Shopping experts share their best advice for saving on groceries
By Laura Daily,
I consider myself a savvy shopper, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I spend more than my fair share of time in the clearance section of the neighborhood grocery store. Although many people opted for home delivery or curbside pickup during the pandemic, I still shopped (in a mask while pushing a disinfected cart) at supermarkets and big-box retailers, because I’m a designated buyer for a high school food pantry.
Since March 2020, I have scored some great deals. And spending so much time cruising store aisles — many of which were empty or contained wildly overpriced merchandise (disinfectant wipes, hand soap) — taught me some new bargain-hunting tricks.
Those techniques are going to come in handy. Although shelves are now restocked, and you no longer have to scramble for your favorite toilet paper, companies such as Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Clorox and others are increasing prices on household staples, including baby care, feminine hygiene and adult incontinence products, to offset higher commodity costs that cut into profits. By this fall, consumers can expect to pay about 5 to 10 percent more for some brands of diapers, tampons, toilet paper, trash bags and more.
I spoke with several other people who successfully navigated the pandemic retail scene. Here are some tips for saving money, based on our experiences.
Give private labels a second look. “When shelves were empty, we bought what was in stock, be it toilet paper or canned vegetables, out of necessity,” says Jill Cataldo, a consumer coupon and shopping expert in Chicago. That was often a store’s house brand, such as Target’s Up & Up, Walmart’s Great Value or Walgreens’s Nice. Typically produced by the major manufacturers for retailers, house brands are often equal in quality and lower in price than name brands. “Private-label products surprised people. I tried some paper towels that turned out to be as good as the name brand and cost less,” she says. “Plus, a lot of stores guarantee their private-label products, so you can return them if you don’t like them.”
Pay attention to price tags. There are many reasons to closely eyeball tags. One is to note the regular price vs. the sale price. If you’re saving at least 50 percent, that’s the time to restock, particularly if you have a coupon, Cataldo says. You also want to check the unit price. Instead of raising prices, companies often try to maintain profits by downsizing the package, says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst for dealnews.com. “So the price for that package of cookies seems the same, but you are getting fewer cookies.” By watching the price per unit, you’ll recognize when a company sneaks in a price hike.
Buy what the stores are dumping. As the pandemic wore on, manufacturers rolled out new disinfectants or ramped up production of antibacterial sanitizers. Now that we know soap and water is just as good for cleaning surfaces, stores have a surplus, and they’re slashing prices on all-purpose spray, dish soap, disinfectant wipes and generic toilet paper and hand soap, making it easier to score a deal. (If you are a grocery store loyalty member, be sure to check your account. Some stores are even giving these items away.) The same holds true for thermometers, acetaminophen, isopropyl alcohol and other basic medical supplies.
Funnels are your friend. One reason Costco and Sam’s Club were overrun with customers during the pandemic is because they sell products in bulk. Instead of getting one bottle of multipurpose cleaner for $3, I could get that same spray bottle bundled with a one-gallon jug and refill the original bottle with a cheap funnel, paying about $12 for the equivalent of six bottles. Ramhold uses the same trick, purchasing hand soap in bulk, then refilling kitchen and bathroom bottles. “It lasted a ridiculous amount of time,” she says. Granted, you may not need (or have the storage for) 72 rolls of toilet paper or several gallons of laundry detergent, but another option is to purchase larger sizes of nonperishables at big-box and warehouse stores and split the cost — and the supply — with family or friends.
Check the clearance section and beyond. This is where you’ll find slightly damaged merchandise, seasonal items that didn’t sell (some stores are still trying to offload last year’s pumpkin spice air fresheners) and rebranded or discontinued products left over from the pandemic. “Some stuff is so stupidly cheap, it’s almost free,” Cataldo says, adding that you can use coupons on most clearance items for extra savings. One tip: If you find a great deal in clearance, check the aisle where it’s regularly stocked. You may find more of the same item there.
Sales aren’t always a deal. Hanging a clearance tag is a dog whistle to many shoppers, but it’s important to read the fine print. Sometimes, that tag is just a marketing tool, Ramhold says. One of my local grocery stores likes to post a sale price of 99 cents for its store-brand dish soap. The original price: $1.
Scan your options. It can sometimes pay to spend a few minutes taking in a wide view of all the options for a product. For example, if you know the average cost of laundry detergent, shampoo or razors, look at every brand on the shelf. You may find a great price that isn’t marked as a sale, Ramhold says.
Stock up, but don’t stockpile. “If there’s anything the pandemic taught us, it’s that we should always have essentials on hand in case of an emergency, so we don’t have to run to the store,” Cataldo says. “It doesn’t take much to spark a buying panic and clear store shelves.” When you find a good deal on the products you regularly use and would need, such as toilet paper, peanut butter, dried pasta or dish soap, buy about a week’s worth — but don’t become a part of the problem and purchase a year’s worth. Considerate shoppers, even those who find great deals, take only what they need, so others don’t get caught short. For most emergencies, such as hurricanes or winter storms, odds are that you’ll be able to access your usual retailers within a few days.
Avoid pricey temptations. Many consumers who shopped in stores during the height of the pandemic knew what they needed and darted in and out to minimize their contact with others. Others eschewed in-store shopping in favor of curbside pickup or delivery. The cost-saving benefit? It reduced impulse shopping. Ramhold says you can achieve the same result by creating a list and using a store’s app to find where your items are located. “That way, you can plan your trip, be hyper-focused and avoid aisles of temptation,” she says.