Supermarket buying guide

Last updated: March 2014

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Getting started

Getting started

One-third of subscribers we surveyed in our most recent Annual Questionnaire said they had given the heave-ho to a nearby grocery store. Forty-three percent left a grocer in search of lower prices (up 15 percentage points since our previous survey), about 25 percent cited poor selection, long lines, or lousy food, 17 percent blamed employee rudeness, and 14 percent cited the crowds.

High food prices and high unemployment are at least partly to blame for consumer willingness to switch stores. "The Great Recession spurred consumer trial of many extreme-value formats, like Aldi's limited-assortment stores," said Jim Hertel, a partner with Willard Bishop, retail consultants in Barrington, Ill. "Many shoppers found them more than acceptable. Consumers are still nervous,and they have more alternatives."

Survey results

Of the 27,208 readers who told us about 48,076 supermarket experiences, more than half (56 percent) had at least one complaint about their current store; almost a third cited two or more.

The biggest gripe overall: Not enough open checkouts, followed by congested or cluttered aisles and advertised specials that were out of stock. Other irritants included inept bagging, missing prices, and scanner overcharges.

No chain tried their customers' patience more than Walmart Supercenter, where 80 percent of shoppers had at least one problem. Shoppers who frequented Walmart, the nation's largest grocer and the chain with the most shoppers in our survey, were most likely to be miffed about the lack of open checkouts, out-of-stock regular items, indifferent employees, spotty pricing, and confusing store layout. Thirteen percent of respondents shopping at Shaw's (New England) said they'd been overcharged, almost twice the average rate in our survey.

Some problems, including long lines, can even make you spend more. If five or more people are ahead of you at the checkout, according to Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food & Brand Lab, you're more likely to buy a nearby treat such as a candy bar.

Fortunately, most consumers have several 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), and Whole Foods (focusing on perishables, organics, and service), as well as regional players such as Wegmans (East), Publix (South), and survey newcomer Sprouts Farmers Markets (in eight Western states), which showcases fresh and whole-grain food.

Walmart, despite its problems and subpar perishable foods, was praised for low prices. The chain's warehouse-club sibling, Sam's Club, outscored Walmart in key Ratings categories -- service, perishables, cleanliness, even price.

Over the years, our supermarket Ratings have been quite consistent. This (2013) is the fourth straight survey (the earlier ones were in 2005, 2008, and 2011) in which Wegmans, Trader Joe's, and Publix have been at the top and Walmart, Pathmark (Northeast),and Shaw's near the bottom. Another perenially low-rated chain, A&P, was omitted from the Ratings because of too few survey responses. The rankings of other chains have remained largely unchanged.

Ways to save

Shoppers have a lot invested in their stores, averaging 88 trips per year and spending approximately $6,000.

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

Use coupons. Manufacturers flooded the market with more than 300 billion coupons last year only 2.8 percent of which were redeemed, according to NCH Marketing Services, which tracks promotions. The average face value of a grocery coupon was $1.62 cents, and more and more manufacturers require you to buy multiple items to earn the discount. Coupons also tend to have a shorter life cycle than they used to. 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 belonged to bonus-card programs, and 84 percent 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, 22 percent less, on average, that the national names. Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents who bought store brands said the quality was as good as or better than big brands. 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. More than half of consumers buy groceries online at least occasionally. Yet food purchases account for less than 3 percent of transactions, and online shopping has been slow to grow. Amazon.com and Walmart.com sell packaged goods, and Amazon has a fledgling service, Amazon Fresh, selling perishables in several West Coast markets. Walmart is testing fresh food sales in a few cities as part of its Walmart To Go program. Nationwide, online supermarkets include Netgrocer.com; Fresh Direct is among regional ones. Many grocery chains have their own programs. At Safeway, customers can order online or by smartphone and the minimum purchase is $49. Delivery, about $10 for orders of more than $150, around $13 for less, is scheduled at a prearranged time. Other chains let you order online, then pick up the packed goods at the store. 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.

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 "5 for $5" though there's no requirement to buy all five to get the discount, and cutting sliced watermelon into chunks and tripling the price for the added convenience. 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 department is 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 routinely reset endcap and other high-profile displays with sale items the day before the lower price takes effect (but without the new signs). 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. Five 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 (ftc.gov), 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 the 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, a trade association.

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. For instance:

  • Campbell's, Lipton, and Progresso soups were priced by the ounce and by the pound; Tide liquid detergent by the ounce and quart; Kellogg's Froot Loops and Favorite Fruit Rings (a store brand) by the pound and ounce.

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, a unit-price expert at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. With such a label, comparison shopping could be a breeze--not a burden.


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