper -- although those are key. There are also blinkies, the blinking machines in the supermarket aisles that spit out coupons. Peelies can be pulled off the side of a product for redemption at the register. Catalinas, which are named after the company that manufactures them, are the coupons that are handed over with your receipt.
And a BOGO . . . well, a BOGO means you'd best get down to the supermarket to take advantage of that "buy one get one" free offer before everyone else beats you to it.
Just as important as having a coupon is knowing when to use it.
And this is what elevates coupon clipping from a hobby to an art form, Gault says.
Supermarkets typically cycle their rock-bottom sales every 10 to 15 weeks across a variety of products. Gault's team of more than 60 employees tracks these cycles along with advertised and unadvertised sales. Then, each week, they recommend when to hold tight to those coupons -- and when to slap 'em down at the checkout stand.
When she's finished explaining these basics, Gault shakes her head as though she's just a little bit sad. So many people just throwing away their money. So little time to persuade them to start saving it instead.
That attitude explains why Gault has no problem stopping people in the supermarket and passing along her unsolicited words of wisdom and outlining her disciplined approach to shopping.
Rule No. 1: Only buy items on sale. Rule No. 2, stock up when items are on sale. (Perishables like meats and breads go into the freezer.) And Rule No. 3: Don't just buy items because you have a coupon or it's on sale -- only buy what you need and will use.
As for criticism that coupons encourage people to buy processed foods and unhealthful snacks, Gault says people can skip the junk and still save plenty buying fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables that are on sale.
On a recent demo shopping trip in Glendale, Gault marches over to a woman placing jars of baby food into her cart and explains that a better deal is just around the corner.
"These are about to go on sale," she says. "You can use coupons too. Save even more." The woman, stunned, just nods. A guy in a dress shirt and work tie stocking up on frozen meals is next. "You know, just because it says buy four for $10 doesn't mean you have to buy four. You can just buy two." He looks at her blankly.
"It never, ever gets old," Gault says. "I love a bargain. I get a little bit of an endorphin rush when I even say that. That's weird, huh? I can just feel it when I'm almost done with my shopping and I'm heading to the register. It's like Vegas."
Gault was born in Oklahoma, but grew up in Anaheim. She began honing her savings skills at 12 when, after her mother became gravely ill, she was put in charge of the family's grocery shopping. Her father gave her $20 a week.
"I never had the heart to tell him it wasn't enough."
So she scrimped. And she learned that she could save money by stocking up on staples like peanut butter when they were on sale.
"It was like a light bulb going on."
As an adult, Gault continued to be thrifty even when money wasn't much of a problem. A trim figure, blond hair and bright blue eyes helped her win acting gigs in film and TV, "Happy Days" among them. Her husband worked as a stunt coordinator.
Then in the 1990s, work dried up as productions moved to Canada and elsewhere.
"It was bad. We had to sell everything. Including the furniture." So the mother of two boys got back to scrimping and spent hours going over store circulars and clipping coupons before doing the weekly food shopping.
Advice pays off
Friends admired her ability to save $100 or more during each trip to the market. She agreed to help them do the same. And it wasn't long before Gault wondered whether she could make money helping people save money. She launched her online business in February 2000, on her 40th birthday.
Eight years later, she has her own mini empire. She travels 10 months out of the year, both inside and outside the country, doing TV news appearances and launching franchises that are tailored to the local market.
Each Saturday afternoon, Gault's websites post exhaustive, color-coded lists about supermarket sales on everything from fresh produce to dish detergents to shaving cream. The lists direct members on where to find coupons -- online, in the newspaper, store circulars, etc. -- for even greater savings.
There are other sites that offer similar information, some of it for free. (CouponMom.com is one of them.)
But members such as Naomi Sachs-Amrami of Beverlywood say the Grocery Game is worth the fee because Gault's website covers more local stores and is easier to use.
"It definitely saves me time and money, and I shop where I want to shop," she said.
That kind of loyalty has helped the Grocery Game continue to steadily increase its standing in the online world, according to Heather Dougherty, a research analyst with hitwise.com. Gault's website has jumped from No. 21 last year to No. 16 this year in the ranking of top online coupon and savings websites, she said. "The growth in this category has just continued to increase," Dougherty said. "People have definitely shown an increased willingness to spend time online researching pricing."
Supermarkets are largely mum on what effect these websites have on their profit margins. "There are a lot of these websites out there, and we don't have an opinion about them one way or the other," said Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil.
At the end of the Glendale shopping foray, Gault pulled up to the checkout stand with a cart containing baby food, frozen meals, hair care products, vitamins, crunchy red apples and assorted other items. The total came to $96.06.
"Now watch this -- this is the best part," Gault said, clapping her hands and lightly stamping her feet. With a dramatic swipe of her Ralphs store card, the total dropped to $41.73. Then, she handed over a wad of coupons. Several swipes and bar code beeps later, the bill had plummeted to $29.23.
Even the cashier was impressed. "You some kind of an expert?" she asked.
"I am the expert," Gault answered with a laugh.
As she pushed her cart toward the exit, Gault carefully tucked her Catalinas away for next time. Then, she paused and held up the register receipt tallying her savings, admiring it as if it were a ribbon made of the finest silk.
"Ah, it's pretty, huh?"
Rene Lynch is a Times staff writer.