Supermarket buying guide

Last updated: April 2015
Getting started

Getting started

Twenty-eight percent of subscribers in our most recent annual supermarket survey said they had fired a nearby grocery store. Forty-five percent did so in search of lower prices. Three in 10 gave a store the boot because of poor selection, long lines, lousy food, or cleanliness concerns. Around one in five stopped shopping at a particular store because of rude employees.

Whether it's because of more shopping options or lower tolerance for stores that don't meet their needs, consumers are less loyal to any one particular supermarket than ever before, according to the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group. Instead, they're cherry-picking individual stores to take advantage of their particular strengths: prime produce, succulent seafood, marvelous meats. They're also turning to other outlets--restaurants, convenience stores, food trucks, farmers markets, and even drug stores--to satisfy their food needs on any given day. In addition, conventional grocers are feeling heat from burgeoning retail concepts built around wellness that cater to those interested in a fresh approach to eating. Sprouts Farmers Market (mostly in the West) is a prime example of a niche market going mainstream. The 200-store chain specializes in fresh, organic, and homemade foods "at reasonable prices," perhaps a not-so-subtle dig at rival Whole Foods, which is known for its enormous smorgasbord of store-made foods-to-go, but is equally famous for its high prices.

Survey results

Of the 62,917 readers who told us about 111,208 supermarket experiences, 55 percent had at least one complaint about their current store, 29 percent cited two or more, while 15 percent found at least three irritants.

The biggest gripe overall: Not enough open checkouts (cited by a quarter of respondents). In addition, about one in 10 readers complained about congested or cluttered aisles, lack of product choice, poor selection of locally grown or made goods, indifferent staff, and a confusing layout. Four percent complained about spotty or missing price labels.

Fortunately, most consumers have multiple shopping choices, and some supermarkets gave customers much of what they want. Among the top stores were national grocers Costco (the no-frills warehouse club that offers great deals if you're willing to buy in bulk), Trader Joe's (a limited-assortment store that specializes in store brands and unusual goods), Whole Foods (focusing on perishables, organics, and service), and Ratings newcomer The Fresh Market (also focusing largely on produce, prepared foods, and other perishables), along with regional players such as Wegmans (East), Publix (South), and Sprouts Farmers Market. Walmart, despite other problems, had better-than-average prices.

Over the years, our supermarket Ratings have been remarkably consistent. Since 2005, there's barely been any movement among the top 10 or so chains. The same holds true near the bottom.

Ways to save

Shoppers have a lot invested in their stores, averaging 83 trips per year and spending approximately $5,400.

Our reporter learned firsthand that a smart shopper can save money by using these tactics:

Use coupons. Manufacturers flooded the market with more than 310 billion coupons last year only 2.75 billion of which were redeemed, according to NCH Marketing Services, which tracks promotions. The average face value of a coupon for food was $1.06 vs. $2.05 for non-food items. All told, consumers saved $3.6 billion by using coupons, which makes it difficult to understand why only 59 percent of subscribers we surveyed used manufacturers coupons. The source of most coupons remains inserts such as those in the Sunday newspaper, despite all the buzz about electronic ones that can be downloaded from supermarkets and manufacturer websites to smartphones, or printed out via home computers.

Be loyal. If your store has a loyalty or bonus-card program and you're comfortable with the privacy policy, join it. A Food Marketing Institute spokeswoman says the organization doesn't know of any chains that sell card lists to third-party marketers but advises consumers to check, because policies differ. More than half of survey respondents--56 percent--belonged to bonus-card programs, and 88 percent (up 4 percentage points from last year) of those were satisfied with the savings they received.

Increasingly, stores are saving their best deals for loyalty-card members. Some also include a fuel-reward component; the typical discount at participating gas stations ranges from 5 to 10 cents a gallon for each $50 spent at the store. Other possible membership perks: cash or merchandise rebates based on purchases, coupon doubling, buy-one-get-one-free specials, and coupons toward future purchases.

Buy store brands. Due in part to lower product-development and promotional costs, store brands can sell for a lot less than the national names. In a Market Basket study, our reporter saved nearly $20 by switching to store brands even when comparing them to name brands that were on sale. Twenty-one percent of those surveyed cited good store brands are an important reason for choosing a store, and 65 percent buy them regularly. Sixty-three percent of respondents were highly satisfied with the quality of the store brands they bought. Year after year, our trained tasters often agree. Most store brands come with a money-back satisfaction guarantee; some chains will give you double-your-money back if you're unhappy.

Shop online. Grocers will sometimes waive the fee for first-time customers, so it won't cost anything to give it a try. Also, chains usually back their programs with a satisfaction guarantee. Most online services are skewed to packaged goods, and those that offer delivery of perishables are regional, such as Amazon Fresh, Peapod, and Fresh Direct. Many grocery chains have their own programs that allow customers to order online or by smartphone and pickup their groceries at the store or have them delivered (usually for a fee).

More ways to save

Take a flyer. Most grocers play the high-low game: They price some items at or below cost, feature them in flyers to draw you into the store, and hope you'll then buy more-profitable items. Be aware that not everything in flyers is on sale.

Look for longer markdowns. Continuing a trend that began early in the recession, some chains have extended sale prices beyond the typical week.

Show your age. More chains are catering to older shoppers by offering occasional bonus savings. Some chains designate one day a week as senior shopping day and extend discounts, typically 5 percent, to those over age 55 or 60.

Compare unit prices. That's the most effective way to determine which brand, size, or package type is most economical.

Use a basket if you can. Shoppers who wheeled jumbo carts bought more than those wheeling regular or small ones, according to a study by the Cornell University Food & Brand Lab. The effect was more pronounced the longer shoppers stayed in the store. If you need only a few items, skip the cart and consider a hand basket.

Avoid traps and tricks

You can save even more by knowing how stores try to make you buy: piling items on end-aisle displays even if they're not on sale because most people assume they are, posting signs such as "10 for $10" though there's no requirement to buy all 10 to get the discount, If you don't mind a little work, you can save a bundle by cutting your own pineapple or watermelon chunks, slicing your own mushrooms or apples, and chopping your own celery into sticks, which can triple the price. But those tactics are just the tip of the iceberg.

"Most of the decisions we make in the supermarket are little ones, made in the midst of distractions--you're on the cell phone, the kids are fighting," William Poundstone, author of "Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)" (Hill and Wang, 2008), said. "You're operating on autopilot and don't have time to think things through logically. In those situations, as marketers have discovered, we're all very easy to manipulate."

Indeed. We visited local stores and spoke to marketing experts to help you identify where the manipulation may occur and how to resist it.

What to look for

As you work your way through the store, you'll probably spend somewhat less by shopping clockwise, according to Herb Sorensen, a consultant for retailers and manufacturers. Most stores have their main entrance on the right side, and their customers tend to move counterclockwise. When researchers compared those shoppers with people who went through a left entrance and shopped clockwise, they found the clockwise folk spent $2 less per trip, on average.

The produce and floral departments are usually near the entrance, and there's a savvy strategy behind the location. In addition to imparting the message that the store is committed to freshness and health by showcasing fruit and vegetables, the scent of baked rolls is often evident as soon as you step inside as well. That stirs hunger--and more buying--according to Jim Hertel of Willard Bishop.

As you cruise the aisles, beware of "bumpouts," displays and shelves that curve or jut out. They catch the eye and make merchandise more tempting, Supermarkets are organized to slow you down so you'll buy more. The average store contains 73 product displays to stop you in your tracks.

Look above and below eye-level shelves. Manufacturers sometimes pay retailers for valuable eye-level placement. In a study by the Cornell Food & Brand Lab, researchers watched shoppers buy 40 percent of the items in their carts from shelves that were within 12 inches of eye level.

When you reach the end of an aisle, don't always expect a sale. Stores sometimes reset endcap and other high-profile displays with sale items the day before the lower price takes effect (but without the new signage). If you grab and go too early, you'll pay full price. Our reporter knows, because it happened to him.

Wherever you see offers for free stuff, make sure there's no catch. "Most purchases are a gamble," William Poundstone said. "You pay your money and hope that the product is as good as you thought it would be. ‘Free' is a great sales pitch because you say to yourself, ‘I can't regret this purchase because I got it for free.' Unfortunately, you generally have to buy something else with the freebie."

When you do pay, don't be fooled if the price ends in "9." It's a practice known as "charm" pricing. Some researchers believe that shoppers see a jar of peanuts priced at $6.99 as $6 rather than $7, making it seem cheaper. Buyers have also been conditioned to associate prices ending in "9" with a bargain, Poundstone says. "We're Pavlov's dogs salivating at the 9 we associate with a discount," he said.

Finally, at the checkout, double-check the receipt. Two percent of respondents to our survey said that they were overcharged, a figure that has been quite steady throughout the years. When an item scans at the wrong price, the Federal Trade Commission recommends that merchants offer consumers a reward, such as giving them the item for free if there's an overcharge. Some chains do so, but you may have to complain forcefully. Report frequent pricing mistakes to the FTC, your state attorney general, or your local consumer affairs office. Repeat violators can be fined.

Bottom line. If you're unhappy with your store, fire it and look at our Ratings for a good alternative. Though each has its limitations, Costco, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods are high-rated stores available to many people across the U.S. Wherever you shop, save a bundle by using the tactics we've outlined.

Unit pricing is not universal

Unit prices make it easy to compare apples to apple slices. They're the cost per ounce, per quart, per pound, or per 100 sheets (for starters) listed on the shelf beneath each product. Beyond telling you whether bulk products are cheaper than packaged ones, unit prices indicate whether a big box of cereal is more economical than a small one, or whether brand X is a better deal than brand Y. Three-quarters of all grocery shoppers rely on them to make comparisons, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

Yet there is no federally mandated unit-pricing label similar to the Nutrition Facts on packaged goods. Unit pricing is largely voluntary. The result: a mishmash of labels that vary from store to store and state to state.

Aisle by aisle

We sent shoppers to stores in 11 states to examine the labels for everyday items. Each shopper encountered examples of inconsistent labels and, on several occasions, no unit pricing at all. One of the biggest problems we noticed when a Consumer Reports staffer visited seven stores closer to our Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters was the huge disparity in the type size on the labels. Some of the writing was large and legible; others small enough to pose a challenge to those with visual impairment or limited mobility.

Even in states with unit-pricing rules, enforcement may be spotty. David Sefcik, an expert at the National Institute of Standards and Technology Office of Weights and Measures, an agency within the Department of Commerce that works with the industry to make labeling consistent, says there's been "very little or no recent activity where retailers have received a fine or penalty by states with mandatory unit pricing laws for noncompliance."

Bottom line

There ought to be a law. Unit pricing is specifically exempted from the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, and attempts to regulate it have been unsuccessful. For now, the best way for consumers to compare prices may be to use a calculator.

An ideal unit-price label

Unit-price labels now differ in size, shape, color, content, layout, and legibility. Check out this PDF of an "ideal" label we created with input from David Sefcik. With such a label, comparison shopping could be a breeze--not a burden.

Focus on fresh

What makes a supermarket great? Years ago, the answer might have been low prices, checkout speed, or variety. Now another consideration is top-of-mind: "fresh." For many Americans, food is the new medicine: We believe we can eat our way to good health. As a result, consumers have become increasingly savvy label readers, wary of preservatives, chemicals, and unpronounceable ingredients.

Since 2007, the demand for minimally processed foods with shorter ingredients lists has risen significantly, according to The Hartman Group, a consumer research firm. "There has been a tremendous evolution in the term ‘fresh' as it applies to supermarkets," says food-industry expert Richard George. For years, supermarket industry insiders have lamented the decline of the "center store," a euphemism for the middle aisles stocked with bagged, boxed, and heavily advertised products.

"There's a growing rejection of overly processed and packaged foods, especially among younger consumers," says Willard Bishop's Jim Hertel. "They're suspicious about food additives and so sure ‘less is more,' that they buy gluten-free even if they're not allergic to gluten." Conversely, Hertel says, young people who have grown up with higher-quality fast-casual restaurants, including Panera and Chipotle, "know quality food doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg." Supermarkets are taking seriously their new role in the health of their customers. In the 1980s, just two chains had a registered dietitian. Today, dieticians influence merchandising and marketing decisions in 95 percent of chains. Some stores participate in nutrition-scoring programs such as NuVal (available at Kroger, Price Chopper, and other chains); others, like Whole Foods Market, publicize food safety commitments that include stocking only antibiotic-free meat. Consumers' food-safety concerns have also prompted stores to carry more locally sourced selections, Hertel adds. Some chains even display the names of their local producers, along with their family photos. Says Hertel: "There's a sense of ‘we know them, we know their operations, and we trust them, so you should, too.' "

The growth of farmers markets--a fourfold increase nationwide in two decades--is also a factor, says Judy Harrison, a professor in the foods and nutrition department at the University of Georgia. She says that many people are likely to think local produce is fresher and maybe safer (though there's no data to back up the notion), as well as more environmentally friendly because it has not been transported as far. Though the jury is out on how eating locally connects to health, there's no question that fresh, unprocessed food is better for you than choosing a prepared meal high in sodium and fat from the freezer aisle of a supermarket.

Nationwide, stores need to do a much better job when it comes to fresh offerings. Only around six of 10 shoppers were completely or very satisfied with the quality of their store's produce, meat, and poultry offerings. (About 50 percent of respondents were highly satisfied with their store's prepared food and bakery items.) Just three of the 68 chains earned stellar produce scores. Seventeen were below average. Eighteen retailers received low scores for produce variety.

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