22 Things Your Grocer Won’t Tell You
Get smarter about grocery shopping. These tips could change your family shopping—and eating—habits.
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What your grocer isn’t telling you
Whether you know them by name or it’s your first time in a new grocery store, those workers with colorful smocks and name tags aren’t about to spill all their best-kept, on-the-job secrets. According to the Food Industry Association, there are nearly 40,000 supermarkets in the United States, employing around 4.8 million people. That’s a lot of folks with insider knowledge, but they may not be so quick to share the tricks of the trade because, while their sales topped $701 billion in 2018, these stores typically only make a net profit of 1 percent after taxes. Still, there are some helpful lessons grocers have leaked, and they will really change your shopping game. And you won’t believe some of the things grocery stores don’t want you to know.
Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
Prepare for changes
While we’d all like for things to go back to “normal” after an incredibly wicked 2020, don’t expect that sense of normalcy to return to your favorite grocery store. In fact, expect things to get even more different, and we’re not just talking face masks and arrows directing you which way to browse a particular aisle. According to The Washington Post, you can expect what they describe as a reservation system of sorts. A pre-determined shopping list could round up all of the packaged items you need at the back of the store, allowing customers to only meander through the front of the store areas where produce, meat, and bakery departments will reside. These are the everyday habits that could—and should—change after coronavirus.
Avoid crowds and lines…
In the post-COVID era, we all want to avoid coming into contact with crowds as much as possible. Shop at dinnertime (5 to 9 p.m.) or even later. Only 4 percent of shoppers hit the aisles between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. The least crowded day of the week is Wednesday, says the savings site smartcarting.com. Of course, if you do have to shop on the weekend, the advice is a little different. “If you have to go on the weekend, which many of us do, go right when the store opens,” says Trae Bodge, smart shopping expert at truetrae.com. “The other thing to look into is if your store has senior hours—though it goes without saying that if you’re not a senior, avoid those times.” Here’s how to avoid germs when you hit the market.
Grocery delivery apps can still secure deals
Due to safer-at-home orders in 2020, apps like InstaCart and Shipt saw a surge in users who wanted to limit their interactions with those outside of their household. The problem? You can’t use your club card or carefully uploaded digital coupons. But there are still ways to save if you rely on these services to get your groceries. “These services are popular right now, but it’s definitely worth looking for savings,” says Bodge. “I found several coupons for both services on Slickdeals.net.” Another option for Amazon Prime members in select cities is free two-hour delivery from the local Whole Foods with a minimum purchase.
Find the freshest dairy
Go ahead and reach way back for the fresh milk. Everybody does. The theory goes that either employees are stocking those dairy shelves from behind the scenes or pulling the carts with the closest expiration dates to the front so that they sell faster. Regardless, Bodge encourages all shoppers to check the expiration date on that milk before adding it to the cart.
Get the biggest savings with grocery store apps
If clipping coupons by hand from the newspaper soothes you (or old habits die hard), know that those with a bar code are easy to scan. The other ones take an eternity. However, you can generally find the same deals digitally via your favorite market’s website or app, including a host of other independently operated apps. “If you’re shopping in-store, free apps, like Flipp, can help you look for savings,” says Bodge. “I like Flipp because you can also build your shopping list within the app in advance of your trip, which can help you get in and out quickly.” Here are 20 ways to save money you probably haven’t tried yet.
You can find great grocery savings at big box stores
More and more people are limiting the number of stops they make to shop for groceries, household supplies, and little luxuries (we’re looking at you, Target), so finding savings on food items at those stores are important. “If you prefer to one-stop-shop at a big box store, like Walmart or Target, use a savings app like CouponCabin.com to find deals, like up to 25 percent off at Walmart with 2 percent cash back in addition,” says Bodge. “If you plan to shop online, install their free Sidekick browser extension, which will automatically alert you to available savings as you browse online.”
Caution: Exotic produce sits longer
Familiar produce turns over more quickly than exotic items, so that starfruit has been here a lot longer than the broccoli. Be sure to read up on how to detect if one of these more unusual fruits or veggies is already ripe (or needs ripening.) For example, a starfruit’s skin should still feel firm and be bright yellow in color with a little green thrown in for good measure. If there’s dark brown along the ridges, that’s okay!
Your grocery store layout is very intentional
The more products you see, the more you are likely to buy, explains Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat. That’s why the aisles are so long and the milk is usually in the far corner, which is basically the most inconvenient spot for it when all you want to do is grab a carton and go. But the layout of departments isn’t the only thing to mess with your mind (and your cart). “Stores will often place higher-priced items right at our eyeline,” says Bodge. “It’s really a matter of convenience. We see it, grab it, and put it in our carts. My advice is to look carefully at the unit price of these items compared to items on higher or lower shelves. You will likely find more reasonable prices there. And don’t ignore the generics! They are often exactly the same as the name brand, minus the name.” You probably still fall for these supermarket tricks.
Happy employees have a stake in the biz
Shop at chains that are employee-owned, suggest customer-satisfaction surveys. Being employee-owned means that a store’s staff owns the majority of stock shares. When employees have a stake in the profits, it shows in their attitude. According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, a few of these chains include Publix, WinCo, Food Giant, Brookshire Brothers, and Reasor’s. Particularly in a time when grocery shopping can feel like a stressful chore, wouldn’t you rather your interactions be positive than ho-hum? These are the things that frustrate every grocery store employee.
Don’t be a “grazer”
The “grazers” order food at the deli, eat it as they’re shopping, and get rid of the wrappers before they check out. That’s called stealing. “It’s really annoying watching people do this with sandwiches, fruit, even sushi,” says a Whole Foods Market employee who asked to remain anonymous. “Before you eat it, you need to pay for it. There’s no rule that says [that] if you eat it before you check out, it’s free. You’re a thief. It’s like watching someone steal from your own house.”
Grocers are trying to sell more than food
You’ll find lots of odds and ends at your nearby market that go way beyond food items and household cleaning products. So what shouldn’t you purchase at the grocery? “A good rule of thumb is to avoid non-food-related items, like OTC medicines, intimate/sanitary products, and greeting cards,” says Bodge. “You will find better pricing at your local pharmacy chain or big box store on anything personal care–related, and the best place to get greeting cards is at the dollar store.”
Stores market to kids
Some may say grocery stores are a little too kid-friendly: They put the rainbow-colored cereals and other kiddie catnip at their eye level. This isn’t by accident. According to a study from Packaged Facts, 26 percent of parents learn about a new food product because their kiddo requested it. Of course, just because they ask doesn’t mean they get. The survey results found that after their child asks for something new, parents take a look at the nutritional content, how much they think their kid will actually enjoy it, and then whether or not the flavor is palatable for their age.
Be wary of “specials”
When people see signs with numbers—”10 for $10!” or “Limit: 5 per customer”—they buy 30 to 100 percent more than they otherwise might have. Before you buy, be sure to check the fine print. Does the sign say “must buy 10” or simply “10 for $10”? Because if it’s the latter, you can simply buy two of that item for $1 apiece if that’s all that you need. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, each person in the United States tosses more than 400 pounds of food annually. That’s approximately $1,800 of money wasted per every family of four in a single year! Buy less and you’ll toss less. Here are some more secrets that’ll help you save money the next time you grocery shop.
There’s a reason the baby formula is behind glass…
…thieves resell it on the black market. According to an article that appeared in The New York Post, three people were arrested in Utah back in 2016 for stealing 422 cans of the stuff, amounting to a grand total of between $8,000 to $10,000 in merchandise. Back in 2009, there was actually a baby formula “ring” discovered in Florida with an estimated $2 million of the stuff stolen per year. While not quite as infamous, cough and cold medications, smoking-cessation products, razor blades, and batteries also experience similar issues.
Avoid purchasing the overprocessed
“Don’t buy anything with more than five ingredients (too processed), with ingredients you can’t pronounce (too processed), with anything artificial (tastes bad), with a cartoon on it (direct marketing to children), or with a health claim (misleading),” says Nestle. This is assuming the product you picked up is being transparent. Food Safety Tech reported many fraudulent claims in the food sector in 2020, including the incorrect organic certification of produce like winter squash and avocados, reports of sugar syrups in honey, and illegally produced alcohol drinks containing ingredients like methanol. Here’s what you should know if you grocery shop online.
Park far away if you’re worried about car dents
Driving your BMW to the Piggly Wiggly and want to avoid shopping-cart dents? Park far, far away. It isn’t only other cars that you need to worry about, but the wheels of shopping carts left unsecured throughout the lot. And if you really want to be a courteous shopper? Returning a cart to the front of the store or at one of the cart drop-off points located throughout the parking lot will also go a long way in ensuring that everyone’s cars stay clear of trolley dings. Not to mention it makes it easier for an employee to herd them back to the store for future shoppers, allowing them to get to their next task more quickly.
Loyalty programs aren’t what they used to be
Very few people really like the “loyalty card” program, and they are expensive to run. However, Progressive Grocer notes that these programs are now actually benefitting from an uptick in technology. In 2019, Target even got in on the action with their Target Circle program, which is free and allows members to accrue savings that they can apply to future purchases. When you sign up for these cards, retailers can track your personal preferences, thereby giving them the opportunity to churn out digital coupons that appeal to what will likely be on a future shopping list. That brings the customer back to the store, which is always a win. Find out why stores ask for your phone number at checkout before you give it out next time.
How to find the fresh fruit
Dig and reach for the freshest produce. (Okay, maybe don’t do this during COVID—or at the very least, make sure your hands are thoroughly washed.) Older merchandise gets pushed to the front of the bin and spread across the top to encourage customers to take it first. Anyone who has patronized more than one grocery store knows that not all produce departments are created equal. Consumer Reports ranked the top five best stores for fresh fruit and veg in the country in 2019. Their list includes: Central Market in Texas, Wegmans in the mid-Atlantic region, Heinen’s around Chicago and in Ohio, Gelson’s in Southern California, and New Seasons Market in the Pacific Northwest. They offered honorable mentions to Minnesota’s Lunds & Byerlys as well as Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in multiple states across the Midwest. Speaking of older merchandise, here’s the gross truth about the apples you’re buying at the supermarket.
Rinse your recyclables
Bring back your recyclable cans and bottles, but please rinse them out first (and make sure you don’t crush them!). Leaving soda inside is unsanitary, and grocery employees find it disgusting. But, seriously, give them a quick rinse and please recycle. The Aluminum Association reports that there was a significant drop in the consumer recycling rate from 2018 (49.8 percent) to 2019 (46.1 percent). With that being said, they crunched the numbers and say the 20-year average rate of consumer recycling is 50 percent. “Aluminum packaging represents only 3 percent of the weight but nearly half of the economic value of recyclable material generated by a typical single-family home,” the association determined.
Use common sense in the express lane
If you get in the “10 items or less” line with 25 items, don’t be surprised if you are asked to leave. If you have 12 items, though, not many people will care. Interestingly, a 2018 study conducted by Forrester Research and Digimarc found that shoppers are actually willing to switch stores if it means they’ll have a faster checkout time. Because a swift shopping experience is so important to consumers, the survey concluded that “over the next five years, online grocery shopping will nearly double, growing from $185 billion in 2018 to $334 billion in 2022. To compete with the speed and convenience of online shopping, retailers must make the in-store experience better. Surveyed consumers say that means faster checkout, among other amenities.” And to think, they came to that conclusion that even before the COVID-19 pandemic!
Skip the center aisles
That’s where you’ll find the junk food, like sodas and snack foods. So unless you have a hankering for chips, stick to the perimeter. And if you manage to bypass those calorie traps and make it all the way to checkout only to be tempted by both sweet and savory snacks (so much chocolate!), know that parts of the country are working towards banning these items from hanging out near the register. In 2020, Berkeley, California approved a measure prohibiting any market larger than 2,500 square feet from having checkout displays of items deemed unhealthy, reported CBS News.
Check package sizes
“Manufacturers are constantly trying to repackage things to make them sound like a better deal,” says David Livingston, a supermarket industry consultant. “Some new peanut butter containers may look the same, but look closely and you’ll see they actually have less peanut butter inside. Ninety-five percent of customers don’t watch this kind of stuff.” For more food secrets, learn the ones your fast food worker won’t tell you.
- The Washington Post: “Grocery trends: Fewer new products, but more changes in supermarkets and shopping”
- Smartcarting.com: “When is the best time to go grocery shopping?”
- Trae Bodge, smart shopping expert at truetrae.com
- Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat
- Packaged Facts: “Kids Control Household Food Purchase Choices”
- New York Post: “There’s a thriving black market for baby formula”
- Progressive Grocer: “Loyalty Programs Profit from Technology Upgrades”
- The Aluminum Association: “The Aluminum Can Advantage”
- Supermarket News: “For customers, the waiting is the hardest part”
- CBS News: “Berkeley poised to ban junk food in store checkout aisles”