Grocery Store & Supermarket Buying Guide

Grocery shopping is one of numerous common pursuits that Americans have had to approach differently of late. The pandemic forced many of us to find new and different types of grocery purveyors. We’ve also altered how we shop, what we shop for, how much we spend, and how often we shop. 

Read below for details on how the grocery landscape is changing, plus tips for saving money on groceries—in the aisles, though apps, and online. And check out Consumer Reports’ grocery store and supermarket ratings of 96 grocers from around the country. 

Shifts in Shopping, Buying, and Cooking

Among the biggest changes has been a move online. Two-thirds of Americans now buy at least some of their groceries online, compared with half of Americans who did so in 2019, according to a survey fielded in early 2021 by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a trade group based in Arlington, Va., prepared in partnership with the Hartman Group, a consulting company based in Seattle.

Those who buy online have several options for getting their groceries: Pickup in-store, pickup curbside, and delivery to their home. Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery company, reports that grocery delivery from its stores rose 150 percent between fiscal years 2020 and 2021; the company expects to double digital sales by the end of 2023. Walmart now has curbside grocery pickup at more than 3,800 stores, almost double what it had in 2019. Delivery services such as Instacart and Shipt have seen exponential growth.

There have been other changes, too. Experts say we’re now:

  • Finding new places to shop. When shelves at big supermarket chains went bare early in 2020, Americans responded by sourcing their groceries elsewhere, including online delivery services; local, family-owned groceries; farmers markets; big-box stores; gas-station food marts; restaurant wholesalers; and even restaurants themselves. Notably, among various grocery channels, consumers who shopped during the pandemic were most satisfied overall with their small, local, independent grocers, an August and September 2020 nationally representative CR survey (PDF) of 2,064 U.S. grocery shoppers found.

  • Shopping in-store less often. Seven in 10 grocery shoppers said they were making fewer trips to the store, according to CR’s survey. By early 2021, 35 percent of Americans were still going less frequently to the store, the FMI-Hartman survey found. Fewer visits mean more meal planning, and sometimes more needed storage.

  • Buying more store-brand items. Groceries are among the many categories of goods that have risen in price during the pandemic. Prices are expected to rise in 2021 between 2 and 3 percent on average, the Department of Agriculture projects. To counter that trend, Americans have increasingly turned to lower-cost store-brand or private-label groceries. Grocers have responded by offering more such items.

  • Preparing food at home more. The FMI-Hartman survey found that almost half of Americans (49 percent) are cooking at home more than they did prior to the pandemic. In CR’s survey, 35 percent of American grocery shoppers reported trying new recipes more often than they used to before the pandemic.

Which Stores Top Our Ratings

With all those changes, which is the right grocer—or grocers—to serve your needs? A common thread among the grocers at the top of Consumer Reports’ grocery store and supermarket ratings is high marks for store cleanliness. Price is also a great motivator. Trader Joe’s, for example, is a standout in both of these categories. Market Basket, a family-owned chain operating in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, earns top marks for prices.

Quality counts, too. Gelson’s Markets, a 27-store California chain, for instance, was given our lowest mark for price competitiveness, yet it was among the top-rated markets. It receives accolades for its store cleanliness, among other top-rated attributes—including the quality of its produce, meats and poultry, and prepared foods.

Strategize Before You Shop

Reducing your grocery bill is easy with a bit of planning and imagination. Here are tactics that can help.

Join Retailers’ Loyalty Programs
It’s typically free to do so, and gives you access to coupons and special deals. In addition, some store loyalty programs, notably those from Safeway and Stop & Shop, also let you build rewards toward gas purchases at affiliated gas stations.

Track the Price of Common Purchases 
That can help you discern when a sale is really offering a bargain. Then, when 10 cans of your favorite soup go on sale for $10, you can buy in bulk.

Make Lists
Planning well will help you minimize your trips to the store, save you time, and reduce your impulse purchases.

Use Retailer Apps
Using a walk-in grocer’s app may allow you to automatically access electronic coupons and sale prices.

Review and Compare Store Circulars in Advance
You can find most circulars online. Checking the ads in advance allows you to make price comparisons, so you can plan where to shop ahead of time.

Go With Store Brands
These products—also called private-label goods—can cost at least 20 to 25 percent less than name brands of the same product. You can often find store brands on shelves just to the right or left of comparable name-brand items.

Save With Shopping Tactics

Grocers use merchandising tricks to lure consumers to certain displays and departments. Here are two to be aware of.

Beware of ‘Bumpouts’
These displays and shelves that curve or jut out into an aisle catch the eye and make merchandise more tempting. Supermarkets are organized to slow you down so that you’ll buy more.

Don’t Assume Endcap Goods Are on Sale
When you reach the end of an aisle—called the endcap—don’t automatically reach for the displayed goods. Just because they’re promoted there doesn’t necessarily mean they’re on sale or a good deal.

Save on Online Ordering

Shopping this way can help you avoid impulse buys. Plus, it’s a time-saver. But it can cost you more, depending on how you plan to receive your groceries—delivery vs. pickup—as well as how much you spend and how often you buy.

Do the Math on Grocery Delivery Memberships
If you expect to use grocery delivery on a regular basis, calculate the value of an annual membership before you sign up. For instance, Instacart Express costs $99 per year; you pay no additional delivery fee if your orders cost $35 or more. Instacart’s minimum order fees are $4 for those without a membership, so you’ll break even on the annual fee after 25 orders. (Over a year of use, that means you order about every two weeks.) And don’t forget to avail yourself of free trial memberships prior to signing up.

Be Flexible About Delivery Times
Some services give a discount or charge a premium depending on the day or length of the delivery window chosen. Using Stop & Shop’s Go Pass and limiting deliveries to Tuesday through Thursday, for instance, costs an annual $55, compared with $119 annually if you order deliveries for any day of the week.

Opt for Curbside Pickup
It’s typically free, though you may want to tip the person who loads your car. However, while Walmart’s pickup is free, its employees do not accept tips. 

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