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Winning the grocery game: How to shop smarter, cheaper, faster

Posted Tuesday, September 26, 2006

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Consumer Reports recommends saving on packaged goods at less expensive stores and purchasing superior fresh foods at highly-rated chains

Yonkers, NY – The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 24,000 readers about their grocery shopping experiences and found that while respondents were generally happy with the supermarket they used most often, they still had complaints. Among survey respondents’ greatest gripes: closed checkouts, congested aisles, out-of-stock specials. Some readers had actually quit shopping at a nearby store they used to patronize, citing high prices, long waits, and poor selection, among other problems. In its October report, “Win at the Grocery Game,” Consumer Reports (CR) offers a wide range of tips on how to shop smarter, cheaper, and faster.

CR’s inside look at prices, service, and perishables shows that it’s hard to find top service, rock-bottom prices and great foods in a single store. That’s because the perfect supermarket doesn’t exist. Where you find low prices you’ll often find lackluster help, long checkout lines, and so-so fresh foods. Where you’ll find great service and goods, you’ll pay. Based on our research and survey findings, CR suggests that it can make sense to shop in one store for staples and another for fresh food. Stores use everything from sounds to product placement to make shoppers spend. CR reveals the ploys so that consumers can avoid them. Highlights of CR’s report follow:

To help consumers decide where to shop, CR rated 54 grocery chains for service, perishables, price, and cleanliness. CR’s Ratings are based on reader satisfaction with the shopping experience at supermarkets, supercenters, warehouse clubs, and limited-assortment stores. CR’s top ranked conventional supermarkets—Wegman’s, Publix, Raley’s, and Harris Teeter—generally scored high for service; meat, produce and baked goods; and cleanliness, but those stores did not have the lowest prices. Many stores that emphasized low prices fell short in other critical areas, particularly service.

For lower prices, CR recommends Trader Joe’s, Costco, Aldi, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart Supercenter. CR’s top picks among regional chains are Wegman’s, Publix, Raley’s Harris Teeter and Hy-vee. Wegman’s, Raley’s, and Whole Foods Market are rated best for meat and produce.

Selected tips for smarter shopping:

  • recently launched an online supermarket featuring more than 1,200 brands and 14,000 packaged food and nonfood items with free ground shipping on orders over $25. Most products are sold in multi-packs. This may make sense for people who want to stock up.
  • Watch out for misleading messages in circulars, such as ambiguous wording and incorrect images.
  • Pay attention to nutritional labels, not product placement. Some stores may place salsa and chips with produce instead of snacks, imparting a “health halo,” making people more likely to buy them.
  • Seven percent of CR’s survey respondents said that scanners got the total wrong. Some retailers offer overcharged customers a reward.
Some tips for shopping cheaper:
  • Sixty-four percent of CR’s survey respondents were highly satisfied with their store’s brands, which can be significantly cheaper than national brands. In CR’s tests of 65 products—from facial tissues to canned peaches—many store brands were at least as high in quality as national brands.
  • Shoppers will find low-profit items, such as sugar and shortening, as well as store brands and less sweet cereals, on the top and bottom shelves—not in the middle or eye level, which is prime selling space.
  • It’s worth paying extra for organic apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, pears, peaches, potatoes, raspberries, spinach, and strawberries, meat, dairy products, poultry, and eggs to minimize exposure to chemicals and potential toxins.
  • Don’t assume all the items advertised in circulars are on sale. A mere mention of a product in a circular can boost sales by as much as 500 percent, even without a price reduction.
Some time-saving tactics:
  • Study circulars online, which can enable consumers to compare prices at several stores. Or consider shopping online; it’s an option at quite a few chains. Delivery charges typically range from $5 to $10.
  • Shop early in the sale cycle for a better chance of finding items in stock and avoiding a return trip with a rain check.
The October 2006 issue of Consumer Reports is on sale September 5 wherever magazines are sold. To subscribe, call 1-800-765-1845.
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