How to bag big savings at the market this season

Times Staff Writer

With gas prices hovering near record levels, food prices on the rise and Christmas looming, Doris Donohoe wants to trim her grocery bill.

“I shop the sales, I shop with coupons and I watch the ads,” the Cypress resident said as she loaded $150 of groceries into her station wagon at the Stater Bros. supermarket in Long Beach last week.

Donohoe’s money-saving efforts seem pretty obvious. But it’s not all that easy at a time when we all are distracted by year-end tasks, holiday parties, long-distance travel and the search for gifts.


Supermarkets are putting out a holiday spread aimed at busy people looking for quick hits. And it’s not just shrimp and cold cuts anymore. Gift cards for stores of all kinds hang near the register, holiday plates and glasses are on display, and wine goes out the door by the case.

At this time of year, it’s easy to put aside coupon clipping and comparison shopping when we may need them most: December is the biggest month for the nation’s supermarkets.

Food and beverage stores rang up $51.3 billion in sales last December, about 10% more than July, the next busiest month. And experts say this is the season to make money-saving ideas pay off.

Despite the many coupon shoppers you see at the store, few of them have a solid grocery-buying plan.

A study by the Food Marketing Institute found that only half of shoppers reported regularly making a grocery list, more than a third consistently perused advertisements and less than a third made a point of redeeming coupons.

First, make a shopping list

Yet these simple strategies and others can yield hundreds to thousands of dollars in savings a year, said Teri Gault, founder and chief executive of, a Santa Clarita-based online service that for a fee helps consumers optimize savings from coupons.


“It can be enough to buy a freezer, which will let you stockpile meats and frozen food when it is on sale and save even more money,” said Gault, whose site tracks coupons and promotions sorted by product and supermarket chain.

Americans spend more than $500 billion annually at food and beverage stores, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Typically, a family of four spends $107.20 a week on groceries, usually over two trips to the store. During the holiday season, it’s often much more.

Although the supermarket is a familiar and often comfortable place, Gault and other shopping experts warn that it is full of minefields designed to encourage spending. Such an atmosphere is even more pronounced during the holiday season, when supermarkets are busiest and stock up on products as diverse as chocolate and portable DVD players.

“Store managers are trained to arrange displays with tempting products to urge you to purchase those products. This leads to impulse buying,” said Laura Palmer, a foods and nutrition specialist with Purdue University Extension’s consumer and family sciences program.

But there are some simple ways to protect yourself from budget-busting grocery expeditions, Palmer said.

Always make a list and then “determine that you have to get all the items on your list before you add any other items to your cart,” she said.

Before you walk into the store, set an amount you will allow yourself to go over your budget. And finally, Palmer advises, “don’t shop when you are hungry.” It just makes everything look more enticing.

Simple tactics reap savings

But those are just the basics. Saving money at the grocery store requires shoppers to develop their own strategy. Here are some simple ways to save.

Plan: It really does pay to read the grocery advertisements to see what’s on sale and then to make a list, said Rachel Rappaport, a Baltimore cooking teacher who writes the Coconutand cooking blog and website.

“I decide what I am going to cook each week based on what’s on sale,” Rappaport said.

Once you get to the store, look around. There are often unadvertised specials at the store, Gault said. When buying products that come in lots of choices, such as pasta sauce, it also pays to look at the top and bottom shelves to make sure the highest-priced items have not been stacked at eye level, Gault said.

Forget loyalty: “I am not brand-loyal, I am price-loyal,” said Nicole Payne while shopping at an Albertsons in Long Beach.

That means trying out store or house brands if the price is less. These can be good choices as a substitute for a brand-name product, especially if you don’t have a coupon. And they often come from the same factory or plant as one of the national brands.

Donohoe now purchases a Stater Bros. version of chunky soup for her boys because the Campbell’s brand is too expensive, she said.

Stockpile: Certain goods are on sale at certain times of the year. Turkeys are cheap at Thanksgiving. Ham is less expensive at Easter. Soda, hot dogs and condiments go on sale before summer three-day weekends and holidays. Gault also recommends stashing away about one item, such as toothpaste or pasta sauce, per family member.

Currently, flour, sugar and other baking supplies are on sale as a lure for Christmas bakers.

“I just bought 10 five-pound bags of flour for 60 cents each. The expiration date is a year away and I will use it up,” Rappaport said.

Think about the store: A high-end store might have the gourmet cheeses and meats you need to make a party special. But if you also need toilet paper and laundry detergent, it might make sense to stop at a discount retailer on the way. This doesn’t mean you should drive five or 10 miles around town saving a buck here and a buck there. Gas prices are too high for that.

Pay attention to two-for-one sales and unit prices: Sometimes it makes sense to buy larger quantities -- but not always. Compare per-unit prices. Similarly, just because a product is priced at two for $5 doesn’t mean you have to purchase two. In most instances, you can purchase just one for $2.50.

Use coupons: They’re plentiful, Gault said. Her website helps people match coupons to sales, which can reduce the cost of a product to a fraction of its regular price and sometimes even make it free. Gault likes to save up coupons and then strike when there are double or triple redemption value promotions and the item is on sale.

This technique is especially effective at stores such as Safeway Inc.’s Vons division and the Kroger Co.-owned Ralphs that practice a “high-lo” pricing strategy, Gault said.

Traditional grocery stores usually put two or three categories of food on sale every week and follow that cycle for most of the year, Gault said. Their regular prices are higher, but their sales prices often dip lower than those at other stores. With a bit a planning, smart consumers can stock up on products when they are on sale and when there’s a good coupon available, Gault said.

Other stores use the “everyday low prices” approach popularized by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Such stores generally have lower average prices but don’t offer the enticing sales, double-coupon promotions and specials that competitors advertise.

Do a test and see what works for you: Gault took identical lists to Ralphs, a high-lo pricer, and Food4Less, which uses an everyday-low-price strategy. Although they use different pricing structures, both Southern California chains are owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger.

Her Ralphs bill after reaping discounts through her club card and coupons was $12.92. The same list cost $43.50 at Food4Less.

But you also have to be circumspect and not use a coupon just because it exists, Palmer said.

“Manufacturers usually provide coupons when they want consumers to try a new product. Even with the coupon, it may be less expensive to buy a generic or store brand,” she said.

Think seasonally: Farmers markets often offer better produce at lower prices than retail chains, Rappaport said. One reason for this is that many items are seasonal. They are expensive and in short supply at the beginning of the season but become more plentiful in the following weeks. This creates a surplus of food that farmers want to sell before it spoils; thus the price often falls.

Check the product’s weight

Finally, beware of the incredible shrinking package.

When Ana Marie Orr of Long Beach shops for her family of six, she’s careful to check how much a product weighs. Recently while shopping at the Stater Bros. in Long Beach, she discovered that a box of chicken nuggets had the same price as in previous weeks but had shrunk in size. Although Orr still bought them because her kids like them, having to pay for less product irritated her.

“They think they are fooling you,” Orr said, “but moms know.”