How To Navigate A Grocery Store

How you shop a grocery store depends on what you’re looking for, but no matter what your primary goal in beating the system is, there are tricks to it.

The first and most important rule is to remember that a grocery store’s layout is not by chance. Everything is carefully placed to get you to spend as much as possible on things you don’t need, preferably those items with the most profit margin, since grocery stores have a razor-thin profit margin. CheatSheet lists some of the many ways that grocery stores are carefully planned to get you to spend.

So, here are some tips to help you make the most of your hard-earned dollar in the grocery store.

1. Make A List And Check It Twice

Don’t walk into the grocery store without a grocery list. Before you leave, go through your shelves and your fridge, to see what you have and what you need. Keep an inventory of your pantry to make sure that any needed items get replenished.

This can be done either on paper or on your favorite phone app – of which there are many.

2. Eat Before You Go

Never, ever walk into a grocery store when you’re hungry. Eat out or grab something out of the vending machine at work if you have to. If you do, you’re almost sure to buy things you don’t need. A better choice is to plan a meal at home just before a grocery store trip – you’re shopping full and have already been in your kitchen recently, so you have a good idea (and hopefully have written down) what you need.

3. Coupons and Savings Cards

If your grocery store has a phone app, consider using it. Sure, it helps them, but it also helps you. At the very least, have and use the savings card for your favorite grocery store. You can save quite a bit.

That said, I’ll say this: don’t buy something you wouldn’t ordinarily buy just because it’s on sale. That means you’re falling for the trap of buying things you don’t need just because it looks like a sale. You’re still spending more money than you save in the end, no matter how good the deal.

4. Look Down, Look Down

A grocery store shelf has a plan to it. The stuff at eye level is the most expensive stuff, the stuff the grocery store wants you to buy most. The stuff directly below that is the next most expensive, then the stuff at the top. The best bargains will be on the bottom shelves, including the large bulk containers.

5. Unit Prices Rule

When shopping for food, always look at the unit price to determine the value you’re getting. The retail price tells you how much you’ll spend for that box, but the unit price tells you how much bang is in that buck you’re spending. Usually, the smaller the box, the less bang you’re getting for your buck. When comparing two brands, compare the unit price, not the retail price, because those prices are normalized against a standard unit.

5a. Bulk Isn’t Always A Bargain

Generally speaking, large containers mean you’re paying for more food and less packaging, so the unit prices will be better on large containers. However, if you buy such a large container that you’ll never use it all before it goes bad, you’re throwing your money away on the portion you can’t use. If you only use a small container of milk, don’t buy a big one, because you’ll waste most of it.

On things that don’t spoil, go for the bulk packaging so long as you have the space to store it! Bulk is a great way to get paper products and cleaning products.

6. Cheaper Isn’t Always Better

Yes, that store brand can is 20¢ cheaper than the national brand. Sometimes, that’s a really good deal, but only if the store brand is equivalent quality to the national brand. It isn’t, always. The reality is that store brands can be very hit-or-miss in quality, and an item that is poor quality will need to be doubled up or replaced more frequently – and if that is true, are you really saving money?

Be cautious with off-brands. Try different products in the off-brand, but you’ll find sometimes that the off-brands don’t cut it and you’re actually saving money by spending a bit more on a high-quality product that lasts longer or that you can use less of to get the same effect. My experience tells me that you’re almost always better off with the national brand for these products:

  • Trash bags
  • Toilet paper
  • Paper towels
  • Paper plates
  • Canned peas (off-brand frozen veggies are usually fine)
  • Dishwashing detergent
  • Laundry detergent

7. About Display Placement

You know those displays of various things on the end of every aisle? Those are called end-cap displays, and those are items that the store is being paid to set out in a special place, or things that they want to sell more of. If it’s not on your list, skip it.

Also, have you ever noticed that the candy and/or cookie aisle almost always coincides with some essential that every parent needs? I’ve seen candy across the aisle from peanut butter, bread, fruit juice, and even diapers. Dirty pool, if you ask me – that’s a great way to get a harassed mother shopping with her kids a chorus of screams for candy. This isn’t an accident. As I said above, grocery stores are carefully planned by psychological and marketing experts to encourage you to make impulse purchases. Consider not having the kids (or your SO/spouse) in tow when you grocery shop to avoid this trick.

8. Don’t Hesitate To Ask

Grocery stores are forever moving things around on shelves and reorganizing the store. They also have a nasty habit of placing a key item that everyone buys somewhere that no sane person would ever think to look for it. This behavior is on purpose — it’s intended to force otherwise savvy and organized shoppers to slow down, hunt the shelves, and look at everything on display in hopes of encouraging one or more impulse purchases.

Don’t waste your time or money on this ploy. Find a clerk and ask them where the item you want is to be found. They know the store very well usually and will help you find it without any further fuss.

9. Where The Goodies Are

This is a tip for the health-conscious shoppers. If you’re trying to eat better, the good stuff is around the perimeter of the store. Frozen, dairy, meats, produce — all these items are to be found around the edges of the store. There are a few items in the middle that you’ll want, but by and large, the middle of the store is where you’ll find the junk. Stay to the edges, with a few forays for specific items, and you’ll shop more health-consciously.

One caution, though — the flowers and the baked goods near the door are designed to bombard your senses, so focus on your list and ignore the rest.

10. Groceries Can Be Had Online, Too

There are a number of grocery delivery and pickup services out there, where you can shop online, make your picks from the comfort of your couch, and have it brought to your door for a nominal delivery fee. They don’t always offer all the things you buy, though, so I don’t find that it works for me, but if you’re busy, it can be a godsend.

It can also keep you out of a lot of the head games played by the grocery stores, so if you’re tired, it’s an appealing choice.

11. Don’t Use A Bigger Basket Than You Need

When you have an empty space, the temptation is to fill it. The bigger basket you use, the more you’re tempted to buy. If you’re only going in for a few items, use the hand-carry basket, or seek out the smaller half-carts.

A Final Word

A grocery store can be a minefield of budget-busting choices. Shop mindfully and don’t let yourself get sucked into the head games, and you’ll eat well for less than eating out would cost you.