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How to bag big savings at the market this season

December 09, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | 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.

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