Frugal grocery shoppers know how to obtain great bargains at their supermarket, but they can get some of the best deals on food, personal-care items and household supplies at drugstores.
By combining all the savings strategies at a large drugstore chain you can find amazing deals on a variety of products, such as oatmeal, soft drinks, toothpaste, shampoo, laundry detergent and paper towels.
During six recent shopping trips to CVS and Walgreens, for example, Stephanie Nelson bought $266 worth of merchandise for $5.63. At times, she actually makes money. Of course, Nelson is a shopping expert. She is author of the book "Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom," and creator of the CouponMom.com Web site.
But everyone can find great drugstore deals if they know how. "Believe it or not, strategic shoppers like me are shopping at drugstores, and we're making a profit," Nelson said.
Fitting drugstores into your buying routine jibes with the stockpiling strategy, where you stock up with good deals on products you use regularly, so you have to buy fewer items at full price. It's a strategy that can save hundreds of dollars a year, and some experts claim you can spend literally half as much on typical supermarket items.
Here are ways to save at the big chain drugstores.
-- Store sales. All three drugstore chains have weekly sales, advertised in newspaper inserts. CVS bargains operate off its ExtraCare Rewards card. Like many supermarket loyalty cards, having one qualifies you for store sale prices. You can sign up for a card online at CVS.com or in the store. The CVS card substitutes for clippable store coupons in its weekly advertising flier.
Walgreens and Rite Aid offer store coupons that can be clipped in their weekly circulars, along with special promotions and sale items.
-- Store credit. Offers of store credit are one thing that makes drugstore deals different from most supermarkets.
Walgreens, for example, has Register Rewards, which is a credit given for buying qualifying items. It can be used on your next purchase.
CVS has a similar program, but you can redeem the Extra Bucks store credit immediately after it prints on your receipt.
You can check out a partial order with items that earn store credit and immediately use that store credit to buy the rest of your order. At CVS you also receive store credit of 2 percent back on all purchases.
With store credit you can get items essentially free. For example, recently a mouth rinse at CVS cost $3.29 with the loyalty card. But by using $3.29 in Extra Bucks store credit, the mouth rinse would be free.
-- Rebates. Walgreens and Rite Aid have mail-in rebates on certain items. CVS rebates print on your receipt as store credit. That makes the CVS program easier to use because you have nothing to mail. But Rite Aid and Walgreens try to reduce the hassle of mail-in rebates by allowing customers to apply for multiple rebates on the same form. The program for Rite Aid, which also includes Eckerd and Brooks stores, calls it a "single check rebate" and also allows filing the rebate online.
Walgreens' Easy Saver rebates offer the option of taking your rebate in cash or store credit. You receive a 10 percent bonus if you accept the rebate in store credit. Learn more at www.walgreens.com. Each drugstore chain has a rebate catalog available in the stores. -- Manufacturer coupons. You can further lower prices by using coupons from your Sunday newspaper or online printable coupon sites. And you can sometimes obtain trial sizes of products free, if the coupon doesn't forbid it.
-- Stacking. You can stack store sales, rebates and coupons together, sometimes earning more money than you spent.
For example, Nelson bought a two-pack of toothbrushes at CVS. The original price was $3.99. After the sale price with loyalty card and a manufacturer's coupon, the price was 99 cents. And with that purchase she earned $1.99 in store credit, and an automatic 2 percent rebate. In the end, assuming she later used the store credit, she got the toothbrushes for free and received $1.02 in store credit.
Nelson's Web site lists deals for CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid and notes manufacturer coupons to stack on top of sales and store-credit offers.
-- How to choose. It takes effort to learn the rules of each drugstore's customer-loyalty program, so you might want to choose just one to start. All offer good deals, so choose the most convenient drugstore for you. If you hate mail-in rebates and clipping coupons, CVS is the way to go. If you'll do a lot of shopping for rebated items, Walgreens' 10 percent bonus in-store credit can add up. If you're age 60 or older you qualify for Rite Aid's special discount program, Living More, which gives you 10 percent off on Tuesdays, among other benefits. Details are available at www.riteaid.com.
More details on drugstore shopping programs are available through Nelson's free e-book, "Drugstore Coupon Saving Strategies." The nine-page e-book is available at Nelson's Web site. You'll have to view a number of product offers before you get to the book, but you can use a "skip" button to bypass each offer.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, a Tribune Co. newspaper in Allentown, Pa. E-mail him at email@example.com.