How to avoid spending more at the store

Food prices are soaring, and stores are pulling out all the stops to create the illusion of savings, value and good deals. Here’s how grocery stores get shoppers to overspend — and how to defend yourself…

  • Buy one, get one free. These offers make you feel that you are getting two items for “half price.” But it isn’t really half price if the cost is more than that of a similar item — and you’re getting no bargain at all if you don’t want or can’t use more than one of a product.
  • Self-defense: Ask the manager whether you can buy one item for half the price of two. Stores don’t advertise this alternative, but it often is allowed.

  • Limit four per person. Scarcity exerts a powerful effect on shoppers. Any time you’re restricted from buying, a hoarding mentality kicks in and you are likely to buy more than you need. Problem: Excess items can spoil, sit in your cupboard for years or simply get thrown out.
  • Self-defense: Purchase only the amount that you reasonably need and can use, no matter how good the price.

  • Double discounts. Quick: If you were given a choice of buying a $100 item at 50% off or buying the same item at 25% off with an additional 30% discount given at the register, which would you choose? Most consumers add the 25% and 30% and think that they are getting 55% off the product. In reality, they are paying $2.50 more.
  • Self-defense: Look at the fine print on the shelves to see if the store does “unit pricing” breakdowns for you (showing the final cost per ounce, pound, piece or whatever the unit is). Or better yet, bring a calculator to cut through the number games.

  • Country-of-origin labeling. With the recent scare over tainted products from China, stores know that consumers will pay more for food they trust. I’ve seen supermarket signs promoting “Live Maine Lobsters” or “Washington State Apples” with fine print that reads, respectively, “Imported from Chile” and “Product of Mexico.”
  • Self-defense: Don’t trust store signs for foods’ countries of origin. Check origin labels on the products.

    For organic foods, which often are priced higher, look for proof of authenticity. To be 100% sure that the product is organic, the packaging should carry a stamp that reads, “OTCO” (which means it is certified by Oregon Tilth, a national nonprofit organic certification organization) or “USDA Organic.”

  • Alluring end caps. These are stand-alone display cases at the ends of aisles. On average, shoppers are 30% more likely to buy end-cap goods than those in the middle of an aisle. End caps seem to have good deals — some say, “Stock up now!” or “Great price!” — but half the time, they’re not. In fact, these prime spots often are reserved for high-profit, so-called gourmet foods.
  • Self-defense: Buy from an end-cap only if it is truly a good deal. Be wary of freestanding (island) displays as well. They offer a different kind of impulse buy — expensive, “integrated” merchandise. For instance, an island display may group pricey strawberries, pastry shells and whipped cream together so that the customer thinks, I’ll make strawberry shortcake for dessert.

  • Presliced produce. Sliced foods can cost twice as much as whole foods.
  • Self-defense: Pay value-added prices for prepared meals only if they really save you significant time and effort. Example: A ready-to-eat whole chicken may be worth twice as much to you as a raw one if it saves you an hour of so of preparing and roasting. I also am willing to pay more for packaged, combination salads because doing so saves me time and money. To prepare the same kind of salad myself, I would have to buy four different varieties of lettuce.